Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Summers are for hummers

A few weeks ago, Jared Clarke, naturalist, bird bander, teacher, and host of CJTR Radio's "The Prairie Naturalist" asked me a question: "How many hummingbirds are you seeing at your feeders?"

"Six or seven," I said.

"So you've got 21."

I thought he hadn't heard me so I said it again--six or seven.

Then he explained. When it looks like you have three hummingbirds you likely have ten or more coming to  your feeders. Trouble is, you can't be sure until you start banding them.

Over the past month, Jared has been banding ruby-throated hummingbirds at acreages, farms, and cottages in the Qu'Appelle Lakes and surrounding area. He has come to our weekend farm south of Indian Head three times now and I finally had a chance to join him one morning earlier this week. So far he has banded 23 of them at our place and more than a hundred in general this summer. Here are some photos from the morning we spent together fishing for hummingbirds together.

Here is the rig he uses.

A simple and entirely safe trap that he suspends above a feeder, dropping the rolled up cylinder of soft mesh with a kite string from twenty feet away when a hummer comes into to drink.

Here we are holding the string and waiting (click on any image for a larger view).

In a minute we had our first bird. I can't recall if this was an adult female or a juvenile born this summer.

Jared has designed the project so that he will return to the same feeders over several years, which will help him learn about the hummingbirds' rate of survival and loyalty to breeding areas.

The bands are so small I would need a magnifier to read the numbers.

Here is an adult male. It is smaller than the females so Jared has to trim about a half millimetre off of the band or it might slip right off its foot.

And here is a young male born this year. You can see he has grown the first feather of his gorget, already glowing metallic red.

We talked the morning away as I retrieved birds from the trap and brought them to Jared for processing. If there is a more relaxing way to catch and band birds I haven't seen it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

200 cattle die at Shamrock Pasture

PFRA pasture managers working with cattle at Wolverine Community Pasture
 (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
When a couple of cows die suddenly, the people who own them want to know why. When a couple hundred die, the animal cruelty officers want to know too.

Last week, as we heard in the media, 200 cows and calves died of dehydration and drinking toxic water in the former Shamrock PFRA Community Pasture. The shareholders of the new Shamrock Grazing Corporation are understandably shaken by the event--for the hundreds of thousands of dollars represented in the loss, but also for the suffering their animals went through.

Shareholder representatives (many of whom would be former PFRA patrons) have been quick to defend the contract staff who were responsible for checking on the livestock, and that perspective is to be admired. However, animal cruelty officers are on site interviewing people to see if they can determine if neglect may have led to the tragedy.

What I know about cattle and water management would not eclipse the period at the end of this sentence, but if the only available water evaporated enough to concentrate down to a toxic level of salts during the heat of the last week, then it might be fair to ask if an experienced manager with training and resources at his disposal would have provided the livestock in that field with a safer alternative source of water to avoid such a risk.

I asked a former manager of another PF pasture what he thought of the events at Shamrock. Not wanting to be seen as criticizing current managers, the former manager requested anonymity but said the following:

"This is exactly what I predicted would happen. The new lessees would not pay the pasture manager the salary he expected as they could find someone who would do the job for less. . . . This might be a lesson and a costly one for the producers, that maybe the former managers did have some value in the operation of the pastures. I had some dugouts that were potentially toxic and took measures to ensure that the cattle had other options for potable water. . . . .My experience is if it is bad in the spring it will only get worse, and if it is borderline for toxicity in the spring you had better have an alternative or back up plan, there will be more of this type of nightmares, I am guessing."

Some transitioned federal pastures were able to convince their PFRA manager to make the move and work for the new grazing corporation--often by allowing them to graze their own livestock on the pasture. Shamrock, however, seems to have gone elsewhere to secure a manager. They put the position out for contract tender. Here is the SaskJobs posting they ran just last January. The list of "credentials (certificates, licences, memberships, courses, etc.)" has but one entry: "driver's licence;" however, the job description does mention water management.

None of which incriminates the grazing corporation in the least. If there is anyone to be blamed here, it is the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, for rushing the pastures through a privatization process without providing the kind of support and oversight that would ensure that under new governance the land and cattle will be managed at the same standard the PFRA always provided. 

Instead of leaving the grazing patrons with the financial headroom and the incentives they needed to hire quality managers, the Province is taking as much revenue as they can from the transitioned pastures. It is only from the shareholders own ingenuity and effort that many of the transitioned pastures have been able to find good managers.

However, it is worth recalling that the federal PF managers were recruited, trained, and promoted in a system that not only reduced the incidence of such mishaps; the system included built-in public accountability through a chain of command ending at a minister's office when mistakes did occur or when private or public interests in the use of the land were at stake.

And if the Province is now neglecting to provide that accountability and internal oversight of local management on the private grazing and livestock side of pasture use, what should we expect in the way of accountability and oversight for the management of public interest, such as carbon sequestration, species at risk conservation, and access for Indigenous people's customary use? 

In the new pasture dispensation, instead of the buck stops here, we have the bucks going into the provincial treasury and no one accountable for the proper management of these rare and important public lands. 

healthy wetlands water livestock but provide important habitat on
 public grasslands including community pastures

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Grassland loss in Saskatchewan by the numbers

freshly broken prairie in Southwest Sask. where I often hear that no-one
breaks native grassland anymore

“Grassland being broken in substantial acreages is just not an issue.” 
Hon. Lyle Stewart, Minister of Saskatchewan Agriculture, Western Producer, September 26, 2013.

According to Stats Canada (Table 004-0203 - Census of Agriculture, land use, every 5 years), Saskatchewan lost 2,068,246 acres of “natural land for pasture” in the province between 1991 and 2016.

