Friday, December 21, 2012

The Birds of Christmas--Craven Christmas Bird Count

a male Evening Grosbeak--rarely seen this far out onto the prairie

This post celebrates the birds of a prairie winter in a series of photos taken last Saturday, December 15th, in and around the Qu'Appelle Valley from Lumsden to Craven and beyond. It was my 20th year running the Craven Christmas Bird Count. There were 28 of us counting the birds from 8:30 am to 5 p.m. walking and driving in sectors of a fifteen mile diameter circle centred on Craven. The weather was perfect, calm, sunny and just a few degrees below zero. By the time noon rolled around and we took our customary lunch break gathering at the gracious Lumsden home of Phil and Louise Holloway, we knew we were headed toward a record number of species. Checking everyone's lists from their sectors, we already had at least 29 species and there was still the afternoon to count and a lot of roads to drive. In an average year we get between 23 and 28 species for the entire day, and the record, set in 2001, was 31.

Some birds that come south to winter on the plains only appear in numbers every few years in what naturalists refer to as an "irruption." The "winter finches"--both redpolls, both crossbills, pine siskins and pine and evening grosbeaks--are particularly irruptive and it can be hard to know ahead of time which year they will come. Bohemian waxwings also fluctuate a great deal from one year to the next. This seems to be a winter when all of these species decided to come to this part of the Great Plains for a spell. Just before noon, many of us gathered at the feeder of Curtis Pollock in Lumsden to watch several of these elegant winter birds in his yard. Curtis was off counting in his sector of the circle, but we were able to stand a few feet from his feeding station and snap photos of many of the irruptive species all in one place. Here is a series of images taken there:

took this shot of a bohemian waxwing at Barry Mitchke's acreage, but Curtis had many in his yard too.

this shot shows a male house finch in the middle, a female pine grosbeak in the background and an out of focus common redpoll in the foreground

A male red crossbill

caught this crossbill a moment after it let itself fall from a branch, and just before opening its wings

this male Pine Grosbeak was one of 41 of the species we recorded

though less colourful, female Pine Grosbeaks are every bit as graceful

this female Varied Thrush coming to a feeder in the valley near Craven was one of the rarest birds of the day, along with the single Evening Grosbeak (shown at top) and a Lapland Longspur
This fellow, a Great Horned Owl, was sunning himself later in the day

this was the last species my sector added to our list for the day--a group of five Ring-necked Pheasants crossing the snow to a favourite feeding area

and here they are feeding perhaps in a spot cleared by deer

When the day was done we had recorded 37 species, shooting past the old record by six! All those irruptive finches and waxwings choosing the same year to come this far south may have been the main reason for the high tally, but the number of skilled birders helping on the count is also making a difference.

A good friend now living in Weyburn, Carol Bjorklund, started the Craven count in 1991.That year there were eight people covering the fifteen mile wide circle. Five of those original counters have died in the last few years, including a tall, gentle birdwatcher named Milow Worel. He was always pleasant and enthusiastic, a sharp-eyed and welcome volunteer as he was at the Last Mountain Bird Observatory in spring and fall.

Every year there are new counters to replace the ones who get too old to be tromping around after birds in the snow. This year a woman named Fran Kerbs came in my vehicle. Tall and pleasant, sharp-eyed, and keen to take photos of the birds we were seeing. I asked Fran how she got started birdwatching. "I guess I was doing it all my life without knowing it. My dad was a bird watcher. Funny, I didn't really get serious about it until he died last year."

What was your dad's name, I asked, maybe I knew him. "Milow Worel," she replied.
Of course, I thought, I should have guessed that.

One of the many great blessings of this count was remembering Milow and seeing his enthusiasm so clearly living on in Fran.

A final Christmas gift from the prairie---this little guy was found by one of the other groups on our count (we also record mammal species--16 species this year). He was there scurrying over the snow back and forth at the edge of a field of stubble. Ray Poulin at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum identified it as a Prairie Shrew- Sorex haydeni.

Prairie Shrew, image courtesy of Kim Mann, another sharp-eyed volunteer on the 21st annual Craven Christmas Bird Count
The birds are lovely, but for sheer, bright intensity of life and audacious survival in the face of all the abuse we heap upon these plains, it is hard to beat a shrew foraging over snow in the dead of winter.

