Monday, August 13, 2012

North American Prairie Conference, 2012

I have been away from computers for a good spell, hence the lack of posts here, but now that I am back I thought I would use this space to record a few random notes and questions that bubbled up for me last week when I attended the 23rd North American Prairie Conference (Here is a bit about the conference that appeared in the online version of a magazine called Woodlands and Prairies.)

I was invited to come speak at the conference and decided to use the platform to get people thinking about the loss of our federal pastures (see previous posts here).

I've said it before here, but meeting all of the passionate American tallgrass prairie volunteers at this conference (in its 23 years it has only been held in Canada twice) only convinced me all the more: people who work in tallgrass advocacy and restoration, having lost 99.9% of their type of grassland, are way ahead of the rest of grassland advocates. Can we skip the part where we lose the remaining 14% of our Saskatchewan prairie and just go directly to the enthusiasm and advocacy? Hmmm?

Candace Savage's new book, Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape,  should be read by every prairie person, because most of our cultural and ecological problems begin with the originating act of sacrificing our indigenous grassland human cultures and natural communities. It is just out and I was happy to get a copy at the conference, and have Candace, one of the keynote speakers, sign it for me. Still reading it, but I can tell you that it is a compelling narrative. This book delivers on its title and a whole lot more. It is a narrative of Candace's experience in digging into the truth of all that was destroyed by removing the first peoples and handing the prairie (the Cypress Hills in particular) over to private settlement. Should go on the shelf next to Stegner's Wolf Willow, Don Gayton's Wheatgrass Mechanism, and Sharon Butala's Perfection of Morning, which also illuminate the human and natural history of the Hills, our "last plains frontier". Candace's story, though, may be the best at revealing the disturbing details of just how the Hills were cleared to make room for settlement. As always with her books, this one is well-crafted, thoughtful, and full of the kind of assiduous research that brings new information to the reader.

Lots of tremendous research presented at the conference, as there always is at these events. Just wondering, though: when will we know enough about the habitat requirements of prairie organisms and natural communities to allow us to at least take a step or two forward in declaring what should be saved and what kind of grassland we might encourage or restore without creating sink habitats that are worse than doing nothing at all? And how we balance it across a large region of landscape so we can serve the needs of a full mix of species in crisis? Do we know enough yet to at least get started? When are our scientists going to begin telling the public and policy-makers what needs to be done to help these dwindling populations and ecologies?

A University biologist from Winona is my new favourite defender of prairie. His name is Bruno Borsari and his Italian accent and enthusiasm makes him about the most disarming, upbeat and heartening advocate for prairie you will ever meet. He spoke after me, not as a biologist, but as a man with a lot of heart who believes that art and imagination are vital in our efforts to bring back the prairie. We need a Bruno in every university across the Great Plains.

Believe it or not, there is a tallgrass prairie restoration project in Louisiana. The Cajun Prairie Restoration Society is going strong. No Saskatchewan Prairie Restoration Society, but there is one in Louisiana.


  1. Wow, Trevor, great to hear about Bruno. Just last week as I was staring at perhaps my 400th quadrat this season, estimating percent cover of grassland species so that the oil company can have their data to demonstrate their "due diligence" and get their approval to proceed with destroying some more prairie, it occurred to me that instead of all this technical activity which is only so much smoke-screen, we need something like "artistic management." Something that is much more of a craft, a true knowing of the place and how we can relate to it without harm.
    Please update on what you know about the current plans for the pastures. I have an artistic project in mind and will be in touch.

  2. Laura--I have met others who are coming to the same conclusions about science and art. I am hearing rumours about what may or may not happen to the pastures but until these firm up a bit I reluctanct to post any details here. Suffice it to say that many groups from the conservation community and other sectors are working on the issue in the background. I am feeling a lot more hopeful today than I was a month ago. Thanks for posting.


Share this post

Get widget