Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Greater Sage-grouse--a biologist's perspective

Greater Sage-Grouse on a lek in the United States, where so far it is still possible to see these birds enact their spectacular spring ritual. Photo by photographer and artist, Dennis Evans
Canada has many tremendous biologists employed in the Federal Government and in our provinces. They are really our most important defenders of our endangered prairie birds. However, Canada's environment is not receiving the full benefit of their work--in part because their recommendations are seldom followed by the upper level bureaucrats and politicians who set policy, but also because they can no longer speak to the public or share information with the non-profit conservation sector.

Fortunately, we have biologists who work outside government, in our universities and in the private sector who are free to speak. The following piece on the Greater Sage-Grouse was written by Saskatoon conservation biologist, Joe Schmutz. I think it is fair to say that Joe's perspective on the fate of this species and the Emergency Protection Order and how it relates to ranching likely reflects the views of many of our scientists working on grassland bird conservation in government agencies. Here is Joe's statement, which he has submitted for publication in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix:

Will Saskatchewan have people and roads but nowhere to go?
The near turkey-sized sage-grouse of southern Saskatchewan (and Alberta) is colourful, offers spectacular mating displays and is specially designed by nature to thrive in sagebrush country.  The sage-grouse is also in danger.
Throughout our past the sage grouse provided inspiration for traditional dance in indigenous culture, and food for First Nations peoples and settlers.  When hunting became regulated, the sage grouse was protected, yet numbers dropped and kept dropping. 
Reasons for the decline include disturbance (e.g. oil and gas development), predation, accidents (e.g. crashing into fences at dusk) and disease.  Most importantly much of the silver sagebrush range that the grouse call home has been cultivated.  What sagebrush remains is thanks to ranchers. Halting the decline will not be simple.  However, options do exist.
Ranchers can adopt specialized grazing practices to benefit sage-grouse, including attention to grazing intensity, livestock distribution, onset of grazing and grazing systems, to use their own lingo.  The oil and gas under the small sagebrush range that remains will not spoil underground from a delay in extraction – it will gain in value.  Without the necessary collaboration and leadership, however, sage-grouse numbers will remain on their path to extinction in Canada.  It will be harder if not impossible to bring the grouse back.  Do we and our children care?  May we want to go down the road and watch the grouse’s spectacular display, or simply know that it remains a part of our province?
The federal government needed reminding in court of its promise to Canadians and its obligations under international conventions.  Then, late last year, an Executive Order for the protection of the sage-grouse was issued by the Government of Canada.  This dismayed the short-term oil and gas interests.  It remains so mishandled that it perplexed the ranchers, our necessary allies in the species’ conservation.
The management of sage-grouse is a provincial responsibility.  The federal involvement only happened when the Province was unwilling to be fully engaged.  Provincial ministers have been saying that they don’t care about birds.  What else do they not care about? 
The Saskatchewan provisions for protecting species at risk are buried in the Wildlife Act.  The provisions are so full of discretionary powers that, coupled with a stated lack of care, they do not inspire confidence.  Our provincial coffers bulge from the sale of public land, resources underground and public institutions.  If we are serious about protecting the sage-grouse, the many other species we take for granted and a functioning environment within which we prosper, then the environment minister and his staff need to be given the resources and the nod to do the job.  If enough of us care, then let’s let our elected officials know where the paved road should lead.

Joe Schmutz, Saskatoon

photo courtesy of the generous Dennis Evans

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Wyoming spends millions to protect Sage-grouse and their habitat--what about Saskatchewan?

from a website for the U.S. Western Governors' Association

The more I talk to the men and women who run cattle on government land, the more it becomes clear that, apart from their purchased lease rights, they don’t expect much from the rest of the world. They like the way they live and the places they live and they want to be left alone. If they must receive any notice, they would prefer that it was for having chosen to work with grassland rather than destroy it with a plough. And they want conservationists to see the irony and injustice in regulations that penalize ranchers for being the ones who chose a form of agriculture that, when it is done right, protects the oases of prairie remaining in the ecological desert of cropland. 

Recognition, though, will not be enough. If we want to protect rare grassland habitats and species without eroding the income of ranchers who agree to apply certain management practices, our provincial and federal governments will have to commit some significant funding. In the last nine years, the state of Wyoming has spent nearly $8 million working with ranchers and the resource industry to keep the Greater Sage-Grouse off the endangered list. How much has Saskatchewan (which has twice as many people and more than twice the government budget) spent to conserve or restore Greater Sage-Grouse habitat during the last ten or even twenty years? Nothing. 

