Friday, February 25, 2011

"Saving our Shared Birds": a Report from Partners in Flight

Upland Sandpiper breeding in Strawberry Lake Community Pasture, Saskatchewan. T Herriot

A couple of weeks ago, Partners in Flight released a new report called "Saving Our Shared Birds" presenting for the first time "a comprehensive conservation assessment of landbirds in Canada, Mexico, and the continental United States".

Grassland birds in temperate habitats once again proved to be the species in steepest decline:
Grassland birds in this habitat have suffered among the steepest declines of any North American landbirds. These include many familiar birds of rural landscapes including Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark,Bobolink, Lark Bunting, and Horned Lark.Incentives for bird-friendly agricultural practices and protection of native prairie are essential for reversing declines of grassland birds.

How bad is the decline? Looking at the grassland bird species that breed and or winter in the three nations, the report says that
Loss and degradation of both breeding and wintering habitat has led to an overall decline of 45% for 33 grassland species, a combined loss of 500 million birds over the past 40 years.

The report does not mince words about what is behind the decline. The data shows clearly that agriculture is the number one cause of habitat loss and degradation. Habitat loss is worst in the Chihuahuan grasslands of Mexico, but grasslands in Canada and the United States are also being lost to agriculture. Another quote:
Today, the expansion of agriculture continues to be the major driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture affects every type of habitat and impacts 76% of the landbird species of highest conservation concern; 65% are threatened by unsustainable livestock grazing. Preventing the conversion of large areas of habitat, whether grassland, forest, or aridlands, in the core distribution of species of concern will be necessary to stem the rapid decline of many landbirds. Policies and management practices are tools that can support the needs of high-priority birds on vast public lands in Canada and the United States. . . . In order to protect shrinking native Canadian grasslands, we need changes in policy and and extensive education to promote expansive native prairie and minimize degradation due to energy development, urbanization, or conversion to intensive agriculture.

Horned Lark in stubble near Dry Lake, Saskatchewan. T Herriot

Take a moment to read the report and then think of the moments you have shared with birds in the last year. As the people who live in the agricultural heart of the continent, we on the Great Plains have a particular responsibility to ring the alarm and help others to see what is happening to the common birds we have always assumed would be here to enliven the prairie.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stelmach vs. the Prairie: Round Two

"Ok, so we couldn't get away with selling a big piece of prairie directly to the potato industry, but there are other ways to get that wasteland to turn a profit. . . ." Not an actual quote from Alberta's Premier Stelmach, but this week I can't help wonder if things like that do get said in the backrooms of his legislature.

Monday I had a call from a consultant biologist in Alberta (he wishes to remain anonymous),telling me of a new scheme for destroying the native grassland that belongs to the people of Alberta. In his mind it is "The Great Alberta Land Giveaway."

"They are selling 84,000 acres of mostly prairie land to counties and municipal districts for a dollar a quarter section. If we don't stop this, it will virtually eliminate the western extent of the mixed-grass prairie in Alberta. Most of this land is contained in the MD of Taber and County of Vulcan and most is native prairie or land that has reverted back to some semblance of prairie, and a lot of it is contiguous with existing blocks large blocks of regular public land that is native prairie. This is all being done for $1/parcel. A parcel is generally a quarter section (160 acres or more).

The acreage here is immense. Almost 100 square miles of land is being given to the MD of Taber alone; 30 square miles in the county of Vulcan. Lets compare that to Potatogate, which was 25 square miles of land. The land that is being given away in these two counties alone is slightly less than the size of the Suffield National Wildlife Area."

Ok, that sounds pretty bad. The fear, of course, is that once this land is sold it will be converted into pivot irrigation cropland like much of southern Alberta.

Here is the original government press release announcing the fire sale on prairie.

As with Potatogate, the Alberta conservation community is getting into swing to stop the sale. Here is what Cliff Wallis of the Alberta Wilderness Association said in their press release:

The large areas up for transfer in the Counties of Vulcan and Taber raise big red caution flags since provincially and nationally environmentally significant lands occur there,” says Cliff Wallis, AWA president. “Yet there is no commitment to protect these areas: just a vague suggestion to ‘retain’ environmentally significant land near rivers, water bodies and coulees. Once again important native grasslands are being short‐changed.

