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.

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