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


  1. In addition to your argument, there are thousands of archaeological sites, including Sites of a Special Nature on PFRA Pasture. How can we ensure those sites remain protected??

  2. Good point, Lisa. That side of protection has not even been mentioned. The First Nations interested in the pastures could make that part of their position on the pastures, couldn't they. What is a "Site of Special Nature"?


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