Thursday, March 31, 2016

What kind of government would the prairie want?

What has the Saskatchewan Government done lately to protect the grassland
habitat of our Provincial Bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the many other
animals and plants that depend on  natural prairie landscapes?

A media release from Public Pastures--Public Interest

[don't miss the satellite image at the bottom of the release. It shows a piece of Crown land the Province sold after removing it from the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.]


Thursday March 31, 2016

REGINA, SK: A lot has been said in this provincial election about human needs – but what about our endangered prairie grassland and its inhabitants?

The prairie ecosystem is one of the most altered and threatened in North America – only 20% of Saskatchewan’s native prairie remains, and in some areas, such as the Regina Plains, less than 1% remains.

“Saskatchewan has the largest proportion of Canada’s Prairie Ecozone, and therefore the greatest responsibility to conserve it,” said Trevor Herriot, PPPI spokesperson. “Yet in our election campaigns the subject is seldom mentioned. This is a vital topic – we should be talking about what the prairie and its rare creatures might want to see from our elected representatives.”

As well as providing a home for more than thirty Species at Risk, including mammals, birds, butterflies, snakes, frogs and toads, grasses and wildflowers, the province’s grasslands store carbon, protect water quality and prevent soil loss.

“Our native grasslands, particularly on Crown land, are part of Canada’s natural heritage, as precious as our northern lakes and forests” Herriot said. “Do we want to rob our children and grandchildren of the chance to know the prairie and its gifts or do we want to take measures today to ensure that those gifts will be there a generation from now?”

There are a great number of things that can be done.

A government that cared for and supported our grasslands heritage would:

1. Commit to retain and not sell any Crown land with native grassland, including Community Pastures.

2. Work with ranchers, First Nations, and conservation groups to devise a plan to protect all remaining native prairie from cultivation and other forms of development.

3. Monitor and enforce Conservation Easements to prevent the breaking of native grassland and protect other grassland areas that buffer native remnants. Once native prairie is broken it cannot be restored.

4. Conduct a complete inventory of our remaining native grasslands to determine how much remains of each grassland ecotype.

5. Create Saskatchewan legislation that recognizes the value of our grasslands, as has been done in other provinces.

6. Retain all grassland and Aspen parkland Crown lands originally listed under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act – do not sell them.

7. Make public the criteria of the Crown Land Ecological Assessment Tool and the reasons for each proposed land parcel re-classification and provide opportunities for public input on the decision.

8. Rather than lowering the standards for all grasslands to the lowest common denominator, make an effort to raise the overall quality of the Provincial Pastures and Co-op Pastures to the high standard of the PFRA-managed Community Pastures.

9. Ask the federal government to halt the transfer of any more PFRA Community Pastures to the province, administer a Strategic Environmental Assessment and review the decision to end the Community Pasture Program.

10.Work with the federal government concerning additional resources needed to manage public values on Community Pastures such as: biodiversity, carbon sequestration, ecosystem conservation, and public access.

11.Support and work with ranchers to conserve and protect grassland ecosystems, but do not off-load all public responsibilities for maintaining public benefits onto their shoulders.

12.Involve Saskatchewan’s range experts to allow ranchers to do the best job possible in maintaining functioning prairie. Saskatchewan has over 200 grass species and varieties and most of these are in the prairie zone.  These species are valuable for providing seeds now and will be more so in the future.

An example
This quarter-section was recently declared of low ecological value and sold. Yet it is an island of habitat in a sea of cropland and would definitely be habitat for many wildlife species.
this quarter section of native grassland and aspen was removed from WHPA and sold

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Election primer--ten reasons Saskatchewan's grasslands matter

Prickly Pear Cactus at Caledonia--Elmsthorpe PFRA Pasture
Less than ten days to go before Saskatchewan people head to the polls to elect their provincial government for the next four years. So far in the public campaign, at least as it appears in the media, we have heard almost nothing about Saskatchewan's environmental issues.

In particular, we are hearing little discussion of how prospective MLAs would work to protect our most endangered landscapes and their biodiversity from the market forces that threaten them--land and commodity prices driving more cultivation of native grass remnants, inadequate regulation and oversight of resource development, and public policy and market realities that do not foster good stewardship among private landowners and leaseholders on native grassland.

It must be said that the provincial NDP platform does make a clear statement about the former PFRA pastures under its agricultural section: "We will insist that the new federal government halt the process of ending the community pasture program, and collaborate with pasture patrons to more cost-effectively manage pastures that have already transitioned."

Their environmental platform also says they "will develop a Nature Index of Saskatchewan, to measure, track and publicly report on the state of Saskatchewan’s environment, modeled on the Norwegian Nature Index." They also promise to implement a comprehensive biodiversity action plan.
and "reverse the Sask. Party’s cuts to environmental protection."
sunflowers on native grassland

Meanwhile, groups like Public Pastures--Public Interest, the Community Pastures Patrons Association, and the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan have been working to get grasslands in general and the PFRA pasture issues in particular onto the agenda of political candidates. This week APAS joined with The Western Producer to host a dialogue with the incumbent minister of Agriculture, the Hon. Lyle Stewart, and representatives of the other political parties. They called it "Why Agriculture Matters." The forum went well and the Community Pastures Patrons Association of Saskatchewan asked whether the candidates' parties would be willing to consider putting $1 to 2 million into the management of the public benefits of the community pastures being transferred to Saskatchewan.

