Thursday, October 20, 2016

paskwâwaskî in October--a book launch

pronghorn, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
Sitting on a hilltop last Saturday, watching spiders ballooning through the sky, and above them layers of birds on the move—snow geese in the depths of the blue, with a half dozen canvasback below them moving faster, and then a scattered flock of Lapland Longspurs, like sparks shooting out of a fire and across the whole scene—I thought of all the movement that happens in fall, even in our fragmented prairie world.

There are pronghorn right now slowly moving toward winter range across the medicine line. The Sage Grouse on private ranches near Grasslands National Park will soon do the same, if they haven’t left yet. Montana sage brush, high enough to stay exposed even when snows come deep, will help them survive to breed next spring. And overhead the great flocks of Sandhill Cranes are leaving the northern plains, following their ancient and venerable sky trails to river flats in Nebraska where they will linger as they have for millions of years before continuing south.
sandhill cranes on the move
These are the long truths of the prairie, not the wealth, fuel and roads that let me drive to hilltops and write about it, instead of cleaning out the barn or sorting potatoes the way my grandparents would have in October.

Prairie people once moved in fall too--sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. My mother remembers Metis families travelling down the Qu’Appelle valley at this time of year, stopping to rest at their farm at the mouth of the Kaposvar Creek. Her grandmother called them “gypsies,” after the caravans of Roma people she saw as a child in Scotland. Scottish and English immigrants arriving in the Eastern Qu’Appelle district in the 1880s were welcomed by the resident Metis, who knew well how to winter on the prairie. That first generation of settlers would not have survived without the aid and knowledge of the valley’s Indigenous settlers. What I would give to have been there and heard them talk to one another, across the barriers of language and culture.

Most of the Metis would have spoken Michif, their language blending Cree and French into a unique Indigenous tongue. For the Michif people, and perhaps for the people my mother saw passing by in the late 1930s, the valley was “îwâyatinâk,” the grassland was “paskwâwaskî,” the trail they traveled on by pony and ox-cart was “mîskanâs,” and the stream they rested at was “sîpîsis.”

There is something good about trying to say these words out loud (you can listen to audio samples here of the proper pronunciation), even if we mess up. Why? Because this language is old in the land and has its roots right here where the prairie meets the forests of the northern Plains. 
Norman Fleury teaching in Kamloops

As Michif elder, teacher, and language expert Norman Fleury says, “the Michif were Michif before Canada was Canada.” Norman, who traces his Michif lineage back six generations to this land, is featured in my latest book, Towards a Prairie Atonement (University of Regina Press--Regina launch info here), telling the story of his ancestors who lived, farmed, and hunted in a community of 250 Michif people on the Sand Plains near the confluence of the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine Rivers, until they were told they had to leave in 1938.

Gypsies? No. People of the prairie, and proud survivors of every attempt to remove them from the land. 

If you are able, please join Norman and me and our host CBC's Stefani Langenegger on the evening of October 27th (Royal Saskatchewan Museum, 7 pm; admission free), when we will talk about the new book and the fierce bonds of the Michif to this part of the prairie.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Understanding the K+S biodiversity offsets

this image shows the footprint of the K+S project, and the grassland lost to build the new solution mine (that is Buffalo Pound Lake in the distance)

This week the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) announced a deal with K+S Potash Canada and the Saskatchewan Government to conserve 402 ha of "high-value grassland", to offset the 194 ha of grasslands that have been degraded and destroyed by a new solution potash mine the corporation built roughly 50 km west of Regina between the Qu'Appelle Valley and the town of Bethune.

Here is the announcement in Canadian Mining Journal

"In 2010, K+S committed to offset natural grasslands affected by the project. But calculating the appropriate offset is not simple. Governments and stakeholders have struggled to create fair compensation schemes that recognize that some habitats are more valuable than others and like-for-like or area-for-area doesn’t necessarily provide the best environmental outcome or use of resources. The formula-based approach tested at K+S’s Legacy mine site estimates functional loss and required offsets using a system of debits-and-credits. The formula includes, among other things, the effect of development on species of concern and the effect of breaking up connected habitat. In the case of the Legacy mine, this means that the 194 hectares of grasslands that have been impacted will be off-set by conserving an estimated 402 hectares of high value grassland."

Much of that is taken from the NCC news release. So, what do they mean by "conserving an estimated 402 hectares of high value grassland"? I wasn't sure so I contacted Cameron Woods, NCC's Natural Areas Manager in the Saskatchewan region who has worked for years on the project (NOTE: the ever-sharp Jared Clarke will interview Cameron on the offset project on 91.3 FM (CJTR Community Radio), "The Prairie Naturalist", this evening, Oct 6 at 6pm. Go online to listen to the show on CJTR here.)

In my message I referred to a story on biodiversity offsets that the NCC posted online last year. Written by Dan Kraus, NCC's Weston Conservation Scientist and Senior Director of Conservation Program Development, the story said, "Offsets are challenging and the line between effective conservation and green-washing can be easily crossed."

I had heard the same concerns, but Kraus's main point in the post was that NCC follows a "net gain" standard on offsets that would mitigate the usual offset issues and "ensure that nature gains ground, natural capital grows and that the good intentions of biodiversity offsets are met."

I asked Cameron if NCC was aiming for that kind of standard with the K+S project. Here is what he said:

"Any project that we plan to undertake in relation to offsets must undergo a rigorous review process to ensure that the objective of a ‘net gain for nature’ is met. In this case, we plan to achieve this net gain by ensuring the permanent protection of native grasslands where we will employ management practices to benefit biodiversity and preserve the functions of grasslands and associated habitats. We will focus our efforts in areas of high habitat connectivity and biodiversity and to ensure the offset can benefit the same species impacted by the Legacy Project. By focusing on these elements and the principles of the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (international collaboration between companies, financial institutions, government agencies and civil society organizations) our goal is to achieve a net gain for nature."

With that in mind NCC will be using the funds from this offset to find 400 ha of private land at risk and with high conservation value.

Now, would it be better if no mine had been built on the 194 hectare patch of grassland displaced by K+S Legacy? Yes, but that was not one of the options open. Meanwhile, the prospect of NCC conserving more than double the hectares of land that is of higher conservation value and then managing it to improve conservation outcomes does help make up for the loss. Will it be no net loss? Even a net gain? Only time will tell but I am sure NCC will work hard to get there.
Mountain bluebirds and many other species of concern could potentially benefit from the lands NCC ultimately uses to offset the grasslands damaged by the K+S Legacy project

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