Monday, March 29, 2010

Fire on the hills—two days of burning prairie

If there are ways to bind human desire to the longings within wildness, setting fire to grass is one of them. Yesterday and the day before, we burned several acres of grassland on our pasture at Cherry Lake, in the upper Indian Head Creek valley. The wind, snow and sun did most of the work, but we helped out with some fuel, a Bic lighter, two old brooms, and a small shovel. There were three of us: myself and Rob and Sylvie, one of the other two couples who share the land with us.

Rob and Sylvie tending the burn

Rob, an ecologist with a lot of experience working on prescribed burns, showed us how to do our first small burn last May, using the standard range of precautions: a fireguard around the site, which we made by burning between two lines of grass that we mowed and soaked down; waterpacks with lots of water in reserve, a light wind, a careful plan. Everything under control, it took us the full day of work and another day of planning and preparation to burn that ¼ acre rectangle.

fire running through a stand of wolf willow

Like most grass on the northern Great Plains, our pastures have not seen fire in a long time. Without the disturbance of fire now and then, woody growth takes over, changing grassland to shrubland unfit for many plants and creatures that will not tolerate shade or brushy growth of any kind. Under fire suppression and cattle grazing, native shrubs like wolf willow have begun to invade onto vast stretches of the mixed grass prairie and parkland, degrading the quality and biodiversity of native range. When we talk about burning our pasture, we focus on the wolf willow and smooth brome grass (an invasive non-native) that we would like to discourage.

At a recent community meeting where the three families got together to consider priorities for the coming summer season (Do we raise the water tank or install a pump? Bring in some topsoil or make do with what we have?), Rob said he had been thinking about this year’s plans to do some more burning and wondering if we might be better off firing the grass when the snow is still in the coulees and draws. That way we could let nature take care of the fireguard, because a grass fire at this time of year will stop when it hits snow. All we have to do is wait for a favourable wind during the period when the snow is gone from the hillsides but remains in the low areas. Some of us were heading to the land on the weekend and we would assess the burn opportunities then.

I left for the land on Saturday, planning to spend the day moving bluebird nest boxes. I see mountain bluebirds each spring but they never stay. A couple of my nest boxes raise tree swallows every summer, but most seem to become twig repositories for overzealous house wrens. Perhaps they are too close to treed areas. As well, a friend said that bluebirds like shorter grass than we have on our native prairie.
Within minutes of arriving I saw a group of 4 male and two female bluebirds. One of them was checking out a nest box along the mowed area in our yardsite. That seemed auspicious so I began to install another box next to mowed grass. Just as I finished installing the last screws, I saw smoke coming from the crest of the hill northwest of the yard. Above the flames, I could see Rob and Sylvie standing watch.

Rob at the first burn on Saturday

I ran up to the pasture and joined them. Rob decided the conditions were ideal so he got out his lighter and started up one hillside near last year’s burn. That afternoon we burned about two acres of grass, with remarkably little effort. The next day we got up, had breakfast, packed a lunch and headed up onto the pasture with new confidence that we could safely burn several more acres.

I learned more about the way fire behaves in those two days than I have in the rest of my life. One thing I never fully comprehended was how fire moves outward in all directions from the ignition point, expanding its periphery even against the wind until it meets something that won’t burn. Several factors affect the rate of the burn and its movement over the pasture, and of these wind is perhaps the most important of all. With a southwest wind of about ten or 12 kms per hour, the front of the fire zipped along rapidly right through the wolf willow and grass. The flanks of the burn, parallel to the direction of the wind, burned more slowly, creeping outward, and the rear of the fire, or “backburn,” moved slowest of all with small flames licking only a few inches from the ground.

a headfire

Rob explained that slow moving fires, with longer residency, heat up the cambium in woody vegetation better so the back burn is likely to be more effective in killing the wolf willow, but it was the headfire that was most spectacular. After we lit a chosen segment of pasture, we sometimes walked behind the front of the fire on the burned area’s smoking ground where the fire had passed moments before, looking downwind toward the galloping head of the fire. It was like walking on a broad black, arrow with two straight flanks and a point all lit by fire. Whenever the headfire came to an uphill slope it would run even faster, especially where there was better fuel, taller grasses such as little bluestem.

If there were gaps in the snow banks encircling an area we wanted to burn, we used a small shovel to toss more snow across any areas where the fire might try to escape. Sylvie and I were on broom duty, wetting the straw in snow banks and then sweeping out any rear or flanking fires that tried to get past our snowguards. At one point, we had three separate regions burning over several acres, some of them meeting at narrow bridges of grass. I know that sounds careless, but with snow surrounding us, there was little that could go awry.


