Saturday, June 29, 2013

A week of listening to birds and cattlemen

pasture patron Brent Cammer showing a map of the Swift Current-Webb PFRA pasture to Margaret Atwood on Thursday (image from Craig Baird of the Gull Lake Advance)
I am still processing the time we spent this week touring PFRA pastures and other publicly owned grasslands with Margaret Atwood, author and naturalist Graeme Gibson, Ian Davidson (Nature Canada's Executive Director) and Alberto Yanosky (Executive Director of Paraguay's BirdLife affiliate, Guyra Paraguay).

So what was this tour about? It was a week of listening to birds and cattlemen, of travelling through stunning prairie landscapes, and learning about how cattle are part of the ecological wellbeing of our publicly owned grasslands, including Grasslands National Park and the federal PFRA pasture system that I write about here so often in this space.

But it was also a week of stories. We had some great story tellers and story listeners on the tour with us. I caught myself more than once looking over at Margaret and Graeme to see how they were responding to the things we heard from pasture patrons and pasture managers.

Whether it was Wes Olson talking about bison in the National Park, or a rancher talking about driving cattle to the PFRA pasture with his father when he was a boy, our four guests listened intently. I could see they were taking it all in with great empathy and awareness, incorporating it into their understanding of how habitat protection and bird conservation happens from the ground up, with local people who live on the landscape leading the way. One of the reasons Margaret and Graeme like BirdLife International is that its programs for protecting birds and their wild places start with at the grassroots, where people live and work with nature in their communities.

All week we heard stories about birds, cattle, ranchers, buffalo, about the struggle to hold onto community and to make a living in grassland grazing cattle. From Don Gillespie, one of the West Block’s living legends, we heard stories about how ranch families still get together in the local community to brand their cattle,moving from ranch to ranch through the spring and early summer.

listening to Don Gillespie as we view some of the new pastures recently added to Grasslands National Park (Don is in the middle in all denim. To the right of Don is GNP Superintendent, Katherine Patterson, wearing scarf.)

We watched burrowing owls perch on signs and rocks inside and outside the boundaries of the national park--at least three pairs.

We found out that Long-billed Curlews love to forage on prairie dog towns.

We learned that while Val Marie has no gas station any more, it does have some great spots for people to rest up and refuel—places like the Crossing, The Convent, and The Harvest Moon restaurant.
Pasture patron Clint Chritianson speaking to us on the Val Marie PFRA pastures (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)

We learned that big men in cowboy hats have soft hearts and a lot of love for the pastures they graze.One of my favourite moments was when Clint Christianson, a patron of Lone Tree and Val Marie PFRA pastures, leaned out of his truck and said with obvious pride, “it's native grass all the way from here to Val Marie!” We were about 50 kilometres from town at the time and we drove through the lush and bird-filled Val Marie pasture all the way.

And Don Gillespie, with the same look in his eye, pointing to the north and boasting that from the divide just beyond the horizon all the way south to Montana and east to Poverty Ridge, it’s native grass. These ranchers know that the grass in these big pastures is unique in Canada and worth every effort to keep it intact.

We learned too that while GNP has 10,000 tipi rings, it has fewer than 7500 visitors a year. Those who come though, almost always come back—for the silence, the darkness, the birds and flowers, and for the stories. 

We heard stories abt how cattle as well as bison are grazing in different parts of the Park—thanks to the hard work of the Park Superintendant, Katherine Patterson, who has expanded on the work of her predecessors and is creating a new era of good relations between the park and the surrounding ranch families.

Many of the most compelling stories came from Wes Olson, retired bison steward for Parks Canada who still lives in Val Marie. Wes is a living library of knowledge abt the bison and their role in prairie ecosystems—the niches they create, setting the table for so many other creatures, by making wallows, by grazing, shedding their fur, trampling the soil, leaving their patties, and then dying on the land.

But we also heard that because of budget cuts, Parks Canada no longer has anyone in the area to look after the bison and no way to retain and carry forward Wes’s wisdom and skill.

From several pasture patrons who keep animals on the PFRA pastures, we learned that most of them feel like the government of Saskatchewan is not really listening to them; that the terms they are being offered are not reasonable, that it will not leave enough money on the table to let them afford proper grazing management and the kind of lower stocking rates that would sustain the native grasslands properly.

Again and again we heard this story; again and again we heard that they feel rushed and need more time.

And that is why at the news conference yesterday Public Pastures-Public Interest called for a one year delay on the transfer of the first ten pastures.

"The government is not listening. . . ." Margaret in a media scrum at our news conference on Friday (image courtesy of Metro News)

Above all, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson and the other guests showed us that listening to one another is important, and we still have a lot more listening to do before we get this right.

I could say more about what we learned on the tour, but no matter what happens from here on, I know that having Margaret, Graeme, Ian and Alberto on the tour and meeting the people we met, hearing their stories, will in the long run help us make those connections between ranchers and conservationists that are so critical as we look for ways to continue managing these last great grassland ecosystems for the good of our small to mid-sized cattle producers, for the good of our rural communities, and for all of the wider public goods they provide to the rest of us.

Margaret and Graeme sharing a moment at Swift Current-Webb pasture (image courtesy of Craig Baird of the Gull Lake Advance)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Margaret Atwood on the Saskatchewan Community Pastures

This morning on CBC Radio Saskatchewan, Sheila Coles talked with Margaret Atwood (listen here) about the PFRA pastures she will be coming to visit next week along with other BirdLife International representatives on a fact-finding tour. By the end of the ten minute interview she is talking about how we all need to find manageable environmental causes to which we can lend our energies and time. Otherwise, we can feel quite helpless in the face of government failure and the many complex and compounding ecological problems besetting the world.

There are still a few tickets left for the banquet where Margaret, her partner Graeme and the other BirdLife guests will be honoured. Details here on the Facebook page for the event.

This young Loggerhead Shrike is one of many species who depend on the well-managed grasslands of our publicly-owned community pastures. We hope to see some on the tour June 24-27.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Western Producer piece on protecting the value of the federal pastures

The closest thing I could find to grassland in Tuscany--that is Karen in the pink hat. Skylarks were singing overhead!
[Back from a three week vacation--hence the gap in posts here on Grass Notes. My wife Karen and I celebrated our 25th anniversary (four years late) by travelling to Italy, Corsica, France and the Netherlands with a couple we have known for all of those years.]

So why is it that many of the PFRA pasture patrons are uncertain about the lease and ownership deals being offered to them by the Province of Saskatchewan? A big part of it is economics but many producers, particularly from the Southwest where the culture of stewardship is strong, are expressing concern that if there is not any funding support for proper ecosystem based management, the leasing patron groups will likely end up having to default to poorer management systems instead of the planned rest-rotation cycles that have kept most of the federal community pastures in top condition for both cattle and biodiversity.

Some of these concerns are expressed in an article published this week in the Western Producer. Written by Public Pastures--Public Interest members Josef Schmutz and Katherine Arbuthnott, it looks at some of the wider economic issues that are being carefully ignored in many quarters. Katherine is a professor and assistant dean at the University of Regina’s Campion College, with research in conservation psychology. Joe is an adjunct professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustain-ability, with research in grassland ecology.

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