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

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