This means that more than 2 million acres of native grassland, aspen parkland and other forms of natural pasture land in the province were plowed under in the last 25 years.

How much is 2 million acres? It is nearly ten times the size of Grasslands National Park, one of our last remaining protected grassland areas of any size in the province.
native grassland next to broken land--image taken in late May this year

That 2 million acres amounts to one-sixth of the prairie area in Canada being destroyed in a single generation.

At that rate Saskatchewan is losing 80,000 acres on average every year, or more than 200 acres a day, or 9 acres every hour.

That is a 15.5% decrease over 25 years. How does that compare to rainforest loss? Well, Brazil lost 9.5% of its rainforest over the same period(To be perfectly clear--in absolute acres lost per year the rainforest loss is much higher than our loss of native prairie, but the yearly percentage loss of prairie in SK is greater than the yearly percentage loss of rainforest in Brazil.)

Long-Billed Curlew, one of many species in rapid decline because of
grassland loss

Oh--almost forgot. It is Native Prairie Appreciation Week next week, so get out there and appreciate what we have left of our native prairie.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Grassland voices

the Western Meadowlark, one of the many songbirds that thrive on community
pastures--(image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

On Saturday afternoon I am joining Ed Rodger, volunteer caretaker for the Govenlock-Nashlyn-Battle Creek Grasslands Important Bird Area in Saskatchewan's southwest corner, to sample breeding bird populations for the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas project.

We will head out each morning in time for the dawn chorus of bird song and record every bird we hear or see. (Information on the Breeding Bird Atlas here.)

The IBA is composed of three of the most ecologically significant community pastures in the federal community pasture program, which are all in their final year of operation as pastures managed by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. Nashyln and Battle Creek are scheduled to be transitioned to private management by the grazing patrons but it remains to be seen what will happen to Govenlock, which, for now, remains federal land. Grassland conservation groups are waiting for the federal government to work out an agreement with the private cattle producers dependent on Govenlock--one that would ensure their grazing rights on acceptable terms while providing support and programming for biodiversity and species at risk conservation.

The vast stretch of native grassland enclosed by these three contiguous pastures (nearly 850 sq kms of land (330 sq. mi.)) hosts some of the greatest densities of species at risk on the northern Great Plains. At this time of year, the air above these lands is filled with the song of thousands of birds--grassland longspurs and sparrows, lark buntings, meadowlarks and pipits. Here are a few of them in living colour and full voice, courtesy of the video work of Wildbird Video Productions and others on Youtube.

First, the Chestnut-collared Longspur:

It's cousin of the short-grass, the McCown's Longpur, (Wild Bird Video):

The Baird's sparrow (courtesy of Birdchick):

Brewer's sparrow (Wild Bird Video), voice of the sage-brush country:

Its much rarer neighbour the Sage Thrasher (Wild Bird Video):

the Lark Bunting, with one of the most distinctive voices on the prairie (courtesy of VHS Ark):

everyone's prairie favourite, the Western Meadowlark (Wild Bird Video):

and finally, the song that falls from the skies, the Sprague's Pipit, which as this video illustrates, is one of the hardest birds to get a good look at (courtesy of Charlotte Wasylik):

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Grassland protection and loss--by the numbers

[Thanks to Katherine Arbuthnott of Public Pastures--Public Interest for gathering the data and research for many of the figures shown below.]

  • We estimate that we have somewhere around 20% of our native prairie remaining but it is a very rough estimate based on old and inadequate data. (See this document by the Prairie Conservation Action Plan.) According to the most recent estimates which are all based on research from the 1994 Southern Digital Land Cover (SDLC) Digital Data--Saskatchewan has lost more than 80% of its native grasslands to cultivation and urban development. We should have a more up to date and accurate figure, but the province has never done a proper inventory of its native land cover south of the boreal forest.
  • Per cent of grassland remaining by eco-region: 13% in aspen parkland, 16% in moist mixed grassland, and 31% in mixed grassland(From Hammermeister, A., Gauthier, D., & McGovern, K. (2001). Saskatchewan’s native prairie: Taking stock of a vanishing ecosystem and dwindling resource. Native Plant Society of SK report. And Statistics Canada census of agriculture, 2006; access here.)
  • Between 1971 and 1986, approximately 25% of grasslands were lost to agriculture, industry, and urban development.
    ( From Coupland, R.T. (1987). Endangered prairie habitats: the mixed prairie. In Proceedings of the Workshop on Endangered Species in the Prairie Provinces, Edmonton, AB, 24-26 January, 1986. )
  • Between 1987 and 2001, an additional 10% was lost across all eco-regions: 15% in aspen parkland, 8% in mixed grasslands, and 5% in Cyprus uplands. This means that approximately 1% of the small areas of native grasslands remaining are lost each year. (From Watmough, M.D., & Schmoll, M.J. (2007). Environment Canada’s prairie and northern region habitat monitoring program, Phase II. Technical report series No. 493. Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, AB.)

  • 85% of the land south of our forest is privately owned.
    ("Game Management Plan: 2017-2027", Government of Saskatchewan).
  • Saskatchewan has 24% of all private land in Canada, but merely 6.5% of the nation's total area ("Land Use in Saskatchewan," P.C.. Rump and Kent Harper, Govt of Sask, 1980). In Saskatchewan most habitat loss is driven by industrialized agriculture on privately owned land.
  • Some areas of Saskatchewan have among the highest rates of grassland habitat loss in the entire Great Plains.
    (World Wildlife Fund Plowprint Report, 2016.). 
  • The transfer of the former federal community pastures has effectively removed all conservation programming and protection from 1.78 M acres of land, which are all listed under Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network as officially protected. . . at least for now.
  • The Province of Saskatchewan has removed another 1.8 M acres of public land in the grassland eco-zone from the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act to make it available for sale--effectively removing its legislative protection.
  • In its March Budget the Province announced that it is shutting down the Provincial Community Pasture program (another 780,000 acres, 590,000 acres of which have also been listed under Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network as officially protected).