All of the candidates other than Mr. Stewart responded to the question by indicating that they would support such an investment in the wellbeing of these lands. Rick Swenson of the Progressive Conservative Party and Cathy Sproule of the NDP gave particularly strong answers in favour of some funding for the transitioned pastures.

This week Joanne Havelock, of Public Pastures--Public Interest, sent out to prospective candidates and to PPPI supporters some terrific material to use in talking to other voters or to candidates about the conservation issues around publicly-owned grasslands. You can find it all here at the PPPI website, but my favourite part is a list of Ten Reaseons Why Public Grasslands Matter. Here it is:

1. Because they are rare and threatened by cultivation and other kinds of development
Canada has its own threatened Amazonian forest - our native prairie. It is widely considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada. Less than 20% of our native prairie remains in Saskatchewan. The rest has been turned into agricultural fields, cities and roads. Some types of native grassland, such as northern fescue, are even more diminished, to less than 10% of their original.

2. Because they support endangered species. 
Many of the federally-listed Species at Risk in Saskatchewan are found in our native grasslands. This is a direct result of the habitat loss. In Southern Saskatchewan, many of the native birds and animals require native prairie to survive - it is their only home. Over 30 Species at Risk are known to live on the Community Pastures.

3. Because they are diverse. 
While a quarter section of agricultural land may contain a few agricultural crop species, a quarter section of native prairie will support over a hundred species of grasses and wildflowers and hundreds of animal species including birds, insects and myriad bacteria and fungi. Sadly our croplands are biological deserts bereft of almost all of their original native diversity.

4. Because they protect soil and water. 
Grasslands help mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration by the grasses and other plants. They prevent soil erosion. They also contribute to water security as healthy plants and their root systems filter and purify our water.

5. Because they sequester carbon.
Most of the carbon held in the ecosphere is found in soils. Unbroken native prairie sequesters a vast deposit of soil carbon - one of Canada’s largest carbon sinks. Most of this carbon is lost when prairie is broken. This happens because soil bacteria quickly convert the stores of soil carbon into CO2, a greenhouse gas that directly contributes to global warming. Acre for acre, prairie soils hold more carbon than boreal forest soils.

6. Because they support ranching economy and culture.
Grasslands are important to cattle ranchers and their communities as they provide land for grazing - for both domestic and wild species of animals. As publicly-owned lands, they can support smaller producers, and can demonstrate how economic, cultural and environmental objectives can be integrated.

7. Because they contain the cultural heritage of the prairie.
Many archaeological sites are still to be found on these relatively undisturbed prairie grasslands. These sites have significant cultural and heritage values for all Saskatchewan people: indigenous, settler and other newcomers.

8. Because people need native prairie places they can visit.
Saskatchewan people use these publicly-owned lands for recreational and cultural purposes. They are important to the nearby rural communities and are very important elements of Indigenous traditional culture.

9. Because all natural land has value that goes beyond economics.
Public lands are more than a commodity. While they have financial value for agriculture, they also provide important environmental, heritage, cultural, indigenous and recreational values.

10. Because we have a responsibility to the future.
These grasslands - as threatened as the Amazon rainforest - are our children’s heritage and our responsibility. Our children’s prairie heritage is under threat: the beauty of a fresh prairie morning; birds singing; wildflowers dancing in the breeze. We must ensure that our children inherit a province rich in the possibilities of our grasslands.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Hopeful news: Ottawa is listening!

Progress Community Pasture, which contains one of the last wetlands where
Whooping Cranes nested on the prairie
Tremendous good news today coming out of Ottawa. For the first time in four years, the fate of the PFRA pastures is an issue receiving serious attention in Parliament.

The Federal Standing Committee on Finance, chaired by the Hon. Wayne Easter, has released its recommendations ahead of the budget, which will be announced on March 22nd. The report, available online, contains the following recommendation:
"Recommendation 49 The federal government consider re-establishing the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Program. In this regard, the government should begin by reinstating funding for two initiatives: the publicly owned Community Pasture Program; and the Prairie Shelterbelt Program and Indian Head Tree Nursery." 
There is no indication if that recommendation will bear fruit so we will have to watch the budget next Tuesday to find out. Either way, this is an affirmation of the efforts made by private people and NGOs across Canada in recent months. Groups like Public Pastures--Public Interest, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, the National Farmers' Union, Nature Canada, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nature Saskatchewan, the Alberta Wilderness Association and so many others have been raising the issue at every opportunity.

Since mid-February, hundreds of people have sent letters to the Federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, to the Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and to the Prime Minister himself. If you were one of them, thank you for helping. Today's news is proof that your letter struck a chord.

Not quite a moment to celebrate, but perhaps time to say a prayer to the better angels of democracy and good government. Our public grasslands, the rare creatures who depend upon them, and the men and women who manage the grazing, deserve Canada's support. To do otherwise would be to leave some of the nation's most endangered landscapes and ecosystems without any programming to protect them from the vagaries of the marketplace and conserve their rich legacy for generations to come.

Western Meadowlark, by Hamilton Greenwood

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