Thursday, December 19, 2013

We manage our Crown forests; what about our Crown grasslands?

Mixed grass prairie on the Auvergne Wise Creek PFRA Community Pasture

The PFRA pastures are part of our prairie heritage, representing an investment Canadian taxpayers have been making for more than 75 years. We made that investment because we recognized that it would reap public benefits: not only holding the soil during drought, but diversification for farmers, food security values for the prairie provinces, support for the small to medium beef producer, biodiversity, soil conservation and carbon sequestration, water conservation, protection of heritage lands and the archaeology and history they contain.

Taxpayers have paid into the conservation objectives of the PFRA for decades precisely to serve and protect those wider interests. Over the years this investment has built up an ecological and economic value that should not be placed in the hands of private citizens without proper governance and management oversight in place. Conservation easements and stocking rates set in distant cities will not be enough to keep the ecology of these grasslands intact. What would Saskatchewan's north look like if we sold our Crown forest lands or if we gave the leaseholding forestry companies some minimal guidelines and then let them have at it?

We don't do that because we believe that our forests must be regulated and owned by the Crown so that the wider pub interests in having healthy forests are served. Sure we sell forestry leases to forestry companies, but the Province strictly regulates how the land is treated under the lease and ecological matters and concerns about rare species and invasive species are included in the planning and monitoring for any forestry operations.

In fact, we have an entire Forest Services Branch in Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment that ensures that our Crown forest lands are being managed well on our behalf. Here is a quote from the Province’s Forest Services Branch website:

“Saskatchewan, usually thought of as a prairie province, is actually more than half forests. Most of these - more than 90 per cent - are provincial Crown forests, owned by the people of Saskatchewan. On their behalf, the Ministry of Environment ensures that these forests are sustainably managed.”

Take a look at the legislation we have to protect our forests, and scan through a Forest Management Agreement Area Standards and Guidelines document. Almost 70 pages spelling out exactly how the forests are to be managed on public lands and how the management guidelines will be enforced. And the Forest Services Branch has the people to do it: forest protection staff, fire management staff, forest ecologists, Forest Management Planning experts, silvaculturalists, Forestry enforcement staff, compliance officers, ecosystem modelers, inventory specialists, research analysts, Forest management evaluators, Ecosystem classification and monitoring experts, and so on.

All to serve an industry of approximately 300 forestry firms employing roughly 9,000 people, generating $750 M in revenue.(from

Meanwhile, there are 7,300 beef operations in Saskatchewan (according to the Western Beef Development Centre), employing more people and generating much more revenue. In fact our cow-calf industry alone produced cash income in 2011 of $1.4 billion (from a 2012 Stats Canada quoted in a Canadian Cattleman Association report by Kulthresthna et al)

What does Saskatchewan have for staff monitoring the use of its six million acres of publicly owned native grasslands? Do we have ecologists, research analysts, grassland management experts, compliance officers, ecosystem classification staff, monitoring experts? No. Sask. Agriculture does have a few agrologists, but nowhere near enough range specialists to handle all the native grass they are responsible for. How much real monitoring will be done if the 1.8 million acres in the PFRA system are leased out to private grazing associations made up of people who are not used to managing vast tracts of grassland?

Part of this difference in our oversight of forest versus grassland is cultural. The general public recognizes the value of forest as natural landscapes that must be taken care of. People get concerned when they drive by a well-managed clear cut of forest (our boreal forests recover better when they are cut in large blocks), but few express concerns over the loss and degradation of our native prairie.

Granted, the cattle industry is not the forestry industry; there are some important differences. No one would realistically expect a full "Grasslands Services Branch" to be established matching our Forestry Branch, but why not develop a non-governmental grassland management agency funded by resource revenues and grazing fees to oversee the stewardship of the Province's Crown grasslands while ensuring that both the private interests of our cattlemen and the wider public interests of taxpayers are well served?