The fire revealed things I had not seen on the pastures before: boulder fields that had been lost in tall grasses; a large harvester ant mound—the ants were not pleased, but their mound survived well and will soon be surrounded with green shoots of spring; and two burial mounds overlooking a coulee.

harvester ants on top of their mound after the fire went through--click to enlarge and see the ants

Once the last headfire petered out, and we were down to one slow-moving backfire moving downslope on a line about twenty or thirty feet wide, Rob and Sylvie left me alone to watch the last flames die. I put my jacket down on the ground and laid back to rest. I thought about the rush of green that will come in the next few weeks, trying to guess what other surprises the fire will reveal. The western red lily is said to like fire. We have had a few blossoms some years but not many. Will this burn make a difference? How will the prairie crocuses fare. They bloom by mid-April and do best when there is little other cover around. Will a fire in March help or hurt them?

me near the end of the second day of burning

And then I wondered about one fire-adapted beauty that has not been seen for more than a century in these parts. The small white lady’s slipper is a long-lost tallgrass species in this province, thanks to fire suppression. It’s not likely to show up just because we lit a fire, but I think a lot about this orchid because it was last seen more than a century ago somewhere near Indian Head, perhaps in the Qu’Appelle or in one of its tributaries. We have other tallgrass plants on the property and the kind of habitat and slopes where the small white lady slipper is said to grow in Manitoba.

The lady’s slipper takes thirteen years to come to maturity, and even then it would likely require soil mycorrhizal associations that this land may not have, but it never hurts to keep an eye out. Some of the deepest rewards of natural history come from faithfulness and watching out for the improbable and rare. The faith costs very little: in this case, an afternoon or two helping the wind to release energies that come from the inside of the sun. I can’t speak for our pastures, but, after a long winter, I feel restored and hopeful.

an antler revealed by the fire

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More on the PCES Conference: Good news amid the bad

photo of Dylan and Colleen Biggs from TK Ranch website

While the general tenor of the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Winnipeg was “things are bad and we’ve got to do better,” there were plenty of stories about people finding ways to “do better” by the prairie. There were the farmers and ranchers who are sustaining grassland habitat while growing food for the rest of us—people like Alberta’s Dylan and Colleen Biggs, who received an award at the banquet for their conservation efforts as ranchers (here they are receiving another award from Wildlife Habitat Canada.

Dylan and Colleen were among the first in Alberta to go back to offering grass-fed beef and have been strong advocates of environmentally responsible, grassland-sustaining livestock production. Applying Allan Savory’s Holistic Management principles, TK Ranch is a model that deserves our attention. Here is a page with some history of their interesting family.

moving the chicken pens on Sunrise Farm (photo from

Don Ruzicka of Sunrise Farm near Killam, Alberta, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Like the Biggs, Don and his wife Marie follow Holistic Management to provide organic animal products (poultry, beef, eggs, and pork) to a local market. Don is involved in his local watershed group and told a wonderful story about one of his management goals. When they started farming there were no meadowlarks on the land. Working with proper grazing practices for his particular land, it took eleven years, but the meadowlarks came back. “Demonstrating to consumers the importance of taking care of the land has become our priority.” He spoke of “romancing the consumer” and said that “biodiversity gives spirit to the land.”

The example of these producers is invaluable in seeding the land with successful and sustainable ways of growing food. What the rest of us need to do is support them and others like them by purchasing their produce. If there is hope for the prairie, it is in transforming the marketplace and consumer-producer relationship so that it rewards this kind of agriculture and discourages the extractive, short-sighted model that has been making the land unfit for meadowlarks and many other birds.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

St. Patrick's Day reading of GSS; and a reading at Guelph

photo by the gracious Kam Teo, Librarian at Weyburn Public Library

One of the great pleasures of publishing this book has been the response of readers coming out to public readings. In the past two weeks I have read at "The Bookshelf" in Guelph, Ontario, the musuem in Swift Current, and the Weyburn Public Library.

The image above shows last night's reading in Weyburn, where 50 people came out, thanks to Kam Teo's (Kam is the librarian) work promoting the event. I have been to dozens of places reading this book--more than the readings for my other two books combined, I would guess--but these two this week were especially fun. The event in Guelph was in a pub attached to the book shop. It made for a terrific environment (I don't often get to read in a pub with local beer!), and there were lots of friendly folks, naturalists and university people who came out. Earlier in the day, I had a chance to visit for the first time the gravestone of my great-great grandfather, James Herriot, who brought the clan to Canada in 1852, settling in the town of Galt, just south of Guelph. Thanks to my host, Andrew MacDougall, I was able to visit the cemetery, take pictures, and see some of the tallgrass prairie remnants on the Galt Moraine, where my ancestors would have had their first glimpses of the North American Prairie. It was a great moment and I feel very thankful for Andrew bringing me out to Guelph and showing me around.

The Weyburn event brought out several local farmers who know the birds and are doing what they can to hold onto habitat on the edges of their fields. The conversations I had with them and members of the local Weyburn Natural History Society were encouraging. People care and want to do something to help.

