Thursday, June 25, 2015

Photo gallery: the birds and landscapes of spring, 2015

Here are some photos of things that have caught my attention in May and June this year:
At Point Pelee we had long looks at this very famous and reliable
Rufous-phased Eastern Screech Owl



The breeding Prothonotary Warblers of Pelee Island where I attended the
Springsong Bird Festival again as guest birder, helping Graeme Gibson and
Margaret Atwood celebrate Canada's birds of spring.


Scarlet Tanagers lit up the Carolinian Woods on the island and
at Point Pelee
back home I visited the Spy Hill-Ellice PFRA Pasture
straddling the Sask/Manitoba border, working on a new
book with photographer Branimir Gjetvaj

This pasture is a wonderful piece of Aspen Parkland prairie and had
great expanses of Three-flowered Avens in bloom

Tufts of spear grass at dawn on the Spy Hill-Ellice PFRA pasture

 Yellow Lady Slippers in mid-June when we find them in ditches and
 nowhere else.

A calm morning on Cherry Lake

On windy days we see this large floating island of
cattails venture out across the lake and back again before settling
against the shore again until the next big blow.

A Cliff Swallow decided to renovate and take over an old barn swallow nest under
the eave of our cabin. Odd to see this colonial species all alone.


A strange sight on my Tyvan Breeding Bird Survey last week--
Ed Rodger and I found six Pronghorns near the town of Francis,
on a cultivated field, far from any native grass. A buck and five does.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Making good on ecological goods: grassland carbon offsets?

Native prairie sequesters a lot of carbon so why can't landowners be paid for protecting it? (Image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

Today an article on carbon sequestration in grassland came my way thanks to rancher and biologist Sue Michalsky. The story was posted on the website for Alberta Farmer Express and it is worth a look.

The writer, a range manager and mixed-farmer named Jill Burkhardt, opens by mentioning the provincial carbon offset program out of which many of Alberta’s no-till farmers receive payments. Now, of course, native grassland does a much better job of sequestering atmospheric carbon than even the best conservation tillage system so Jill asks a natural question: “why aren’t landowners with pasture getting paid for their contribution?”

I have wondered the same thing so I posed the question once to a lawyer who has done some work on carbon offset or carbon credit programs. He said that carbon credit systems depend on a protocol that can measure and prove what he calls “additionality.”

Additionality asks the seller of the carbon credits the following question: is the activity providing the carbon sequestration or emission reduction something that would happen even if it were not being used as an offset project? I.e. would it have happened anyway? If the answer is yes, then there is no additionality and nothing that can be legitimately sold as a carbon credit.
Sagebrush prairie (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

This means that native grassland that has been well managed by a single family for generations would not really be seen as providing any additional carbon sequestration, yet someone who buys a piece of broken land might theoretically be eligible for some credits if he plants it to perennial cover, because suddenly that piece of land would be sequestering a measurable increase in carbon.

I realize that that just seems wrong in a whole lot of ways so it is tempting to think maybe we can just ignore this additionality thing and go ahead and establish a carbon credit payment system for people who hold title to native grassland.

Maybe, but not likely. Governments that signed the Kyoto accord have to follow something called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a strict mechanism that is under increasing pressure from scientists and environmentalists to ensure that carbon offset programs, among other instruments, are legitimate and provide an actual net benefit.

Many ecologists and scientists—including Pope Francis in his new Encyclical on the planet’s ecological crisis (see point 171 in this pdf of the encyclical)—have criticized carbon offsets, saying they do not reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions (see this article inThe Guardian).
If additionality is a deal-breaker—and I think it is—then we are going to need to find a protocol that somehow measures and demonstrates real additional benefit with enough rigor to satisfy the accountants of the carbon offset world.