In fact, Saskatchewan Environment several years ago abolished the one endangered species biologist position they had. The ministry now claims to have risen above endangered species management by taking an "ecosystems based management" approach instead. Which sounds nice, but if you only have enough budget to go to meetings and write strategic plans and reports and there is nothing left to support and implement actual plans such as the South of the Divide Multi-species Action Plan (a multi-stakeholder initiative primarily between the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association and many government agencies) then the ecosystems you talk and write about will continue to erode along with their many species at risk. It is time to put some money behind our planning and talk and take things to implementation in the field.

In the U.S., where state governments and the oil and gas industry are spending millions every year to work with ranchers and others just to keep the sage grouse off their Endangered Species List, the Governors (!) of eleven Western states meet annually to compare and compile sage-grouse protection programs, producing a report!

Meanwhile here in Canada, our politicians don't give the grouse a second thought as it moves rapidly from severe endangerment to extirpation.

The Greater Sage-Grouse is now Canada’s most endangered bird. Last week, I received word that one of Saskatchewan’s last sage-grouse leks had only two males dancing on a patch of grass that had once been stamped flat by dozens.  We may or may not be able to restore the sage-grouse, but there are many other grassland creatures declining now and they all need the long term protection and conservation management that public lands and public funding can offer.

Sage-grouse male on lek, image courtesy of Associated Press

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sage Grouse EPO: mending fences with ranchers

the view across the road from the Nashlyn Community Pasture. 
Those who support the privitization of our community pastures say that there is no risk of cultivation because the land is too poor to be converted to crops. That even shade of light yellow on the other side of the road in this photo says otherwise. Many community pastures are engulfed by land that private landowners turned into grain fields when public policy and the market gave them incentives to do so.

We need public policy and grassland  advocacy that will ensure that any conservation concerns--whether it is an endangered species or carbon sequestration--will give our cattle producers who graze on our remaining native grass the right kind of incentives.

Earlier this week Lorne Scott and I drove to the town of Consul to meet with some of the ranchers who raise livestock in Saskatchewan's southwest corner, where the grass is short and the moisture scarce. We thought there might be ten show up for our discussion in the hall, but by the time we sat down to talk it was twenty-six, including three or four women.

Many who came were very concerned about the Greater Sage-Grouse Emergency Protection Order. They showed Lorne and me a Rural Municipality map they had prepared outlining the zone in which the order will apply. There were strong feelings in the room and some strong words came out right away on the topic of the order and what it means for their livelihoods and the value of the Crown grassland they lease. We heard several ranchers state clearly that the order as it is will hurt their ability to make a living. They spoke eloquently about their experience with Sage Grouse and other wildlife, and said that they feel betrayed because the EPO seems to attack the very people who are living on the prairie and practicing a form of agriculture that prevents it from being plowed and seeded to crops. They also said that they believe the conservation agencies and organizations focus too much on this or that species without looking at the overall picture from a balanced perspective.

Regrettably, we did not have enough time to talk through all of the details of the order and air every concern, mostly because there were other things we had gathered to talk about.

But they made it very clear that there will be no progress on any other topics, possible partnerships or cooperation with conservation groups until the immediate concerns of the EPO are addressed. That seems fair. This is spring and people with land affected by the EPO have to know what they can and cannot do when they head out to their pastures to work.

Before the meeting was over, there was agreement to meet again. The plan is for everyone interested to read the EPO on their own, make notes, and then we will meet to nail down the parts of it that need to be changed for livestock producers to be able to carry on with their operations without incurring new costs or forgoing income. Once we have that done, the next step will be to take it forward to the Federal Government explaining the exact concerns of producers.

Here is a link to the EPO online. It is only nine pages with the important details on what is and is not allowed (actually half pages because as a federal document it has to be in both English and French), and then more than 100 pages that simply list the legal descriptions of the affected provincial and federal lands."

It is hard to say where this will all end up, but the conservation community has a moral obligation to work with producers to ensure that the wider public pays the costs of Sage Grouse recovery.  Any measures that pile most or all of the costs onto the ranchers who lease Crown grasslands will hurt all prairie conservation goals in the long run.

horned larks, the first grassland songbird to return in spring, were courting just inside the fence line of the Nashlyn pasture


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