Christmas Blessings to one and all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Community pastures--why proper management matters for livestock and conservation

is this well-managed grassland? It can be hard to tell at a glance

In some kinds of natural landscape, the effects of mis-management are easy for even a layperson to see right away. You look at a large fifteen year old clear-cut of coastal rainforest on a mountain slope and you can see that there is poor regeneration, and mostly weeds, perhaps gullies from erosion. At the very least, you see the massive stumps and the slash left from cutting the trees down. It's immediately obvious that the habitat has changed significantly for the creatures that depended on the forest, and you know that prospects for recovery are minimal.

Grassland, on the other hand, is a landscape that does not readily show the results of poor management, at least not to the untrained eye. To most people, grass is grass. A pasture full of introduced grasses, brushy growth and invasive weeds like sweet clover and leafy spurge looks superficially not that much different than a pasture that has a healthy mix of native grasses and forbs and enough "carryover," or above ground biomass remaining after grazing. If the land is grazed hard and the cattle have exposed bare patches of soil here and there, a layperson may see the difference, but even then guesses about the quality of management can be wrong. Some legitimate grazing systems require the land to be grazed intensely for short periods, and then left to recover.

yes, it looks like a hammered down piece of grass, but it is supposed to be that way--it's one of the last Greater Sage-Grouse leks in Canada

The point is, managing grazing and native grassland is tricky at the best of times, but most sensible cattlemen have traditionally had no trouble handling it on their private, relatively small patches of rangeland. Their own long-term self-interest is often enough to guide them to make good decisions that end up also serving the land fairly well. But when the land in question is fifteen or twenty thousand acres and it is to be shared among a group of grazers who are together making their own management decisions about how many animals are left in which pasture for how long, that very self-interest is suddenly placed up against the self-interest of others and that can often lead to trouble for the wellbeing of the land. That trouble, of course, is the example used by Garret Hardin in his famous and sometimes misapplied theory, "The Tragedy of the Commons."

Hardin refers to a nineteenth century Oxford political economist, William Forster Lloyd, who observed that British grazing commons were often grazed much harder than adjacent lands owned by individuals.  

"At the point when the carrying capacity of the commons was fully reached, a herdsman might ask himself, “Should I add another animal to my herd?” Because the herdsman owned his animals, the gain of so doing would come solely to him. But the loss incurred by overloading the pasture would be “commonized” among all the herdsmen. Because the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss, a self-seeking herdsman would add another animal to his herd. And another. And reasoning in the same way, so would all the other herdsmen. Ultimately, the common property would be ruined."

This tragedy  of ruined common property, however, never occurred on the Federal PFRA grasslands. As we know, the PFRA system resulted in the opposite--ecologically rich and productive grasslands that proved to be a "triumph of the commons." Why? Because management decisions were always made by professional managers supported by ecologists and range management experts in a publicly accountable administration that had a mandate to care for the land and nothing to gain from overstocking. Management decisions were entirely disengaged from the personal gain of the patrons who had livestock on the pastures.

As any rancher can tell you, management matters a lot in grassland. Stocking rates, timing of grazing, handling invasive species, reducing brushy growth, fostering habitat for endangered species--these decisions are becoming more difficult than ever to make in a cattle industry where foreign-owned multi-nationals call most of the shots. If the PFRA pastures, Canada's best managed grasslands--so important in supporting local livestock production and in providing habitat to species at risk, and other ecological goods and services--are left to be managed by collections of "owner-operators" or lease-holder operators we will see triumph turn to tragedy in a matter of years. A drought, another scare with a disease like Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis,  predatory actions by the big meat processing companies and feedlots, or perhaps a dispute among the lessees--there are many possible pressures that could lead to ill-advised management decisions and overstocking. But, just as important, where will a committee of leasing-operators find the time, knowledge, or resources to properly manage for leafy spurge and other invasives, to protect vulnerable riparian zones, to monitor and minimize the ecological impacts of the oil and gas industry, or to ensure proper diversity of habitat to support a complex of eight or ten native plants and animals on their pasture that have often conflicting and specific requirements?

We all know they will not find those resources; nor should they have to. The ecological benefits coming from the 1.6 million acres in Saskatchewan's 62 PFRA pastures are part of Canada's public trust and it should be the responsibility of all Canadians, and not merely a handful of livestock producers, to see that those benefits are nurtured into the future.

courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ottawa cutting SARA off at the knees; Scientists speak out

Long-billed Curlews, one of Canada's Species at Risk may lose what little protection they have (image by Hamilton Greenwood)

One of the most worrisome parts of the 62 PFRA pastures being divested from Federal control and handed over to the province of Saskatchewan is the question of what will happen to the endangered species that have come to depend on these large tracts of well-managed grassland. At least 31 plants and animals listed under the Federal Species at Risk Act as endangered, threatened, or "special concern" need the habitat on the community pastures to be managed as it has been.