  • It remains to be seen whether some of these grasslands will be subdivided and sold, but if they are no longer receiving any form of government management or programming and will be treated more or less like any other privately leased Crown grasslands, their status as protected areas will eventually be lost.
  • This brings the tally of acres losing conservation programming and protection in Saskatchewan to more than 2.3 Million. That puts at risk more than one-third of the 6 Million acres in Saskatchewan's prairie ecozone officially protected under our (much neglected) Representative Areas Network.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A farmer's "next challenge"?

Yes, listen up farmers—if you need advice you can always get it from a mining company’s billboards.

Because mining companies always serve the public good and treat the land really well. PotashCorp really cares about the starving multitudes all over the planet. And it cares about our prairie farmers who have to shoulder the responsibility of feeding the world—guys like the model in the new PotashCorp ads photoshopped in to make it look like he is outstanding in his field.

I bet they care so much they are even working on a program to help our farmers take up the next challenge after they feed 9 billion with unsustainable, petro-intensive, climate-change-driving high-yield agriculture. And that would be helping them come up with a way to explain to their grandchildren (and themselves) just why it was a good idea to remove every shred of natural cover on miles and miles of the land they manage. But that shouldn’t too difficult—you can always appeal to an authority like God or global trade, something like that:

“Well you see, theoretical grandchild, the Good Lord made this land very fertile—good for growing the wheat and canola that starving children eat all over the planet. We’ve been doing it here for almost 100 years. Your great-granddad was the first person to grow wheat in this part of Saskatchewan.” 
“Really? What was here before that?” 
“Oh, not much really. Just a bunch of grass. It maybe fed some buffalo and a few nomadic Indians who came by now and then but they are better off with the real food they have now. Your grandpa used to have a bit of that old grass where the school used to be but we crop that spot now. It’d be irresponsible to keep a piece of land in grass when it could be productive and feed people.” 
“Why are we feeding people who live so far away? Can’t they feed themselves?” 
“Well, that is a good question. Let’s see if I can remember my Econ. 101. Ok, here we have the know-how to use machines and chemicals and thousands of acres to grow a whole lot of food without having to employ many people. And we do that better than anyone on the planet. That is what economists call our ‘comparative advantage’. People who buy our grain and canola in other parts of the world might not be so good at feeding themselves but they have their own things they’re good at—things like, oh I don’t know, digging conflict minerals out of the ground to provide the rare metals Chinese people need to make your smartphone work...that kind of thing. It all works out quite nicely.”

“Yeah, but grandpa....” 
“Now you run along and play . . . grandpa has to go stand in the field and think about how he is going to feed 9 billion people.”

And now, it might be a good idea to clear the palate with some food for thought from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (click on the image below to see a larger version):

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Road Allowances: Restoring the Lost Kingdom of Monarchs and Lady's Slippers

Every scrap of public land is precious in a province that has privatized 85% of its prairie ecozone (and is working hard to sell off the rest). One type of public land that gets little attention is the undeveloped road allowance, a strip of natural landscape that is supposed to run along the edge of many sections of farmland in Saskatchewan.

Our road allowances—surrounding all land south of the forest in a grid every mile east and west and every two miles north and south—are often used to provide and maintain transportation and utility access through the landscape, serving the public interest. They form a network of commons upon the land that connects us to services and to one another. But road allowances that are not used for roads and other infrastructure have also historically provided refuge and connectivity for nature in agricultural landscapes—supporting the commons of healthy, diverse ecosystems we depend upon for our own health and wellbeing.

All told, these strips of public land only a generation ago protected hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat in this province. At sixty-six feet wide, each mile of undeveloped road allowance provides eight acres of habitat for an array of plants and animals. When they are left alone, they support a mix of native and introduced grasses and forbs, shrubs and trees in moister areas, and small wetlands. Here and there, scraps of native prairie will persist if no one has put them to the plow.

Historically, road allowances formed ribbons of nature around cultivated land, a wild kingdom belonging to no man where anyone was free to hunt, walk, camp, pick berries; where badgers, meadowlarks, and burrowing owls thrived, and where the lady slipper and the monarch butterfly took refuge.
Yellow Lady's Slipper in a road allowance in the RM of Indian Head

What happened? Farmers got scarce and farms got huge as the drive for efficiency took over. Now our few remaining farmers, using larger equipment and satellite guidance systems to seed, spray, and harvest tens of thousands of acres, have begun to look upon undeveloped road allowances as obstacles that can often be eliminated and converted into tax-free acres to bring under production. It’s just waste land—why not use it to feed the world with the cheap food it seems to want?

In some cases farmers go to their local Rural Municipality (RM) to request authorization to include the road allowance into their operation, but often they proceed without permission. A few hours on the right piece of heavy equipment, and any modern farmer can easily remove the natural cover, break the soil, and start treating the public land like it is theirs to seed and spray. In short order, the meadowlarks lose their nest sites, Monarch butterflies lose the milkweed they need to lay eggs, and the lady slippers and anenomes are replaced with canola and wheat.
a road allowance filled with Canada Anenome in the RM of Indian Head

What needs to be done? For thirty years or more, the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, with 25,000 members spread across the province, has been trying to work with RMs to conserve undeveloped road allowances. They urge RMs to voluntarily protect their undeveloped road allowances as habitat, by leaving them natural, discouraging unnecessary traffic, and posting them with signs.

