Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sage Grouse: the View from the Saddle--Part II

all photos courtesy of Miles Anderson

Last month, I bumped into Fir Mountain rancher Miles Anderson at The Exchange in Regina, where his daughter Kacy was on stage performing with Clayton Linthicum. When you have a chance to visit with one of Saskatchewan’s most respected rancher/stewards of native grass--the fellow who has more Greater Sage-Grouse on his land than anyone else in Canada--you don’t pass it up.

Some of what I learned from Miles that night I wrote up in a previous post, The View from the Saddle, Part I, but before we parted ways he mentioned he was heading to a conference.

“I’m off to Salt Lake City next week to talk at a conference sponsored by the Sage Grouse Initiative.” He agreed to let me call him afterwards, to get his impressions of the conference, and talk a bit more about sage grouse and prairie conservation.

This week we finally caught up with one another on the phone and had a good long talk about ranching, stewardship, and the sorry state of sage grouse at the northern edge of their range.

“It might seem like we have a lot of sage grouse habitat here and in the park (Grasslands National Park),” Miles said, “but if you look at their whole range on the continent, we are just a postage stamp. One of the things that makes this land different is that it wasn’t glaciated. So it starts right in the soil, and its part of why we have so many rare species. It’s not something I am doing. It’s just the way this place is.”

Miles and his wife Sheri run cattle on 30,000 acres, including 22 sections of native grass right along the international boundary--all of it excellent habitat for Greater Sage-Grouse and many other species at risk. The sage grouse use a variety of landscapes on his range: wet places such as alkali flats, as well as uplands and lowlands. “In winter, they need places where they can feed on sage brush, which means it has to be high enough to poke out of the snow. If the snow’s too deep, they move south to find sage brush they can get at.

“My neighbour to the south in Montana was at the conference as well. His land runs from the border almost all the way down the Milk River. He was a guest speaker too and we both had some good air play.”

Miles said that most presenters and participants at the conference were from the science and conservation sectors, but there was some representation from industry (mining and oil and gas).

One of his favourite moments at the conference was when Noreen Walsh, Regional Director with U.S. Fish & Wildlife was speaking. “She said something that agrees with what I see on our land: ‘what’s good for the birds is good for the herds.’”

“Sure, it’s just anecdotal, but I saw some things this past summer that prove the point. It might sound funny but I know what I saw.”

The strangest thing he learned this summer was that sage grouse seem to like hanging around his cattle. The Anderson land adjoins part of the East Block of Grasslands National Park. That side of the park had not been grazed by any kind of bovine in 25 years. This summer, though, the Park welcomed Miles and his Angus cattle onto a portion of the East Block. 

The hard part was getting them to stay there once they opened the fence. 

“The grass is old and ugly, so we were always having to chase them back into the park.” That meant Miles was on horseback and moving cattle during a time of the summer when he does not usually ride among his herd.

“We saw sage grouse every day, but we always saw them with the cattle.” In his experience, the hens leave the sage brush bottom lands soon after the young hatch, but later in the summer they return with half-grown chicks. 

one of Miles' photos showing sage grouse near his cattle

“They might be showing them how to feed on sage--I don’t know--and maybe they like the cattle because it helps them find bugs.”

Though Miles was excited to see good numbers of sage grouse with young this summer and well into the fall, he knows the next trick is to get good survival into the next year.

Survival is influenced by many factors, but, like many who live in sage grouse country, he is concerned about predators. “We’ve got ravens like you wouldn’t believe. Then the coyotes, hawks, and swift foxes are probably taking their share. And that might be another reason the grouse like cattle around. I’ve watched them take refuge close to cattle when a harrier flies overhead. You have to ask yourself if there is something we’re doing that gives predators an advantage now. Coyotes especially--back in the days when people could control coyotes we used to see hundreds of sage grouse.”

But a rancher like Miles Anderson knows there are no simple answers. He thrives by respecting the complex interrelationships between weather, grass, the genetics of his herd, and his own management practices. “One of the speakers at the SGI conference said ‘there is no single cause of sage grouse decline. There isn’t going to be any single solution.’ That seemed right to me.”

Toward the end of our call, I asked Miles what he would do if he had a couple million dollars to help out the Greater Sage-Grouse in his corner of Canada’s grassland.

“That’s a tough one, but I guess I would spend it on connecting the science people with ranchers. I think the Sage Grouse Initiative has done some good things in the States. There are a dozen or more programs that a producer might qualify for down there, but they send out a rep and if you’re interested they’ll assess your operation and then figure out which programs might work for you. Might be something to do with fencing or infrastructure, might be about water development, deferred grazing, grass banking. All kinds of things. Then they do all the paper work for you. It’s all completely confidential so the ranchers feel safe and they don’t have to do all the applying and figuring. The resource person comes back with a program or two and gets it going. I think they get pretty good uptake that way.”

