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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