Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bring back the Great White Birds of the plains—Part 1

plains bison at Grasslands National Park, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Before the first wave of settler agriculture on the Great Plains, both here and across the border in the U.S., our ancestors had all but eradicated the largest and fiercest mammals: the bison, grizzlies and wolves.  Like the indigenous peoples starved and swindled onto small reserves, wild grazers and predators would have to go before the open range cattle and sheep grazing of that early period could create a foothold for colonists. Although the native grass was still intact at the time (the mid to late 1800s), the sudden disappearance of these mega-fauna, and the plains hunters who managed the grass with fire, set in motion a cascade of ecological degradation that continues to be felt today on our remaining prairie landscapes.

There was a greater devastation to come, of course, thanks to generations of farmers and the John Deere plow, but notice something that happens when you read the story-line in the preceding paragraph. True though it may be, this story divides prairie people into two camps.

If you or your relations still live on the land, make a living in agriculture on hills and plains where once ran the bison, wolves and grizzlies, you get understandably nervous when this narrative is presented. Why? Because the other camp—mostly consisting of urban people, either does not care at all or, more dangerous, takes this story as the way things should be, the way things could be again.

These facts of our ecological history on the plains form the premise that has led many urban environmentalists to dream of and advocate re-introduction of these important prairie mammals. From the Buffalo Commonsproposed by Frank and Deborah Popper in the late 1980s to the more recent “re-wilding” movement, people easily get swept up in the romance of a restored prairie wildness.

It’s an attractive idea until you stop to think about what this would do to the farmers and ranchers who have lived for several generations on the land to be re-wilded. City folks love the wild in theory until a great horned owl eats muffy or a moose walks through the deck doors. Few prairie people, urban or rural, native or settler, would be content living with grizzlies chasing herds of bison through the landscapes they tend.

That does not mean there is not a place for bison restoration projects in conservation areas such as the American Prairie Reserve or Old Man on His Back, but any work done to restore elements of prairie ecology must involve and respect the needs of the people who make a living on and around our native grassland remnants.

Meanwhile, there is a large and charismatic prairie creature that could be returned to the plains and fostered in the right habitat without endangering the life and property of rural people.

I am thinking of the Whooping Crane.  It has been gone from our prairie landscapes for so long that we are inclined to think of it as a northern species that merely passes through the plains. But large prairie wetlands were once the stronghold of the Whooping Crane.

Whooping Cranes love the Saskatchewan prairie for staging on migration; is it possible they may once breed here again? (click on this image to see its three whooping cranes (left) with three sandhills (right) by permission of Val Mann)

Passing through the Eastern Qu’Appelle Valley in July, 1858, Henry Youle Hind wrote, “the white or whooping crane (grus Americana) was first seen today. This beautiful bird is common in the Qu’Appelle Valley and in the Touchwood Hills range.” (Hind, Narrative of the . . . Saskatchewan and Assiniboine Exploring Expedition of 1858)

While it was never as numerous as the Sandhill Crane, the Whooping Crane did nonetheless breed here and there across the northern Great Plains, perhaps moreso in its northern reaches and in the Aspen Parkland in particular.

This graceful, heart-stirring bird deserves to be back on the prairie where it evolved and spent its summers for thousands of years until our European ancestors arrived in the footsteps of explorers like Hind at the end of the nineteenth century.
With the arrival of thousands of farmers tearing up the ancient sods, draining wetlands and shooting every wetland bird large enough for the pot, the Whooping Crane rapidly thinned out.

Almost a century later, their descendants living on the land are asking, why not bring the Great White Bird back and see if a prairie population could be re-established?
Next week, I will recount the story of a large wetland where the last Whooping Cranes nested in Saskatchewan, and a group of people who want to see the birds back where they belong.

(And my favourite part: it appears that the last whooping cranes to breed in this province were nesting on sloughs that are now part of two PFRA Community Pastures.)

with many wetlands recovering in recent years, is it time to bring back the Whooping Crane?


Thursday, January 22, 2015

More signs of hope for Saskatchewan's pastures

mixed grass prairie close-up at a community pasture

Last night, as I sat listening to Jason Unruh’s lecture on his research into how the oil industry is affecting grassland birds (a terrific talk and part of the Prairie Conservation Action Plan’s (PCAP) speakers series—soon to be posted on PCAP's Youtube channel), I looked around the room at the others sitting in the seats, all of us keen to hear what Jason would say about oil and these vulnerable prairie birds.

There were members of Public Pastures-Public Interest, and there were students and scientists who focus on grassland ecology. There was a staff member of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, PCAP people, a couple of provincial government biologists, at least two federal government employees, and an assortment of others who volunteer with, work for, or at least support the non-government organizations that are trying to conserve our remaining grassland.

