Saturday, March 7, 2015

A year after the Sage-Grouse EPO

image by Dennis Evans, used in "Grasslands" documentary
A lot has been said in the year since Canada enacted its first ever Emergency Protection Order (EPO) under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), to finally begin doing something to protect the habitat of the nation’s most endangered bird, the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Ranchers who lease Crown land in the roughly 1200 km2 of crown land in Saskatchewan and Alberta where the EPO provisions apply have said they feel betrayed both by Environment Canada and by the conservation communities who sued the Federal Government forcing it to do something for a species they had been dithering over for decades.

There is no point trying to dismiss that feeling of betrayal. It needs to be heard and understood.
If you and your family have been holding onto native grass and grazing it sustainably for generations, working with biologists and government agencies when they show up with their clipboards and habitat programs; and if you have meanwhile seen others in your region plough their grass under when cattle prices dip and grain prices rise, you might get more than a little upset one day when the government announces a new set of restrictions aimed at the way you manage your pastures. 

The way you see it, the rare prairie creatures have only made it into the 21st century because you and other ranchers have stuck with ranching native range even when it wasn’t profitable, even when the government was providing incentives to switch to grain production and everyone else was jumping on a tractor and ploughing the prairie under.

Fewer and fewer ranchers tending a smaller amount of native prairie are now left holding the species-at-risk bag. As the last defenders of native grass, they are naturally going to be upset when they see the government enact laws that focus on what can and cannot be done on the land they graze. After all, it was government policy that brought the plow to the prairie in the first place, and it was government policy that introduced generations of agriculture support programs that continued to cause the cultivation of native grass right through into the 1990s.

That is how the people who live and ranch in Sage Grouse country see things and their perspective must be recognized and respected.

Hereford and Cowbirds

The biologists and species at risk folks at Environment Canada (EC), meanwhile, need to be heard as well. I think it is fair to say that, like the ranchers, the staff at Environment Canada sincerely want to see things work out well for the Greater Sage-Grouse and for the ranching families who graze its remaining habitat.
The biologists and communications people at EC have spent much of the last year trying to recover from the negative reaction the EPO stirred up in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta.

After some initial clumsiness in announcing the EPO, EC has done a much better job of communicating to landowners in recent months.

They have made it clear that, in fact, the EPO does not regulate grazing. It does not restrict, limit or affect grazing levels and stocking rates. The Ministry has produced and distributed some excellent documents that clear up most of the misunderstanding about what the EPO does and does not mean. Take a look at this one that Environment Canada posted online. 

And, while Environment Canada has said that the EPO does not apply to privately-owned land, where it does apply, on Crown lands, they promise that funds are available to producers to make their fences sage grouse-friendly and to take other stewardship measures.

That sounds pretty good. But the ranchers have seen the same documents I have read from Environment Canada, heard the same reassurances that funds are available. Why are they not reassured? I will try to address that question in the next post, but it begs another question—who should hold the bag for species at risk? The tiny minority of ranchers who have been grazing the habitat, or the wider Canadian public that benefits from the stewardship of our last remnants of native prairie?
Black Angus on native range, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood


  1. Excellent article Trevor. Thank you for bringing balance to this insane Sage Grouse hysteria. It reminds me of when BSE hit the news, led with fear mongering tactics that created chaos and hardship for ranchers. The table has finally turned and people understand that it was not an epidemic. When will people finally understand that the Greater Sage Grouse in Canada are on the fringe of the greater population in the US and they are not becoming extinct. Thank goodness for the ranchers who have kept their native grasses to help keep the bird in Canada. Thank you for bringing balance Trevor!

  2. Hi Theresa--glad you liked it. If you have any thoughts on why the kind of funding EC is offering producers is not reassuring, do let me know. Email me anytime at


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