But voluntary programs work better when the public gets involved and supports the effort. If you live in the country, talk to your RM and ask what they are doing to protect road allowances that do not have roads. See if they might consider instituting the Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife for Tomorrow program for road allowances. If your RM is already signed up, make sure you thank the reeve and let them know you support the protection of road allowances.

We will not be returning vast stretches of the native prairie to their former grandeur any time soon, but we do have it within our reach to surround our farm fields with strips of land that are sanctuaries and corridors for wildlife and carbon storage, natural protection against wind and water erosion, and places for the public to hike, ride horseback, pick berries, and let nature restore our senses.

[This post owes much to the work and insights of the great and gracious Lorne Scott, former Reeve of the RM of Indian Head, and a farmer-conservationist of wide reknown.)

Monarch butterflies, an endangered species in steep decline, depends
 on marginal habitat like road allowances where milkweed does not
get poisoned by roundup

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Conservation Saskatchewan Style: 15 of the species you can shoot get a ten-year plan

Nice bird, but it doesn't belong here and it gets more management attention
than at risk birds like the Chestnut-collared Longspur
(image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment will soon be releasing its “Game Management Plan: 2017-2027.” 

I had a look at a draft a couple of weeks ago. Nothing wrong with it, for the fifteen game species it covers (two of which are not native to the continent).

But it is impossible to read such a plan without thinking of the side of wildlife conservation that is not getting this kind of long-range planning and programming in Saskatchewan.

When are we going to see a provincial plan for biodiversity, for our degraded and disappearing prairie wetlands and grasslands, and for the thirty-plus species at risk trying to hang on to the last scraps of prairie or make a go of it in private farmland that is being ditched, drained and bulldozed at a ferocious rate?

How about some a plan and equivalent funding for Representative Areas and Protected Areas programming?

Remarkably, at least in the draft document, the authors of the plan list the following as the plan’s first principle:

“1. Public lands, waters and wildlife are held by government in trust for the benefit of all people.”

Wow. Now that is crazy talk. I thought we were all about getting rid of public lands because our private landowners are so darn good at looking after habitat and wildlife needs. Or did these folks in Environment miss that memo? Or maybe they are just talking about forested public land and this kind of thinking doesn’t really apply to native grassland.

I have met some of the people who would have worked on this plan. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment has some terrific scientists, people who made a long investment in their education and graduated with high ideals. Some of them have done graduate work on the non-game species most endangered in this province, have studied the habitats we are losing, but now they spend their days counting white-tailed deer or moose and devising ten-year plans for “the responsible use and conservation of resources.”

Really? That’s it—“use of resources”? I thought Aldo Leopold put that ‘wise-use’ jargon to bed back in the 1940s. 

We can do better than this.

It is embarrassing to live in a province whose only long-range planning for the wildlife we share under treaty is limited to 15 huntable species. Here is a list of the fortunate few who get the lion’s share of attention from our Ministry of Environment:

White-tailed deer, Mule deer, Moose, Elk, Barren-ground and Woodland caribou, Black bear, Pronghorn and these birds: Sharp-tailed grouse, Ring-necked pheasant*, Spruce grouse, Gray partridge*, Ruffed grouse Willow and Rock ptarmigan (*European species).

The other prejudice revealed in this plan is for forest over wetlands and grasslands. In the text of the plan, the word “forest” appears seventeen times, but grassland appears only four times and wetlands three times. Why is that? Only half of the province is forest. What about the wildlife where most of us live—in the south?

To answer that you have to go back to the plan’s first principle: “Public lands, waters and wildlife are held by government in trust for the benefit of all people.”

Our forests are 95% Crown land and that means we have some capacity to manage them for public values such as wildlife protection. Under “Maintaining Habitat on Crown Land,” the document goes on to say “the majority of remnant natural lands such as forests and native grasslands in Saskatchewan are publicly owned and confer a range of benefits to people including wildlife and habitat, water quality protection, climate regulation and recreational values. Effective management and stewardship of this public natural capital is critical for the achievement of the GMP vision and other ministry objectives.”

That sounds so good. What about south of the forest? As the plan states under the heading “Consideration for Game Management,” 85 per cent of Saskatchewan lands “south of the forest fringe are privately owned or managed. As such, the success of wildlife management programs largely hinges on the support of Saskatchewan landowners.”

How is that working out? According to the text under “Maintaining Habitat on Privately-owned Land,” there are some voluntary programs mostly funded by private NGOs, a couple of landowner recognition awards—again, NGO driven—and oh yes, some policies and legislation “intended to protect wildlife habitat.”

Well, this side of those best intentions and all that hinges on the support of Saskatchewan landowners, any reasonable assessment of the prairie eco-zone would have to conclude that things have become unhinged.

We have a government that wants to protect wildlife by looking for the support of private landowners and private landowners who would like to protect wildlife but want the government to support them. Caught in the middle, more prairie species are added to the endangered list every year, and more privately-managed habitat disappears down the throat of industrialized agriculture.

The plan opens with these words:

“Saskatchewan’s many and varied wildlife are a public resource belonging to all Saskatchewan residents. The responsible use and conservation of these resources, on behalf of the public, is the responsibility of the Government of Saskatchewan.”

Yep. Except when we are offloading that responsibility to private landowners and hoping for the best.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Inspiration from the best of our ranchers

Ponteix rancher, Orin Balas (left) showing his excellently managed prairie to
Bob McLean from the Canadian Wildlife Service

The Province is saying it will dismantle Saskatchewan's provincial community pastures system. Not good news, but here is a four-step process on how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear:

1. First, for inspiration and food for thought, take a look at this short, ten minute video (below) put out by the South of the Divide ConservationAction Program (Sodcap). It is called "Prairie Pride" and features some of Southwest Saskatchewan’s best private managers of native rangeland, ranchers who graze large expanses of Crown grasslands on long-term private lease holdings—much of which would be included under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.