The Edmonton Journal printed a piece on the story called "Fleecing the flock -- the great public land giveaway"

If you want the longer background story of all of this, check out AWA's article on it back in 2007, written by Joyce Hildebrand.

Those acres that Stelmach is looking to launder through the books of rural counties are some of the last stretches of native grass in the region. To sneak them onto the auction block in this way is yet another sign that a government that can turn a blind eye to the evils of the tar sands is not likely to see what it is doing to its treasure of grasslands.

Several waterfowl habitat projects run by Ducks Unlimited and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan are located in the land up for sale: Medicine Wheel, Circle E, Vauxhaul and Cameron. Countless grassland birds, already in decline, would be affected if the land is broken by its new owners.

Good people of Alberta--open your eyes and see what your government is doing to Wild Rose country on your behalf.

Write a letter or email to your Premier and to his Minister of Sustainable Resource Development. Here are the addresses:

The Hon. Ed Stelmach
Premier of Alberta
Room 307, Legislature Building
10800 – 97th Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5K 2B6

Honourable Mel Knight
Minister of Sustainable Resource Development
Alberta Legislature Building
10800 – 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2B6
Phone: 780 415-4815

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Prairie Restoration--catching what we can

plains rough fescue at Cherry Lake, T. Herriot

I get envious when I hear of grassland restoration efforts in other states and provinces, because here in Saskatchewan there seems to be very little restoration happening. I'd be happy to be convinced otherwise, but I think it is fair to say that the work of restoring grassland in this province is down to a couple of plots at the University of Regina, some work DU and NCC have done, and the re-seeding efforts that Nature Saskatchewan has overseen in small plots next to burrowing owl nest sites (using cultivars that are not true natives to the area, however).

I recently asked Chet Neufeld, director of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, if he knew of other restoration activity in the province and that brought a couple more to attention. Chet said that they had worked with the Saskatchewan Department of Highways on two or three projects, and he believes there are places here and there related to oil and gas activity, but other than that, not much.

So there is some restoration activity but apparently not enough to support a local native seed producer in the province. Most prairie states and provinces have a small industry producing local seed. For restoration the nearer the seed is grown to the restoration site the better. Recently, I received an email from Carl Kurtz, a native seed grower in Iowa who sometimes reads this blog. In Iowa, he said, there has been "increased funding for conservation programs such as buffer strips and wetland restorations" and these programs have helped his seed-growing business, which he says is small, currently producing between three and five thousand pounds of seed per year. He said that they raise seed in a polyculture, rather than in monoculture rows. This approach cuts the cost of seeding down to 250 to 300 dollars per acre and suits his market well.

(Carl's book, A Practical Guide to Prairie Reconstruction, is worth reading if anyone out there wants to look into the subject. Here it is on Amazon.)

Until we get some legislation making highways and the oil and gas industry use true native seed (and not the weird cultivars often used in its place), or perhaps some incentives and conservation programs that make it affordable to use true native seed in wildlife buffers and other restoration projects, it is going to be difficult to convince anyone to risk making the investment to become a native seed grower in this province.

prairie crocus (anenome) at Cherry Lake, T. Herriot

If anyone doubts the value of grassland restoration, take a look at this blog posting from The Prairie Ecologist, where ecologist Chris Helzer, who works for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, explains how restoration, done right, can improve a prairie conservation initiative.

Chris writes well and comes up with some effective images to make his points. In this post on restoration as a landscape-scale conservation tool, he says that trying to conserve prairie ecology with small remnants is like catching popping popcorn in a coffee cup.

Even in places like Saskatchewan where we have a lot more acres of native grass in larger remnants, Chris's message about restoration is worth considering. Instead of hoping our fragmented grasslands will do the job--and clearly they are not--we need to establish larger pieces of contiguous prairie and that means restoration, but not just any restoration. We are going to need high-quality (i.e. local seed), high-diversity restoration, designed and placed strategically to buffer and connect the most important fragments in ways that will build resilience into the ecosystems thereby conserving maximum biodiversity and species at risk.

But the first step is to get Environment Canada and Saskatchewan Environment to recognize the validity of grassland restoration as a vital element of prairie conservation.

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