Sooner or later Canadians will see that our grasslands are as ecologically and spiritually vital to our nation as our forests. Better to see the light now than to foolishly privatize our Crown grasslands only to discover in decades to come that we have made a terrible mistake. If we let the Province sell off our Crown grasslands and then wake up one day thinking, gee, we should do more to protect native prairie, we would have to either embark on buying back these lands or find policy tools to manage for grassland conservation on private lands. Either way, we end up struggling against private property rights. Right now, we still have these Crown grasslands where they need to be, where we can ensure that they are managed well for the birds, the pronghorn, the swift fox, and all the other wild prairie creatures that deserve to have their habitat protected just as much as their counterparts in our forests.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Deadlines pass and PFRA patrons still in limbo

pasture patron Clint Christianson speaking to the Atwood tour on Val Marie PFRA pasture this June (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj (see
The Federal Government has been changing its mind on the terms of transferring the PFRA pasture lands month by month and week by week, making it next to impossible for Saskatchewan Agriculture and the first five community pastures to come to any kind of agreement on how the lands should be transferred and leased. The latest talks broke down a few days ago because the Province and Ag Canada could not agree on how the federal lands on each pasture should be handled. Each pasture has headquarters on federal property and sometimes other pieces of federal land, which are important for the patrons who want to retain resident pasture managers to continue looking after the grass and co-mingled cattle.

This week the Community Pastures Patrons Association of Saskatchewan (CPPAS) put out a news release that outlines the frustration of their members as well as some clear points for how things should be handled. Though the Province claims to be listening to patrons and says that they want the patrons to take over management of the pastures, they need to give the patrons terms that will allow them to retain and employ the kind of skilled managers that have been critical to the ecological sustainability of the PFRA lands. If the leasing structure and rates are set too high, the patrons will not be able to afford to pay for co-mingled management and the pastures will become like co-op pastures, which unfortunately are often poorly managed and overstocked. The feared "Tragedy of the Commons" will result, degrading lands that have been among the continent's richest grassland remnants.

Here is a version of the news release printed in the Southwest Booster of Swift Current area but the following points from the release show some of what CPPAS and its members are asking for. Most of the Province's conservation groups would support these terms, and yet the Province is still resisting. If the cattle producers who use the pastures and the conservation NGOs in the province as well as many other public interest groups would support these terms, why can't the Province find a way to make it work? Is there some other agenda here that we are not being told about?

1.            Maximize the number of existing pasture patrons who are able to continue receiving summer grazing on the Community Pastures.
2.            Ensure that the community pastures remain financially sustainable in the long run,  in order to  provide supplemental grazing on an equitable basis to Saskatchewan livestock producers. 
3.            Ensure that our community pasture's productive capacity is maintained by effectively managing stocking rates and grazing plans, using professional pasture managers. 
4.            Retain the public benefit of our community pasture by maintaining the environmental integrity and bio-diversity of our community pasture, as well as maximizing the carbon sequestration potential through effective grazing management.
5.            Allow continued access for non-agricultural activities on our community pasture such as hunting and grassland research, in a matter compatible with the grazing management plan for the community pasture.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

In the bleak mid-winter (owls do sing)

the city woods where owls hoot

In the last hours of darkness early this morning I awoke to hear two Great Horned Owls duetting in the sparse urban woods just outside our bedroom window. The waxing moon hidden by cloud, with less than two weeks to go to the longest night of the year, and the thermometer reading 26 below, two owls are renewing their nuptial bonds. As cold and dark at it may be here as we reach mid-winter, summer lives inside the promise of two owls and the courtship rites that will keep them near one another as they hunt the winter through. One moonlit night in January, spring still a distant imagining, the male will bring his intended a mouse. When she is ready to mate, she will make the graceful bow that lets him know. Soon after, in a nest they have taken over from crows or hawks, she will lay her eggs.