Listen to what they have to say. The video contains a hopeful, aspirational message that speaks to possibilities that could help us make that silk purse.

Now, keeping in mind the stewardship ethos expressed so well in the video by those three ranchers—good people I have had the privilege to meet—let yourself imagine a partnership between private interest (cattle producers), the wider public interest (government administered Crown grasslands of various kinds), and the local community interest of rural areas—a partnership that would aim to foster a mix of private and public benefits: economic, cultural, social, and ecological, including improved carbon sequestration and climate resiliency.

How? Take the gospel of stewardship and prairie protection we heard from the ranchers in the video and use public policy to help it spread across our prairie ecozone to all land managers—First Nations, farmers, mixed farmers and other ranchers.

Next, consider the moment and its rich possibilities:

a.) The last of the former PFRA federal community pastures, and the biggest ones with the highest ecological values in terms of biodiversity and species at risk density, are poised to be transferred to Saskatchewan and then placed into private management for cattle production by groups formed by the former grazing patrons.

b.) First Nations in the province are concerned about the sell-off of Crown lands and meanwhile are increasingly interested in land management opportunities.

c.) Organizations launched by ranchers, from Sodcap to Ranchers Stewardship Alliance to the Prairie Conservation Action Plan (PCAP) are concerned about the business risks that Species at Risk pose for private producers. This is a reality. If land managers see SAR as a liability, bad stuff happens.

d.) The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture just announced that it is planning to close its provincial community pastures program, but it is inviting the public to join in a discussion on what should happen to these fifty pieces of land containing 780,000 acres, some of which is native and some of which is tame grass.

4. Finally, take a look at maps that show the federal and provincial pastures, as well as the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act grasslands nearby—here is an example below.
click on the image to see a larger version: pale green pieces are PFRA pastures,
the baby blue in the middle is Arena Provincial Community pasture, and the
small violet squares are WHPA lands leased as private holdings. Most of the dark
brown area remaining is private land that has been cultivated.

Now, keeping the grazing needs of cattle producers in mind, consider that as of today all of that land is still Crown provincial land—most of it leased out or soon to be leased out privately—but as Crown land it remains an instrument of public policy. Interesting possibilities come to mind, but any seizing of this opportunity would have to arise from the cattle producers of the region, but then widen to include the interests of the public that would ultimately be helping to absorb the costs of any programming or support.

Each region has its own soil and climate and therefore may need its own solution—a solution initiated locally that would honour and take advantage of the two kinds of range management knowledge that have been keeping the best of our Crown grasslands in good condition for generations: one, the traditional, intergenerational knowledge of private managers, which reaches back through some Indigenous land managers into the distant past, and two, the science of the range ecologists and biologists who support and work closely with private cattle producers.

With a new vision of how public lands, private interest and the community can work together in grassland regions, and the right support from the conservation community and federal and provincial governments, those two sides of range management knowledge and science could ensure that the example of stewards like those shown in Prairie Pride will not only live on in one corner of the province but will begin to spread to other areas as well.

Who knows? One day the pipits, longspurs, shrikes and burrowing owls that have vanished from large portions of their range might return. Once a better private-public bargain is in place and producers are feeling supported and appreciated, the ethic of stewardship could even extend to grassland restoration, helping to connect some of our isolated expanses of native grassland with richer habitat suitable for cattle production as well.

In the bargain, Saskatchewan could be proud of its contribution to national protected areas and carbon sequestration targets by working with land managers to increase our percentage of the prairie ecozone under protection and our net storage of carbon in soils under well-managed perennial cover. 

Now that would be prairie pride times ten.
Govenlock area rancher Randy Stokke on a Sodcap field tour

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Keep your hands off our public lands

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Ok, the vandals in charge of the legislature have delivered another sucker punch to our natural prairie, announcing in the budget that they will be disposing of the 51 provincial community pastures, likely putting them up for sale.

Among our large provinces and territories (i.e. excluding the Maritimes), Saskatchewan already leads the nation in the ratio of private land to public. Across Canada, 11% of land is privately owned. In B.C. 7% of land is private. In Alta, 30%. Saskatchewan is at 40% but south of the boreal forest in this province the figure is 80% and rising. In fact, believe it or not, by 1980 24% of all privately held land in Canada was in Saskatchewan[i]—almost all of it in the Prairie Ecozone. And now we are adding more?

southern Saskatchewan has 24% of all private land in Canada

Canada keeps its forested ecosystems public (94% of forested lands are Crown owned) to ensure they are managed for a mix of private and public interests. What about our grasslands, which have very little protection and are much more endangered than our forests?

Once we privatize Crown land, easements or not, we severely weaken our ability to create and enforce the laws, regulations and policies required to meet any priorities for sustainable grassland management for the wider public interest: climate change mitigation and carbon management, species at risk, biodiversity, soil and water conservation, heritage conservation, access for education and recreation....and so on.

Our Crown lands—so scarce in the south—are the last shadows of the prairies we were entrusted to share and protect together under treaty, the closest thing we have to land held in common for the benefit of all treaty people.

If we stand by and let this government sell them off, we will be abandoning any possible renewal of the spirit in which the treaties were signed, and inviting a new form of colonization taking us even further from any legitimate social contract with the land and its first peoples.

There is no dressing up this kind of decision—when you strip the protection from large expanses of old growth prairie that were listed under the province’s Representative Areas Network (RAN) you are essentially saying that their protection does not matter.

Crown conservation easements on their own cannot protect the habitat and its many rare and threatened species. Saskatchewan Agriculture has neither the staff nor the desire to monitor and prosecute private producers who violate any of its existing regulations—are we to believe they will enforce easements on all of the public lands they are selling off?

