Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fresh thoughts on stewardship from a PFRA manager

Regina naturalist Chris Harris with Glen
Elford, Caledonia-Elmsthorpe Community Pasture Manager

Ten separate ranchers discover a burrowing owl in their pasture this summer—a hypothetical scenario. How do they react? One or two might call Operation Burrowing Owl’s “Hoot Line” (1-800-667-HOOT (4668)) to report it. Others decide it is best to keep it quiet, worried that an endangered species on their Crown lease land will cause them trouble. They are convinced that government people will come and tell them what they can and can’t do on their land.
            On rare occasions, a rancher might reach for a third option—a final solution.
            “Shoot, shovel, and shut up,” as rural parlance has it, is not entirely a myth. There are people who would sooner kill a burrowing owl than take a chance that someone from a conservation agency might begin to pay attention to the acre of grass containing its nest site.
            And even if the 3-S solution is just coffee-row bravado, it helps to bleed off some of the frustration and alienation ranchers undergo as they hear mounting concerns for prairie creatures in decline (see Greater Sage-Grouse EmergencyProtection Order).
            Cattle producers are understandably defensive in a time of industry consolidation, declining beef consumption in Canada, and misguided environmentalists who blame antibiotic resistance and climate change on ranchers instead of urban demand for cheap, feedlot-produced meat.
            This side of “shoot, shovel, and shut up” there is a whole spectrum of standard defensive talking points we hear from people who raise cattle: Ranchers are the best stewards. . . . If it weren’t for us looking after the grass there wouldn’t be any native prairie. . . . I don’t need any bureaucrat coming out here to tell me how to manage this land. . . .Those birds will come back. Everything in nature goes in cycles. . . . My granddad said there were none of those birds here when he first homesteaded—maybe things are just going back to normal. . . .It’s all those hawk nest platforms they put up—that’s what hurting the birds. . . .It’s all those swift foxes they released. . . .It can’t be oil and gas because I know places where there is no oil and gas activity and the birds aren’t there either. . . .Endangered species? Hell, I’ll show you an endangered species—you’re looking at one.
            I might sympathize and even agree with one or two of these statements, but they all arise from an embattled perspective that is part of farm life in a time when the marketplace and government policy alienate those who grow our food from those who eat it. Like all of us, cattle producers are motivated by a mix of ethics that is sometimes undermined by self-interest. They are not wildlife managers; they grow meat on the hoof for profit and that profit must necessarily drive their thinking and management decisions.
            It is foolish to expect otherwise, but it is easy to forget this truth when you listen to ranchers. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt and sympathize with their predicament. It's hard not to admire their holding onto a self-image of the independent cowboy, confounded though it may be by an opposing desire for the public and its elected representatives to compensate them for their good stewardship.

            And that is why it is always refreshing to hear a rural, grassland perspective that is not as compromised by self-interest and the defensive posture of the cattle producer with key position statements on hand.

Chestnut-collared longspurs were everywhere at Caledonia-Elmsthorpe

Last week, a birding friend of mine, Chris Harris, and I drove south to Caledonia-Elmsthorpe pasture—one of the Agriculture Canada community pastures that most of us still call PFRA, for the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration that has cared for more than two million acres of grassland in Canada since the 1930s. Chris had phoned the pasture manager, Glen Elford, ahead of time to get permission for our visit. Chris asked Glen about a pair of burrowing owls that had been reported in the pasture this summer. He said that Glen seemed quite knowledgeable and very interested in the birds, which is what I have come to expect from many PF managers.
            “He wanted me to know that he wasn’t the kind of guy who refuses to report endangered species. ‘The more people know about those owls, the better’ he told me.”
            That evening, we arrived at the pasture’s edge along a public road, parked the car and got out. As we stood peering into the expanse of grass heading west and watching Chestnut-collared Longspurs rollercoaster up and down in the air, a black truck slowly pulled up behind us. The door opened our way, showing its Government of Canada logo, and out stepped a large figure in boots, blue jeans, belt buckle, and ball cap. 

Glen Elford is a long-standing pasture manager in the PFRA system whose experience and knowledge has maintained the public benefits of wildlife conservation and biodiversity on these large tracts of publicly-owned native grasslands.

“Chris?” he said, hand outstretched. It was Glen, Caledonia-Elmsthorpe’s long time manager, heading back to pasture HQ where his wife was waiting with supper. But he was in no hurry. We talked about the rains of June, the grass, and he asked us about what we had seen so far. We pointed to the longspurs, and the soft trills of the Baird’s sparrow drifting out across the speargrass.
            Eventually, I had to ask the question I ask every PF employee: how do you feel about the government shutting down the PF system and turning the land over to the provinces?
            “Well, can’t say I like it,” Glen began, “but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I’ve been here a long time. My kids grew up here. When you put your life into a place doing something you believe in, you want to think it will continue after you are done. You don’t want to hear that it isn’t worth keeping.”
            When conversation got around, as it inevitably does, to the question of management and the grazing patrons taking control of management decisions, Glen was polite and circumspect, careful not to judge others or speak hastily, but it was clear that he believes that the PFRA quality of management will be hard for private grazing co-ops to match.
            “It depends,” he said, “Sure there are lots of good stewards out there, but there’s some bad ones too, people who just don’t know better. We get some patrons telling us we should put more cattle on the pasture to use more grass. They mean well, they see all the grass and think it should all be used, but they just don’t understand what it takes to keep a pasture healthy from the roots on up.”
            But, he added, in the province’s southwest, where there is a long-standing culture of ranching native grass, there are people with the knowledge to make it work. He is most worried about the pastures like his and others away from the southwest, where the grazing patrons are often mixed farmers who do not have their own native range, nor the experience it takes to manage it.
            “Not everyone who owns cattle is a good manager. Some are, some aren’t.”
            Glen learned got a grounding in good management watching his father ranch on the native grass of their family holdings next to Grassland National Park, in a region where the low carrying capacity of the grass tends to weed out any poor stewards over time. Adapting that ethic and respect for native range to his work as a PFRA manager, he became known for his interest in the birds and other grassland creatures.
            “At workshops, sometimes I’d be called on to talk about the burrowing owls we had here [in previous decades they had as many as ten pairs breeding]. I went to a conference once on prairie conservation a while back, with lots of people working to figure out how to conserve this kind of land and the wildlife. . . . Things are not looking good, but I stay positive. There’s no point in getting down about it all.” 
              Though supper was waiting, Glen insisted on taking us himself to see the last burrowing owl pair at Caledonia-Elmsthorpe. 

The burrowing owl, one of Canada's most endangered species, needs the publicly accountable management systems and governance model that community pastures have traditionally been able to provide

At first we could see only the one adult, but when I scanned my binoculars across the grass nearby I found five sets of eyes staring back at me. Glen gave out a laugh as he looked through Chris’s spotting scope at the young owls, freshly out of the burrow. You could hear in his voice a certain proprietary satisfaction in knowing that there would be a good brood of burrowing owls on his pasture this year.
young burrowing owls down in the wheatgrass
Glen having a closer look through Chris's scope

            We continued to talk about the owls, about ferruginous hawks, and the night hawk circling overhead. Just before we parted ways, Glen recalled something he was told long ago: “When the birds start to go, we should pay attention because we will likely be next.” 

            The birds are going, and now we are losing the very people who have the skills and the public infrastructure to manage grassland with their conservation and restoration in mind.
like many of the federal community pastures, Caldedonia-Elmsthorpe is a place with 
hidden beauty that most people never see

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