As a friend who knows intimately this relationship between the PFRA pastures and its rare prairie creatures said to me once, Species at Risk are on the pastures BECAUSE of what has been done in the last 70 years NOT IN SPITE OF IT. Management of this kind of land requires a lot of expertise if sustaining biodiversity and Species at Risk are part of the overall goals. We hear that farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of our grassland. They sometimes are. We all know of ranchers who keep an eye out for a burrowing owl on their pasture. Another one who protects Ferruginous Hawks and knows enough to leave the old homestead where the shrikes nest. That is all good. Keeping an eye out for one or two species is one thing, but some of these large PFRA pastures will have significant numbers of nest sites and locations for six or seven species at risk. Some of them are hard to see much less identify and their habitat requirements are still not fully understood by the biologists who study them for years. Managing grazing in ways that meet most of their needs--some need short grass and others need tall, others still need moist areas or shrubby habitat--takes us to a level of complexity that is almost impossible for a private landowner to manage.  

Burrowing Owl--one of 31 species at risk on our community pastures (image by Hamilton Greenwood)
This balanced system of caring for biodiversity while serving the local community and providing an economic opportunity for livestock producers took almost 80 yrs of trial and error, research, planning and investment to figure out. To say that this model of conservation and protection of Species at Risk can be matched by local committees of grazing patrons on 62 pastures, each with their own business plans and self-managing the land, is disingenuous at best.

Hundreds of people are signing petitions and sending letters to the Provincial Minister of Agriculture expressing their concerns on this topic. Recent responses from the Ministry are reassuring us once again that farmers and ranchers are the best stewards so there is nothing to worry about and Species at Risk will somehow be protected by the Federal Species at Risk Act, even though the land is no longer under Federal control. (See this post for a Species at Risk expert's response to that.)

Tonight I had an interesting phone call from a patron of the Wolverine Community Pasture near Lanigan. Wolverine is one of the first ten to be sold or leased. This patron told me that he heard that the local patron group is very concerned about the environment in their pasture if it is not managed properly. Yes, our livestock producers care. But they aren't stupid. They see the value of the PFRA system and they recognize, if they are honest, that without the kind of management oversight the PFRA always provided, the long term environmental health of the grass, the wildlife and the waterways on these pastures will be degraded.

Meanwhile, that very Species at Risk Act, in which we are to place our confidence, is being the Stephen Harper government. This article makes it clear that the the Act, which many say has been a failure because politicians have interfered with it and not implementing its provisions, is about to become even less effective.

And here is a news story  that says the province's will not be able to fill in to protect endangered species if the Federal Act is weakened.

Meanwhile, Canadian scientists are expressing their dismay at the Federal government's retrograde actions. Here is a letter  from Canada's scientists, which they are still gathering signatures for.

If you are a scientist or have a science degree and would like to join the campaign and sign the letter, please go to this site and fill in the necessary fields. Post or email this to your contacts if you want to help. 

Canada's endangered creatures, from the Polar Bear to the Orca to the Sprague's Pipits on our community pastures are worth standing up for.

freshly banded Sprague's Pipit, image courtesy of Stephen Davis

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A story from the origins of the PFRA

the legacy of misguided agricultural policy is all over Palliser's Triangle
I've been writing and talking to people for months now about protecting our community pastures and their legacy of balancing the needs of local livestock producers with ecological values. That fine balance is particularly at risk if any of the 62 federal pastures are sold to private interests, but even if they are leased it could well be upset. Without specific programming to reduce invasive species like leafy spurge and many others, and without a long term vision that uses cattle as a management tool to ensure ecological health, the land will degrade and species at risk will suffer.

But there is another story that I have not taken the time to tell. The community pastures were created in response to a public policy disaster that led to an ecological crisis: the dust bowl of the 1930s. By then, the Canadian and American governments had for fifty years been encouraging immigrants and easterners to move West to begin cultivating their piece of the plains, even in its driest regions with the poorest soils.  A lot of lying went on in the race to fill up the lands that Captain John Palliser in the 1850s had declared unsuitable for agriculture of any kind. Palliser's Triangle we call it still, but when the big dry hit in 1931 and the winds started to blow, thousands of settlers found that they had been duped into farming land in the Triangle that should never have been broken. Native grassland has a built in resiliency to help it withstand drought. The old-growth grasses hold onto the light soils no matter how dry it gets, no matter how the wind blows, as long as they are not grazed too hard.