Twenty-eight of the provincial pastures totaling 240,000 ha (593,000 acres) are listed as protected areas under RAN, which contributes to Canada’s national totals of protected areas it reports to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Until the Wall government got hold of our Crown lands, Saskatchewan had 2.4 M ha (5.9 M acres) of land in the Prairie Ecozone under RAN protection. You could call that 2.4 M ha a good start but this government is taking the scant RAN protection we had in the prairie ecozone and slashing it by thirds.

First the PFRA federal pastures lose their protection and conservation programming. That subtracts 720,000 ha from RAN. Then they sell another 720,000 ha of Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands that were also listed under RAN. Add the 230,000 ha portion of the provincial pastures that have been included in RAN and now instead of Saskatchewan protecting 2.4 M ha of the Prairie Ecozone, we are down to a mere 760,000 ha—which is about 3% of the ecozone’s 24 M hectares, and abysmally short of the Canada 2020 target of 17% protection for Canada’s ecozones.

Stay posted. This land is worth fighting for. On a stage in downtown Regina tonight, I heard Joel Plaskett and his father Bill sing a new song that ends with these words:

The next blue sky is ours. 
We're in this fight to win
and we will.

[i] Land Use in Saskatchewan. P.C. Rump and Kent Harper. Saskatchewan Environment. 1980. p. 56

Friday, March 3, 2017

Auctioning off the Farm: Satellite Views of Crown Land up for Auction

Saskatchewan's Provincial Bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, is
 declining and needs the grassy habitats Crown lands provide

Ok, so the Ministry of Agriculture is saying that the 80 parcels of land it is auctioning off this month have little or no ecological value.

Let’s check that out with a little help from Google Maps satellite view and the Province’s Agricultural Crown Land Map Viewer.

The first parcel I searched for on the Crown Land Map Viewer was NW 12-28-3 W3rd, in the Rural Municipality of Rosedale, south of Kenaston and west of Bladworth. As you can see in the screen capture below, the parcel of 160 acres is part of a larger block of Crown land (marked in pink) totaling 800 acres, and only one mile east of an even larger block of Crown land totaling 2,560 acres. 

Click on image to see a larger view

Together the two discontinuous pieces of Crown land make up more than 3,300 acres.

Ok, that is a lot of land but maybe it’s all cultivated land with no natural cover of any kind, no habitat or ecological value.

To figure that out, we have to go to Google’s satellite view and see what is there. Here it is, with red marking the Crown land and yellow indicating the Crown quarter up for auction.

Click on the image to get a bigger view. And then look at this view from higher up to see the surrounding area.

You don’t need a lot of experience reading satellite images to see that the Crown land appears to be grassland of some kind, and most of the surrounding privately-owned parcels have been cultivated to grow annual crops.

It has a small ephemeral stream running through it and appears to be under permanent cover—which means, whether it is native grass or partly tame grass, it sequesters more carbon, provides natural habitat for prairie creatures like the Sharp-tailed Grouse, protects biodiversity, and does a better job of conserving soil and water, and handling the extremes of drought and flood, than the surrounding private land under cultivation.

But there is one more way to see if it is native grassland or not.

The quarter up for sale (marked in yellow) is listed by the Province in its Crown Land Search feature online, which tells you what condition the land is in, using a category they call "Production State". Here is the results when I searched for this quarter near Kenaston up for auction:

Ok, it is native grassland, but as you can see in the satellite image the quarter not just an isolated fragment; it is attached to hundreds of acres of habitat and in close association with thousands.

I did some more digging and found that the remaining 640 acres (four quarters), which are also native grassland, are also for sale--not in this public auction but to the current lessee if they choose to buy.

What's more, there are no restrictions preventing sale or requiring conservation easements for the quarter section of native prairie up for auction nor the adjoining four quarters of Crown native grassland.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been telling us that no native grass is being sold without an easement. Are they lying or just wreckless?

Let's look at another parcel.

Here is a screen capture from the Crown Land Map Viewer showing a parcel up for auction in the RM of Eagle Creek, whose legal description is NW 30-37-12 W3rd.
Click on image for a bigger view

This parcel is not connected to the main larger chunk of Crown land to the south but only a half mile away. Now let’s go to the Google Satellite View to see whether the parcel for sale has natural cover and if the intervening private land makes a natural corridor or is broken land.
Click image for larger view

Whoa--this is native grass, and a lot of it. Ok, yes, there are a few acres of plowed land just south of the quarter up for auction, but the parcel itself appears to be native grassland and it is nearly surrounded by more of it. This Crown land is part of a large block of native prairie—some of which is private but some is likely Wildlife Habitat Protection Act land. 

We have less than 20 per cent of our native prairie remaining in this province. It is the most endangered ecosystem on the continent. Why would the parcel rate as low or moderate ecological value?

Doing some more clicking on the Crown Land Map Viewer, I launched the “Search Crown Land” feature in the green box pointing at the parcel, then went one more layer into the data to find a small table indicating that the parcel has “Heritage Value,” which may “restrict or limit the sale, use or development of the land.” Hmmm. Are there archeological sites on the land? There may well be.

The Ministry of Agriculture, let’s assume, has deemed that this parcel is of “moderate ecological value,” and therefore it will be one of the few that will have a conservation easement when it is sold, but I have no confidence in the capacity of an underfunded and understaffed government agency like Agriculture to monitor or enforce its easements all over the countryside.

These parcels were placed in the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act for a good reason. De-listing them now has nothing to do with ecological science and everything to do with political ideology and the short-term thinking that is forcing ministries to help balance the books by selling off assets and cutting the hours of staff.