Three years ago, most of us took it for granted that there would always be a federal community pasture system (which we still call the “PFRA,” or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration). It had been there for seventy-five years, managing large expanses of native grass for the wider public interest and providing affordable grazing for local cattle producers. Surely not even the Harper Conservatives would be so foolish as to discontinue such an effective model of agricultural sustainability.

We were wrong. In March, 2012, the Government of Canada trashed the PRFA along with many other vital environmental programs in the nation, sending the pasture lands back into provincial hands.

Looking around that room last night, I saw many people who have, one way or another, done their part in the intervening three years, to make the best out of a bad political decision--many from within government departments and agencies. Not all of us have had the privilege to speak our minds in public on the issue, but most have found their own way to contribute to the cause of protecting these invaluable ecological treasures as they make the perilous passage from federally-funded programming to private leaseholder grazing corporations.

The first ten out of the sixty-two Saskatchewan pastures were handed over last summer to the new patron-run grazing corporations: McCraney, Estevan-Cambria, Excel, Fairview, Ituna-Bon Accord, Keywest, Lone Tree, Newcombe, Park, and Wolverine (even the names of these places carry a certain poetic weight).

The transition for these first ten through the chute has not been easy, but they had a wet summer with no shortage of grass and could look forward to record high beef prices. Throughout, the cattlemen have acted with honour and remarkable composure in the face of terms and conditions that at times seemed all but impossible. They get the lion’s share of the credit for pulling together and devising business plans on short notice and in the absence of sufficient information. But the terms of their leases would’ve been much less favourable had it not been for the pressure exerted on their behalf by the Community Pastures Patrons Association ofSaskatchewan, which was formed in the wake of the announcement in March, 2012.

Just this week, we saw another example of the courage and wisdom of community pasture patrons in the face of this maelstrom of change. Confident in their own abilities to continue managing their shared pasture (after all, they each manage their own private holdings), the patrons of Lone Tree Community Pasture nonetheless made the decision to sign a management partnership agreement with theNature Conservancy of Canada.

I was not surprised when I heard it was Lone Tree. I remembered a moment during the Atwood tour two summers ago, when Lone Tree's committee chair, Clint Christianson spoke to us most eloquently about their lives and all that was at stake. "It's all native grass from here to Val Marie," he said, his voice cracking with emotion and pride. Clint has the kind of character and courage that made this deal with NCC come into the light of day.
Clint Christianson (left) image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj
Under the terms, NCC's Saskatchewan Region will work with Lone Tree’s pasture shareholders and manager to record best practices for management of the 33,697-acre pasture. Paying for some of the costs of management, they will also consult on conservation practices and develop a best practices guide that will be made available to other community pasture groups.

With this kind of creative solution fostering new connections between cattle producers and an organization like NCC, the road ahead for Saskatchewan’s community pastures is looking a little brighter today.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Birds of 2014: a photo gallery

This Prothonotary Warbler was one of the most photographed birds of the year in Regina. A stray
from farther east on the continent, it stayed near Wascana Park for several months, singing
each morning for a mate that never came.
I know some very good bird photographers with terrific equipment, so I am reluctant to display my fuzzy shots, but I do it anyway now and then. Here are some of my best bird memories of 2014, caught on the pixels my Canon Supershot puts together when I point it at feathered things.

One of the last birds of winter was this Northern Shrike I found east of the city on a March morning.
Toward the end of May, the Say's Phoebe showed up on a cold and damp day when there were no flying insects out. I caught some flies in a vacuum and then placed them on the deck of our cabin, where the phoebe could see them. Within minutes she was eating them off the deck.

The signature bird of Cherry Lake is the black-crowned night heron. These birds of dawn and twilight nest in the marshes between the local lakes and along the creek.

Their red eyes apparently help them to see in dimmer light.

I see American wigeons off and on through the summer near and on Cherry Lake.

By June, nests were being made . . . (this one is a Wilson's Phalarope nest) . . .

And here is a Sharp-tailed Grouse hen, brooding her new hatchlings in a pea field near the road where I do my Breeding Bird Survey at Tyvan. When she lifted her skirts, a dozen caramel and ochre-coloured feather balls jumped up and skittered off into the vegetation.

In June, during a bird blitz on and around Cherry Lake, one group found a pair of Trumpeter Swans, very rare for the prairie region. A couple of weeks later, I got image of them far across a large slough with five new cygnets.

While kayaking the rapids on Swift Current Creek on Canada Day, I took this distant shot of a Yellow-breasted Chat in full song. There were seven of them along that stretch of creek.

These white pelicans roost on the spit that cuts across Deep Lake just north of Cherry Lake.

And, finally, we came across this male snowy owl on the Regina Christmas Bird Count on December 27.

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