For now, though, in December, you would think the need to keep a fire in the belly, to find the next mouse venturing over the snow, would be all that matters to an owl. And yet, on such a moonless night as this, with the cold so hard and deep, there was much hooting outside my window.

At first, it was just the male in deep low hoots: hoo-hoo-hooo, hooo-hooo. That classic Great Horned rhythm I learned as "Who's awake? Me tooooo." I was awake, wondering about him. Had he just digested a particularly good meal, enough to stir the merest thoughts of her? He called for half an hour at two minute intervals, unanswered, a lone voice in the dreaming city. Finally, just when I was drifting off to sleep again, there came a reply--a higher pitched, hurried response somewhere farther to the east where the spruce trees are thicker: hoo-he-he-hoo-hoo, hooo-hoo-hoooo

She placed her first reply over top of his hoots, the notes too rapid to count. Between the speed and her not waiting for him to finish, it was easy to imagine her as impatient and reluctant to finally give in to his persistence. "Yes, yes, alright, I hear you, already."

Her response quickened his calling, though, shortening the intervals. Soon they were duetting properly for fifteen minutes or more, the male hooting first and she responding, but now and then she would interrupt his hoots to place her higher notes over top. I wish I had been able to record the sounds to play it back here but you can listen to similar duets on web pages like this one.

Eventually, she dropped out, and the male was left to hoot alone as dawn approached. He continued for another half hour, then fell silent, returning once or twice again for single iterations before giving up entirely.

By then I was fully awake, thinking of the ferocity of the Great Horned, fierce not only by talon and beak, but by its capacity to thrive amid the wounded wildness of this continent. Many prairie species are declining and the advance of this adaptive owl is in some instances accelerating the decline. Planting poplar and spruce in shelterbelts out on the open plains has made the land more comfortable for settlement and cropping agriculture, but with the trees came this efficient hunter out to places where they now eat more Burrowing Owls and Greater Sage-grouse than they would have in the days when buffalo and fire kept the grass free of woody growth.

And yet, there are no simple answers here. The shelterbelts are vital to farm people who live out on the prairie and many of them grew up hearing the sounds of Great Horned Owls hooting on December nights. The Federal Government's callous decision to close the Prairie Shelterbelt Centre at Indian Head and abandon its program of providing trees to rural people in the prairie provinces is just as foolhardy as their decision to abandon the PFRA pasture program. Both have been vital to the prairie people whose ancestors came to settle the land at the behest of previous governments. Well-managed public grasslands where you could graze some of your cattle was part of what made prairie farm life more affordable and sustainable in the last century. As was the ability to bring in free trees to plant around your home and yard site.

If we allow the new barbarians in Ottawa to close down these important public programs and do not speak up, the yard lights of our prairie farmsteads will continue to wink out one by one and the abandoned shelterbelts we already see reminding us of neighbours past will multiply. 

Until the farmer with forty sections of land to sow to Monsanto's designer seeds comes by with his caterpillar and pushes the shelterbelt into a pile, though, there still may be a pair of Great Horned Owls hanging on to hunt the mice that remain.

The owls hooting here in the middle of the city last night may well have been born in the nests of such a shelterbelt, and now, like the jackrabbits fleeing the increasingly sterile farmland, they have come to the nearest place with cover and food.

This may not be the prairie world we would choose to make if we could do it over again, but there is nonetheless a vexed kind of solace in the hoots of a wild owl heard by night where thousands of us refugees from rural life now sleep in close proximity.

And it comes in knowing that, despite our failures, our weakness, and our silence in the face of government
misdeeds for which we have only ourselves to blame, there are owls that on the other side of Christmas will be laying eggs in nests. With each small, white sphere a pulse of warm life carefully placed within the dark, icy heart of winter, the fiercest and most adaptive of our owls bears witness to the wild that persists, that is waiting to work with us to heal the prairie should we ever come to our senses.
Great Horned Owl sunning itself in an abandoned shelterbelt during last year's Craven/Lumsden Christmas Bird Count

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