A couple of years ago the Wall Government called in its few remaining scientists and made them rank the ecological value of WHPA lands. The biologists and ecologists did what they were told and devised a system called the Crown Ecological Assessment Tool. But they did not sign off on or approve the Province’s choice of where to draw the line that would determine what can be sold and what must be retained. That was entirely a political choice, like a university professor marking his students on a curve.

A certain percentage is required to fail and the line is drawn at an arbitrary place to make sure that happens. In this case, the Wall Government decided it wanted to hit a certain revenue target so they drew the line just above the place that would allow them to sell roughly 1.8 million acres. Arbitrary, political, and ideological—the placement of that line had nothing to do with the science of determining which land is worthy of protection under the Crown.

It is a strategy that sells well in the board rooms of industry and land developers because it removes government oversight and environmental regulations from a lot of land. 

It might even please farmers who have the financial support to buy the land, but it does nothing for the majority of farmers faced with escalating costs amid increasing pressure for them to steward ecological services that the rest of us benefit from.

What about the rest of us? Are we going to sit by and watch even more Aspen bluffs bulldozed, wetlands drained, and grass plowed under: the province’s rural landscapes sacrificed to produce high yield crops and country estates for people with out-of-province money?
The Common Pintail, no longer common, needs the kind of habitat our
Crown farm lands have always provided

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The opportunity at Govenlock Community Pasture

There is a large former PFRA pasture in the extreme southwest of the province called Govenlock, named for the nearest settlement (today a ghost town, but a rum-running hub during the Prohibition era), which was founded by William Govenlock who homesteaded in the area and then swung a land deal with the CPR in 1913 to found the town.

At approximately 200 km2, Govenlock serves as critical habitat for at least 13 federally-listed species at risk—including Swift Fox dens, sage flats for Greater Sage-grouse, and nesting sites for Burrowing Owls and Ferruginous Hawks.

Govenlock is an Important Bird Area, designated by Birdlife International—one of the only grassland IBAs in the province. But the pasture is also an important grazing area, and the grazing, when managed for a balance of cattle production and biodiversity, is a vital tool for keeping this arid and short-grass pasture healthy.

Unlike the other 61 PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan, though, the land that was made into Govenlock community pasture was always federal land and therefore it is not being transferred to Saskatchewan government. That difference has presented an opportunity that so far has not been taken up.

A couple of years ago, Environment Canada, conservation groups and the local grazing patrons began discussing the possibility of getting the federal government to retain some of the conservation management at Govenlock, to ensure that the land’s biodiversity and species at risk continue to be part of management priorities. For that to happen, responsibility for the land would have to be transferred from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). Nature groups started to talk about a new National Wildlife Area at Govenlock, or some designation to capture its multi-use nature as rangeland with both cattle-grazing and ecological significance.

In July 2015, the Harper Government announced that the land would be transferred to Environment Canada. Here is the media release posted by the local Conservative MP, David Anderson, at the time.

However, for some reason the process stalled out in the handoff from the Harper Conservative Government to the Trudeau Liberal Government. This week, I heard a rumour that the transfer never did happen and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) still does not have the land.

Meanwhile, in a phone conversation I had with one of the cattle producers who depend on Govenlock for grazing, I learned that, despite the foot-dragging at ECCC, they are still interested in working out some kind of arrangement with the ministry. However, they need long-term grazing agreements that give them some economic stability (no producer can live with one-year terms), and some assurance that the federal government will take care of any costs associated with managing for species at risk and biodiversity.

Ferruginous Hawk on Govenlock sage flats
If National Wildlife Areas are too restrictive and do not allow for long-term grazing agreements, then let’s move on and find a solution that will create a multi-use prairie conservation zone at Govenlock that meets ranchers’ needs for grazing and protects Canada’s 75-year investment in the ecological wellbeing of this important ecosystem and its species at risk.

The Liberal Government has made some strong promises to Canadians in its “Pathway to Canada Target 1” announcements, wherein they have said, “By 2020, at least 17% of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas, are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.”

In a news release just before Christmas, ECCC Minister Catherine McKenna said that, “by working together with Indigenous groups, non-profit organizations, the private sector, and other stakeholders, we can meet the 17 per cent biodiversity land target for Canada by 2020.”

That sounds very good, but what are they going to do for grassland in Canada? From the hayfields of Nova Scotia where bobolinks struggle to survive to the grassy slopes of the B.C. interior where some of the planet's northern-most long-billed Curlews nest, grasslands in Canada receive very little conservation programming or official protection, compared to alpine, arctic, and forested landscapes.

Govenlock is low-hanging fruit. It represents a relatively easy opportunity for Minister McKenna to do something to protect a 200 km2piece of ecologically rich grassland. It would be an excellent start.

Ranchers in the area are ready and willing to sit down and negotiate terms, and the conservation community from Nature Canada, to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, to the Canadian Wildlife Federation have all been calling on the government to take steps to help producers protect the former PFRA pastures. Why not use Govenlock to pilot a biodiversity and grazing plan that could help Canada and Saskatchewan to keep all of the former PFRA pastures on the protected areas map?

If not, it will become clear that neither Saskatchewan nor the federal government is doing anything to replace the conservation programming on the former PFRA lands and conservation groups will insist that Canada and Saskatchewan de-list all sixty-two pastures, totalling more than 7,000 km2.
Govenlock community pasture--image courtsey of Branimir Gjetvaj at

Friday, February 17, 2017

How is Saskatchewan doing on its protected area targets?

Sask is the worst of the larger provinces (chart from Environment Canada report)

Next week, environment ministers and parks and protected areas ministers from across Canada will be gathering in Alberta to meet with the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change, the Hon. Catherine McKenna. The plan is to talk about two topics: species at risk, and meeting protected areas targets.