Here is another image from last night's reading, also taken by Kam:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference, Part 2

photo from NY Times website

The plenary speakers at the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference earlier this month in Winnipeg did a fine job of setting the tone for the conference and helping us to think about the larger questions. David Young, in his talk, “Is Progress the Enemy of Conservation? John Deere and the Meadowlark” expanded on that particular question by looking at the sweep of our history on the Canadian Plains. “Farmers, “ he said, “are the first engines of progress.” The prosperity that we all enjoy today comes from farmers applying the latest machinery to allow them to grow food at lower per-unit costs. The benefits of relatively cheap food produced in this industrial way drive progress, by freeing the rest of us from the labour it takes to feed ourselves, but it comes at the expense of the ecosystems where that food is being grown. Young reminded us that the same prosperity that causes the environmental problems we are studying and discussing at the conference also paid for our educations, jobs, expense account, and travel to such an event. He, and other speakers kept posing the honest question that falls out of such a discussion: are we willing to give up some of our prosperity to save and restore endangered species and spaces? David ended his talk by reminding us of the Ojibway and First Nations worldview that considers other creatures as equals, describing mammals for instance as “the people who walk on four legs.” He implied that nothing less than a shift to this worldview of mutual respect for the others we share this land with is going to get us to a place where we can look at the prairie and see its ecological and spiritual value. Only then will we see that the land’s services are the real “essential services,” more important than highways, bridges, and other infrastructures, and equal in importance to health and education.

Alberta's Brad Stelfox, photo courtesy of Foremtech

On the second morning, Dr. Brad Stelfox gave a brilliant and clear-headed account of the tradeoffs and bargains we make in our prairie land-use decisions. Stelfox is the mastermind behind something he calls ALCES (A Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator), which according to their website was “formed to facilitate an informed and balanced dialogue by stakeholders on both the merits and liabilities of landuse practices.” He said we suffer from “a silo understanding of land use,” with separate groups looking at separate effects and not the compounding effects or overall picture.

Like many other speakers throughout the conference workshops, Stelfox felt that scientists are doing a lousy job of communicating the story of what is happening to prairie ecosystems. The public doesn’t get it, in part, because scientists haven’t told the story well. He saved his harshest criticism, though, for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, calling it “a disgusting approach” to looking at how land should be used. I cheered inwardly when I heard him say that the problem with the EIA version of science is that the consultants hired to do the work are required merely to look “just over their shoulder” to yesterday to compare the effects of any development. This virtually guarantees that the data will show only a slight impact. Not afraid to call a spade a spade, Stelfox dismissed this approach as “bad science.” Biologists at the conference who have been pressed into participating in this kind of EIA work, for example to show the impact of energy facilities on grassland birds, told me they share these concerns about the process, but they do the work because if they don’t some other consultant may do an even shabbier job. It’s a Catch-22 where the only beneficiaries are industry and the owners of consulting firms that do this kind of EIA research.

Stelfox ended his powerful presentation by saying that he has looked at the long-term plans of every land use sector (energy industries, food industry, urban development, recreational land use, etc.) and, guess what? They all have big plans for growth. “Not everyone can do everything they want every time, but that is how we have been proceeding.” He challenged us to face the hard questions: how do we want to cut up the pie? What tradeoffs are acceptable? Are we willing to lose a few species to keep our way of life?

photo from NY Times

I will continue my reporting on the conference in the next post but here are some interesting news items from recent days that relate to grassland and grassland birds:

1. A New York Times piece on American efforts to keep Greater Sage Grouse off the endangered list.

2. A wonderful tribute to grass, published in the NY times.

3. An item on the CBC website about bison needing more land.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grassland Nightmares and Dreams: attending the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Winnipeg

Every three years, prairie conservationists and researchers from across Canada’s prairie provinces gather for a three day conference. Last week the conference took over the Winnipeg Convention Centre and I was there as a board member of Nature Saskatchewan. I will attempt to capture some of that experience in the next few posts in this space.

Hearing grassland scientists give the latest updates on the state of our native prairie is always sobering, but this time the figures appearing on presenters’ PowerPoint charts were worse than ever. In his plenary remarks, Canadian Wildlife Service veteran, Geoff Holroyd said that while we have done a good job of making plans, we have done a poor job of implementing them. Looking back to the first of these conferences held in the late 1980s, Holroyd said there were 18 vertebrate species on the official Species at Risk list. Today there are 35. “Are we monitoring progress or demise?” he asked.

Manitoba Grassland bird specialist, Nicola Koper—who seems to be busy enough for three research biologists—depicted our grasslands as the Canadian landscape with the most habitat conversion and the least habitat protection. Her Saskatchewan colleague, Stephen Davis of the Canadian Wildlife Service, stood before a packed room of conservationists and researchers and said that “the decline of grassland birds should be considered a conservation crisis.” Among the worst news of the weekend appeared on Stephen’s new maps, which showed that we actually have much less native grass than we think we have.

Things went on from there for two days straight. By the end of it, we dragged ourselves home feeling about as defeated as any defender of wild places can feel. There is no doubt about it: we are losing the battle to hold on to our grassland and the creatures who depend on it.

Back in Regina, I spent two days feeling numb and helpless, until I woke from a restless night on Tuesday morning, with a dream fresh in my thoughts. I can’t describe it other than to say it was about being with horses on a large piece of prairie and it left me feeling elated and alive with a sense that there is still much that we can do; that as tempting as it is to give up, there are some possibilities I want to explore and many good people who will help.

Some of those possibilities are stirring in me now from experiences with people and thoughts that arose during the conference in Winnipeg. I will try to account for some of them here in another posting.

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