I am not sure how we can do that, but let’s hope there are some agile economic minds out there working on this very question, because it is indeed a challenge that besets the overall effort to compensate and recognize ranchers for their good stewardship. Whether it is carbon offsets or biodiversity offsets, we need real accountability for real and measurable benefits—anything less could backfire on us all in more ways than one.
image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sheri Grant: A rancher’s photo album

at the Grant Ranch (all images copyrighted by and with
permission of Sherri Grant)
I spend a lot of time--some would say too much--talking about the forces that threaten the survival of Canada’s remaining native grassland, and a fair bit of my concern is based on a fear that those forces will make it harder for private ranching stewards to continue protecting the prairie.

(Not everyone would agree on what those forces are but here are the ones I would list: 1. the oil and gas industry, 2. agricultural policy that does not recognize the heritage and ecological values of native grassland, 3. economic pressures driving increased stocking rates; 4. ranchette development; 5. Privatization of public grasslands, 6. Miscommunication and division between rancher-stewards and scientists and conservationists, 7. the development of new crops that can be grown on marginal and sub-marginal lands, and 8. Lack of government funding for retaining range management specialists.)

The best cure for that worry is to talk to a rancher who pays attention to the birds and the plants on his ranch. These folks, and their culture of protecting the grass, form the linchpin of prairie conservation. If we expect the grass and its rare creatures to remain, the first job of our public policy on native grassland conservation should be to find ways to protect and support the kind of private management our best stewards provide. Government agencies and conservation groups simply do not have and will never have the resources to replace the stewardship role played by the many private cattle producers who know their land intimately and when and where and how much to graze.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Sherri Grant, who, with her husband Lynn and brother-in-law Dean, raises 1,600 head of cattle on more than 11,000 hectares of land near Val Marie, Saskatchewan. She had taken a couple of bird photos and wanted to confirm the identifications she had made. I replied and mentioned that I had interviewed Lynn many years ago for a CBC Ideas radio documentary I wrote on grassland birds.

Then, a week later this lovely shot of a grasshopper sparrow landed in my in-basket.
one of my favourite grassland birds--Sheri managed to catch the bit of green at the bend of its wing

This photo was clearly of a different order so I checked on Google and found her website . Turns out Sherri is a serious photographer and has a gallery of impressive images of flowers, landscapes and wildlife, all available for purchase online. That was when I wrote her again and asked if she would let me show some of her photos here on Grass Notes.

“First and foremost I am a rancher,” Sherri wrote in an email she sent, along with permission to borrow a few photos from her gallery, after returning from the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Meeting in Swift Current earlier this week.

She says her passion for agriculture led her to become involved in agricultural education. She created a website of beef industry resources for teachers as well as the photographs and design for a children’s book, “Where Beef Comes From”.

Sherri took up photography when she heard complaints about the lack of beauty in her part of the province. She started by photographing local flowers on the native pastures where she lives and soon had a photographic collection of more than 70 species.

Here is a sampling of the photos she takes (click on any of them to see a larger version), but please pay a visit to Sherri’s website where she shares her images:

Calving time: Lynn out in the winter dawn light to help a calf in trouble

A bull snake, one of the reptiles found on native prairie

Gumbo evening-primrose (Oenothera caespitosa Nutt.), a flower that transforms
 from pink to white as it blooms by day

Smooth blue beardtongue (Pentstemon nitidus) one of the showiest of blooms
in the Frenchman River Valley

the future of prairie stewardship, heading for the buttes

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Stockgrowers' Resolutions against Land Trusts, Conservation easements, and SAR legislation

image from South of the Divide Conservation Action Program
Reading through the latest issue of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association (SSGA) magazine, I came across a list of new resolutions that they will be considering at their annual convention and AGM in Swift Current on June 7th to 9th .

Several of the resolutions to be debated surprised me because they seem to run counter to the conservation ethic that the SSGA and most cattle producers generally support. Now, of course, these resolutions may well not be passed, but here are two of them that are going to leave SSGA’s partners in conservation scratching their heads:
Resolution #5 WHEREAS public funds are being forwarded to the Nature Conservancy of Canada from the federal and provincial governments. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to cease financial support to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other ENGO’s for the purpose of purchasing agricultural lands.