Will Saskatchewan’s ministers be going? I phoned the offices of Saskatchewan’s Environment Minister, the Hon. Scott Moe, and our Minister of Parks, the Hon. Ken Cheveldayoff today to see if they are planning to attend. The woman who answered the phone in Mr. Cheveldayoff’s office said no, he will not be attending. When I called Scott Moe’s office I spoke to a woman in charge of his calendar and she said she cannot share the minister’s calendar details with the public, although yes he did receive an invitation. But, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he will be there representing the province in this important discussion.

Why are protected areas important? Well, believe it or not, nature is actually the stuff that makes life possible on the planet—the soil, air, water, climate and species that we depend upon. The earth is running out of landscapes where those ecological goods and services are being protected from the kinds of urban, agricultural, and industrial development that harm them. Protected areas are vital sources of ecological integrity and diversity that we will need more than ever under climate change scenarios of flood and drought.

Over the last twenty-some years Saskatchewan has joined with the rest of Canada in signing a series of national and international agreements on protected areas, beginning with 1992’s United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. That same year Saskatchewan signed on to the “Statement of Commitment to Complete Canada’s Networks of Protected Areas.” At that time, 12% was set as the target for protecting a percentage of each province’s total area. The intention was to protect that percentage of our forests, grasslands, and wetlands, to ensure representation of the full range of the province’s biodiversity.

Saskatchewan got to work and within five years unveiled its Representative Areas Network (RAN), devising a plan to reach the 12% target by the year 2000. While we were making steady progress in the early years of RAN, we stalled out at 8.7 per cent or 9.7 per cent depending on which report you read. Our grassland ecoregions in the south are stuck at well under 6%.

this graph from one of the more recent reports on protected areas
posted by Saskatchewan`s Environment Ministry shows
that we flat-lined in 2004

Meanwhile, the international targets on protection have moved. In 2010 Canada signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, raising the bar to a target of 17% by the year 2020.

So if you were Saskatchewan’s Minister of Environment heading to a meeting to discuss protected areas what would you report? What could you say about what your government has done in recent years and what it plans to do in the next few years?

Well, first you would point to a huge protected area we added to our Representative Areas Network in 2013—the Pink Lake Representative Area Ecological Reserve 160 kilometres north of La Ronge in the Churchill River Upland Ecoregion, the 3600 sq km reserve is our biggest protected area. That addition has the province now claiming that it protects 9.7% of its area—far below the target of 17% and still the worst in Canada excluding the maritimes and NWT.

But believe me it is hard to find any recent reports from Saskatchewan on protected areas progress. However, a friend just today sent me this map recently printed in Canadian Geographic (Walker, N. (2017). ["To preserve and protect: All of Canada's protected areas on one map." Canadian Geographic 137(1): 32-33.) celebrating all of Canada’s wonderful protected areas. ]

a snip from a map in Canadian Geographic article about protected areas in Canada

Yep, it is pretty up to date. There’s big ol’ Pink Lake, all fat and sassy up north so I am sure they got the data from the right source--the The CARTS (Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System) geodatabase, which is run by the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas.

But, hold on, down in the south there are all these little green dots that look very familiar (red circle in southwest corner on this map). Hey, what the heck!—Saskatchewan is still claiming the federal community pastures as protected areas!

That can’t be. Those pastures, all 1.8 million acres, are being leased out to cattle producers and run entirely for private profit from grazing. They have no support or programming for conservation, and the Province is trying to get the cattle producers to buy them! Manitoba decided to not sell their 20 pastures but even they have de-listed them as protected areas. Either the Sask. government is practicing make believe conservation here or playing fast and loose with the facts to make it look like we are making progress towards our protected areas goals.

Any way you slice it, Saskatchewan should have to remove 1.8 M acres from its protected areas tally. If we were honest and did delete them, this province would have to admit it is actually losing ground in its protected areas effort, and the grassland ecozone, already the least represented, would be looking very thin in any kind of protection—thank God for Grasslands National Park and the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s preserve at Old Man on His Back.

But let’s back up a minute—Saskatchewan doesn’t get all the blame for the loss of protection for the federal pastures. They were a federal responsibility for 75 years after all. Sure it was the Harper government that pulled the plug on the program, but the current administration can’t just shrug its shoulders and walk away from a process that is removing protection from millions of acres of the most endangered ecosystem on the planet.

It is not too late for Ottawa to do something good for the grasslands that Stephen Harper cut loose. This year will see the transfer of the last twenty or so community pastures. These are the big ones with the highest ecological value and the longest lists of species at risk. Most are in the southwest of the province. 

One trio—Govenlock, Nashyln, and Battle Creek—together make 812 square kms of grassland right along the Montana border—that’s bigger than Waterton Lakes National Park. There is a terrific opportunity here to grant official protection to the remaining pastures being transferred or at least to those three in the southwest. Failing that, the federal government has a responsibility to find its own way to ensure that the conservation legacy on the former federal pastures is not lost in the handoff from their agriculture ministry to the provinces to the private cattle producers who graze them.

But Saskatchewan has ample opportunity too with the transfer of the pastures to increase its protected areas quotient. It would not be hard—in fact, the Saskatchewan Party in its very first election platform promised us it would establish a new wilderness park. They have not delivered on that yet. We have two wilderness parks already in the north—Clearwater and Athabasca—why not make one in the south?

We could grassland wilderness park along Lake Diefenbaker from up river of sk landing to the bend south of Douglas plus parts of Beechy, Matador, and Monet. Gosh that would look good on a map, and make it a whole lot easier to attend ministerial meetings on protected areas.
much of that big streak of green along the South Sask River
could be included in a grasslands protected area or grassland
wilderness park

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