Miles added that, while ranchers are naturally cautious and some have had bad experiences in the past with conservation programs, he agrees that building trust and rapport between producers and the conservation and government sectors must be a priority.

“Take the pipit (Sprague’s pipit, another species at risk on his grasslands). You look across the fence and see, well this guy has a lot more pipits than his neighbour. Why not get to know him, spend some time there and learn what he is doing that makes the difference? Then you’ve got to find a way to encourage more of that, to make it worth other ranchers’ time to try something new.”

You don’t last in the ranching life as long as Miles has by jumping to conclusions or adopting every new management trend that comes along. Applying the same caution to sage grouse, he is not going to make any rash predictions about its future or claim to know exactly what needs to be done.

And yet, after listening to him discuss the prairie and its declining birds, you go away believing that there might be some hope left. With people like Miles Anderson on the land, and some resources and political will to work with ranchers and industry, is it possible that we could find the mix of private and public management, science-based and traditional stewardship to bring the Greater Sage-Grouse back into its long vacant breeding grounds on the Canadian Plains?

To even take a shot, though, Alberta and Saskatchewan are going to need some government (federal and provincial) commitment to create programming that is a lot closer to what the Sage Grouse Initiative has going south of the border. Take a look at the SGI web site--you will see right away that Canada has nothing to compare with this program.

If you look very closely, there is a grouse in the centre-right of this photo just taking flight

Monday, December 1, 2014

"The Last Cowboy," a mini-doc about the PFRA's Jim Commodore of Val Marie

I have written a couple of stories in this space about the cowboys who are the lifeblood of the PFRA community pastures. Men like Mert Taylor and Eric Weisbeck are among the last of the public servants who saddle up a horse to manage Canada's federal grasslands now being transferred back to Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

They are at the tail end of a lineage of PFRA cowboys running back three-quarters of a century. A couple of days ago a friend sent me a link to a new documentary that pays tribute to one cowboy whose life runs almost all the way back to the origins of the PF system.

Jim Commodore was born in 1941 at the Val Marie PFRA pasture, just west and a bit north of Grasslands National Park. The Val Marie pasture is the largest in the system at more than 90,000 acres and it is an ecological and cultural treasure that should remain in the public trust and be granted the kind of protection Canada's rarest landscapes all deserve.

Jim Commodore, retired PFRA cowboy at Val Marie

Megan Lacelle and Kaitlyn Van De Woestyne, two young women studying Journalism at the University of Regina, made the six minute documentary to fulfill a class assignment. They call it "The Last Cowboy" and it is for my dollar the best piece of work showing some of the human costs of abandoning the PFRA system. I hope it is seen far and wide and that its message, told entirely in the humility of an honest cowboy recalling his days on the land, will pluck a few heart strings and remind prairie people why we must retain and honour the legacy of the community pastures system.

Kaitlyn and Megan graciously agreed to allow me to post The Last Cowboy (see below), and sent me some of their reflections on the project. I am including Megan's comments below as an introduction to the film. As fate would have it, Megan and Kaitlyn shot the documentary on Remembrance Day weekend. Here's hoping that the professional media world will welcome the kind of sensitivity and light hand that Megan and Kaitlyn are already applying as students.

"I grew up in Cadillac, Sask. (about 30 minutes north of Val Marie). My mom grew up in Val Marie and my grandparents still ranch there. My mom worked on the PFRA when she was younger (before me) and as I was growing up I heard lots about them from my parents and grandparents. I started working for my dad at his gas station when I was 13 and that's when I started to meet the men and women who worked for the PFRA. Among them was Jim Commodore. I always found him so humble, interesting and well-spoken that I knew when I got into Journalism school that I would love to tell his story. When I heard about the decisions to shut the PFRA's in 2012 I knew I wanted to shine a spotlight on the people and culture surrounding them. This year we were able to do a mini-doc assignment on anything we chose - I asked Kaitlyn about doing it on this and she agreed!
So we phoned Jim up and asked if he'd be okay with it. Jim, always the gentleman, said he would do whatever it took to help us out. So we road tripped down to Val Marie on Remembrance Day weekend this year and we filmed him and our B-roll all in one day.
I love the area, the people and the culture in the southwest rural corner of the province - I got into journalism to shed a spotlight on incredible "everyday" people and this gave us a great opportunity to tell Jim's story as well as tie into a greater story about the loss of the PFRA's and what that means to the area, people and culture.

Oftentimes people get caught up in statistics and big figures and forget to talk to people who know the topic best - I knew Jim would be a great resource and a way to make a historical document. His father worked PF's before him and so he'd always known what they meant to the area. He's an amazing person. He, like my grandparents, I believe are the last of a breed of cowgirls and cowboys who understood the importance of people, community and the environment."

The Last Cowboy from Megan Lacelle on Vimeo.

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