Resolution #6 WHEREAS conservation easements held in perpetuity devalue property and do not recognize future considerations. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to revise The Conservation Easements Act to make conservation easements no longer than twenty five years.

Another resolution calls for changes to the Species at Risk Act.

Regardless of whether these resolutions get any traction at the AGM, it seems fair to say that they are a sign that an undetermined number of cattle producers do not like some of the primary tools we commonly use to protect native grassland and its species for the public good they represent. Conservation easements, species at risk legislation, and land trusts that purchase habitat are three legs of a four-legged platform that conservation NGOs and government agencies use to protect at least a few pieces of our remaining native grasslands (only 17 to 21% is left in Saskatchewan) into the future.

Before describing the fourth leg, it needs to be recognized that private cattle producers themselves have always applied their own platform of protection based on a culture and tradition of stewardship passed down from one generation to the next. This important platform of native grassland protection, practiced primarily in the southwest of the province, is what carried much of our remaining large pieces of mixed grass and moist mixed-grass prairie into the twenty-first century.

meadowlark nest

However—and this is where some people, conservationists and ranchers, for different reasons, may part ways with me—there was another factor that helped keep a few large tracts of native grass intact. What I am referring to here is the bargain struck between public and private interest on Crown native grassland.

The beauty of keeping grassland in the public domain and leasing it out to private cattle producers is that it leaves room for public policy to help with the handoff of land stewardship from one producer’s lifetime to his successor while ensuring that over time the land will not be significantly altered.

We all are drawn to the romantic ideal of the lone cattleman taking care of his native range far from the eyes of regulation and government. It has a strong emotional appeal and we all know examples to prove the theory. But the chink in the armour of entrusting grassland conservation entirely to the culture of private rancher stewardship is that even the best steward will die some day and he or she may not have an apprenticing child to takeover the legacy. Crown ownership or ownership by an NGO such as NCC allows us to retain an element of public involvement that allows the native grass to stay right side up regardless of how heavily or lightly the next leaseholder chooses to graze.

In my mind, the public plays a vital role in ensuring that our last remnants of native grass do not become ranchettes or cultivated fields, by providing a fourth leg shared by the two platforms of conservation maintained by NGOs and government agencies on the one side and private ranchers on the other. The individual cattle producer needs affordable lease rates and programs that help them sustain the ecological goods and services produced on rangeland, while the public and conservation groups need grazing animals and their managers to provide the kind of disturbance essential to healthy grassland diversity. This is the basis for grassland conservation that is working in various forms and to varying degrees of success all over the prairie landscapes of North America—on community pastures, National Grasslands, provincial and national parks, leased public lands, and public grazing reserves: our remaining grassland commons.

Somehow, somewhere along the way many of Canada’s cattle producers have lost faith in that leg of their conservation platform connecting them to the public interest. They no longer see Crown land or land owned by conservation NGOs as the ground where private and public interests can converge to do the best job of protecting our native grass and its many rare creatures.

This is why we hear that the leadership of the SSGA and the Saskatchewan Cattleman’s Association both would like to see community pastures and other Crown grasslands up for sale. It may also be the reason why the SSGA is entertaining resolutions that oppose conservation easements, the Species at Risk Act, and NCC’s purchase of native grassland.

All of which is fine, if they have a better idea, if they have a plan for protecting our dwindling native grasslands for future generations. Relying entirely on the goodwill and stewardship of the rancher tradition is not a plan. While we can say that the ethos of the private rancher protected the grass we still have in hand, there is the matter of the other 80 per cent of the native prairie in this province that disappeared when we placed it entirely in the hands of private landowners.

So, if we are to abandon Crown ownership of land and public involvement in the stewardship of native prairie, then what is the plan? How would those who drew up the SSGA resolutions propose that we replace Species at Risk legislation, land trust purchase of land, and conservation easements?

I would love to hear some thoughts from cattle producers on how we could make those changes and somehow do a better job of protecting our precious native prairie.

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