When the Saskatchewan and Federal governments witnessed these new settlers suffering on land that they had been misled would be good for growing grain, saw them struggling for enough food to support their children never mind getting any to market, they came face to face with the consequences of their own ill-advised public policy. Like many Saskatchewan people, my family has its story from the Dirty Thirties. My father, now 81, remembers his father declaring that their farm on the edge of the Great Sand Hills, near Hazlett, was producing fewer potatoes than he had planted in the spring. Before the decade was out, they had packed up and moved north to take up subsistence living in the bush near Emma Lake.

The PFRA, or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, was founded in the teeth of this crisis. The Federal Government decided that it could help conserve some of the blowing soil and provide well managed grazing lands for local cattlemen, as well as water management by forming large pastures out of some of the land with the lightest soils. Many families had to be re-located to create the pastures. The government declared their lands unfit for farming and then moved them out. As necessary as that was, the resulting dislocation sometimes led to more suffering and disarray and the families were unfortunately not compensated adequately.

For good or ill, this is our history and we have a responsibility to honour the better parts of it by continuing to improve our public policy as it is applied to these fragile grasslands. The rich legacy of the PFRA is in its attempt to finally get it right, to try something else with the land, see what results and then adapt as necessary. Over 75 years that model has helped the pastures system evolve into this country's best example of ecologically sustainable agriculture. The very origins of that system should be a cautionary tale for us warning us to be careful what we do with the land that our forbears finally realized was best left to grow grass.

In times of climate change when our neighbours just south of us on the American plains have been suffering through drought, we should if anything be expanding the reach and vision of the public policy that has been guiding the PFRA from that crisis to today's superb management model. That alone should urge us to find a way to continue and improve on the PFRA tradition--whether it is a partnership of private and public with non-profits, or entirely under government control. And I have no doubt that a PFRA-like model could be made more efficient and run on a cost-recovery basis, and perhaps even turn a profit if revenue from carbon credits, grazing fees, and access for resource development were put into the equation. (We need an enlightened agricultural economics person to help make the case for such a model running the pastures as a group and with both grazing access and conservation in mind.)

pronghorn, by Hamilton Greenwood

I am going to leave this post with a moving testimony I received out of the blue one day in my email. It is from a woman named Georgiaday Hall. A member of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, Georgiaday lives in Winnipeg but her family's history is under the soil of the Swift Current-Webb PFRA pasture, west of Swift Current. I will let her tell the story in her own voice, which vibrates with feeling for the land and the injustice of her ancestors being urged to homestead in a place unfit for cultivation:

My history goes back to a community pasture in Saskatchewan so I am attached to it.  I am an advocate of wild life- plants and animals. I am concerned over what happens to PFRA pastures.  I feel my story might be of benefit to those who love nature.
My grandfather, a widower, came to Canada in the early 1900s with hope for a better future.  He  had his four young children sent to him in 1913.  He bought a Homestead north of Beverly and Webb Saskatchewan and planted his first crop in 1915.  This Homestead should never have been assigned to him because the land was unfit for farming.  Years later his Homestead and those of the neighbors were deemed unfit for farming and made part of the present community pasture.

The family went broke.  The children were hungry, shoeless, shabbily dressed and often cold.  There wasn't any help for this family. The police came and took my father and his brother.  They were separated and my father at age eleven was placed in the Children's Shelter in Regina.  (Embury House)

When my father turned twelve he was placed on farms to work as a cheap laborer.  The farmers were to make sure he got to go to school but he was kept at the farms to work.  He was to receive a small wage and he did not.  He ran away from four farmers in all.  Sometimes the police caught him and returned him to the farmer and he was severly punished.  His life was forever changed by not being allowed to attend school.

Today there are oil wells on my Grandfather's Homestead.

My father and his siblings were never compensated for the hardships and loss of family they were forced to endure.  Now I believe my voice should be heard.  I represent my father.

My father loved nature.

I believe this community pasture should be left as it is with the care of the PFRA or assigned to groups who believe in the preservation of land for wild flowers and wild animals.  I also believe a cairn should be placed in the above community pasture to honor the Homesteaders who were unknowingly assigned land unsuitable for farming.

However, if  the present government wishes to change this then I believe I should be given the former Homestead of my grandfather in compensation for the hardship and neglect my father's family experienced in the early 1900s.  I wish to preserve it for native plants and animals as a legacy in honor of the Homesteaders mentioned.


I have documents to prove all that I have written.  I appreciate all of the people who are trying to preserve land for the plants and animals we share this earth with.

Georgiaday Hall

yellow coneflower

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