Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hon. Lyle Stewart responds to concerns about native prairie being destroyed

Chestnut-collared longspur, a species that continues to decline, even faster than the rate of native grassland being converted to crops

Today on CBC Blue Sky, the Hon. Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan's Agriculture Minister, responded to concerns about native grassland and aspen bush being destroyed in the province. You can hear his remarks here on the Blue Sky web page.

I believe that Mr. Stewart is an honest man who genuinely wants to do what is best, but I can't help thinking he is just not getting good counsel on the ecological value of our native prairie and the forces that can degrade it or destroy it despite our best intentions.

In the interview, Mr. Stewart unfortunately repeats two common myths about Saskatchewan's native prairie that are very easy to disprove:

1. that plowing native grass is something from our distant past and very little native grassland has been converted to cropland in recent years, and

2. that all the native grass that remains is simply not suitable for cropping so there is nothing to worry about. 

In the interview he says that all the breaking of native grass occurred before 1930, "with a few exceptions. . . guys trimming around edges and squaring off corners and so on. . . . It is not happening in any substantive quantity anymore."

That is simply not true. I suppose the good folks who work at the Department of Agriculture might actually believe that there are just a few corners being squared off. Minister Stewart, however, inadvertently puts his finger on the problem when the interviewer, Garth Materie, asks him about a recent incident where someone who owns a piece of former Crown land has started plowing some of its native grass. "Before this story came along," Minister Stewart admits, "we just didn't hear about it at all." That might be the problem--they are not hearing about it so as far as they are concerned it isn't happening.

Well, I'd suggest the folks in his department need to get out of the office a little more and out into the real world.  Or if they can't do that, all they need to do is ask our government biologists and ecologists who study native grassland. Even better, ask people who live in the grassland regions of the province. They will tell you. There are new and old landowners deciding to plow up their native pastures and it is a lot more than "trimming around edges". In addition to last week's story of the small piece of native prairie being destroyed near Govenlock, I have had people contact me to say that they know of many other recent examples. One concerned landowner near Leader said "it is happening all around us. Lots of acres sprayed, plowed and planted. Some just sprayed dead, and in various stages de-construction. Some are large corporate farms, a few smaller farmers." This is not necessarily former Crown land but it is native grassland being destroyed to plant annual cash crops and it is happening today. That is why all Crown grassland needs a conservation easement if it is to be sold.

As for the notion that our remaining native grass is simply not suitable for cropping and therefore in little danger of being plowed, a report by the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, based on Provincial Government research, says the following:

"Over 24% of native grassland is still at medium or high risk of being broken (Soil classes I to 3). With advances in crop development, crop varieties that can grow under drier conditions and on infertile soil may soon become available. While these advancements may be very beneficial to producers, it may also increase the threat of further cultivation of native prairie on poor agricultural land."
[Also, please see the very informative comment below by Branimir, where he says that "40.42% of remaining grasslands in Cypress Upland & Mixed Grassland zones are susceptible to land-cover conversion given suitable market and subsidy conditions."]

Later in the interview, Garth Materie asks the Minister about aspen bush being destroyed to make room for crops. Here is the reply:

"In the driving and traveling I have done around the province, I haven't seen very many instances of bush being pushed in east-central Saskatchewan. I'm sure it happens in little corners that are being squared up and tidied up, as far as it being a major issue it's just not." 

Really? Not a major issue? There are people out there who make a living by bulldozing bush. It is rampant in some parts of the Aspen Parkland ecoregion, where the native grassland remnants are already down to a mere 13%, and the poplar bush remnants and sloughs will soon be just as rare. "Pushing bush" would not be a common phrase every rural person knows if it were not a common practice. Anyone who lives in the Aspen Parkland can tell you that people are pushing bush and filling sloughs every year more and more. Can anyone provide figures to prove it? No, because the Province is not monitoring this activity and has cut back staff and travel allowances necessary for such environmental monitoring.

aspen bush bulldozed in east-central Sask.

At one point, Minister Stewart defends the property owner's right to destroy native grassland:

"The right to make business decisions is part of the deal of owning property in our society and I don't think we should be prescribing exactly how a farmer or a rancher should operate on his grassland any more than we should be telling you what colour you should paint your house, which is built on former grassland. We have certain rights as individuals as a society, and unless or until individuals are abusing the environment, I think that we should let them exercise the rights." 

That pretty well gets to the core of the issue here. Minister Stewart, who apparently does not recognize plowing native prairie as "abuse," knows exactly how the world works: private property rights trump the public trust. Someone who owns a piece of ancient rainforest or ancient prairie is fully entitled to destroy it. And that is exactly why it is vital that we keep our biggest pieces of native grass entirely under public ownership as Crown land. If any is sold it is incumbent upon our public representatives to ensure that there is a conservation easement on the land to protect it in perpetuity--and to provide sufficient monitoring and enforcement staffing to ensure that the easements are respected to the letter of the law.

Toward the end, Mr. Stewart says something that has to make you wonder if his advisors even know the facts: "We have 6 million acres in grassland roughly in Agriculture and Environment has many times more than that." I don't have the exact figures but there is only about 12.7 million acres of native grass left in Saskatchewan in total, including private land, and regardless I doubt Environment has responsibility for more than Agriculture.

As for the incident near Govenlock being overblown, yes the landowner only destroyed 40 acres of native grass, so far—but he may plow more under and as the minister points out, it is his right to do so. Worse than that, there are many perverse incentives in the market and agricultural policy that urge him to destroy the ancient grassland and seed it to crops. We need not only regulations and easements to prevent the plowing of native prairie, but agricultural policy that in a time of rising land prices make it possible for our ranchers to continue making a living by grazing native grass, without having to overstock OR convert it to cropland. The rates our cattlemen pay for leasing crown grassland are higher than those across the border in Alberta and Montana and that puts our cattlemen in a position that over the long run is going to lead to degradation and loss of native grass. We need to give them lower rates both on the new PFRA lands that will be up for lease soon and for the rest of our Crown grasslands, but that break in their land costs should be tied to some minimal best management practices and stocking rates that will ensure the long term ecological integrity of the grassland while allowing our cattlemen to make a living and pass on the tradition to the next generation.


  1. Hello Trevor

    Another great example that Minister Stewart does not have a clue what he is talking about or chooses to ignore the facts. We experienced the same approach when he gave a statement that the Province will implement & enforce the federal Species at Risk legislation on provincial and/or private land in Saskatchewan. Completely out of his jurisdiction.

    Regarding the statement that all the native grasslands that remain in the province is simply not suitable for cropping so there is nothing to worry about, here are the facts for Cypress Upland and Mixed Grassland ecozone (sorry, I do not have the data for the Aspen Parkland):
    Remaining grasslands located on the agricultural soil class 2 and 3 with some limitation to producing crops: 9.75% of the remaining grasslands in Sask. (data for 2000). If you add remaining grasslands that are located on soils in class 4, which is not too suitable for agriculture but people are rapidly plowing it over anyway, you have additional 30.67% of remaining grasslands. Add it all up and you are faced with the fact that 40.42% of remaining grasslands in Cypress Upland & Mixed Grassland zones are susceptible to land-cover conversion given suitable market and subsidy conditions. Hey, if Mr. Stewart is "not worried" about it, I and the people of Saskatchewan are. Is it time to have a Minister who knows his portfolio?

  2. Thanks Branimir--I was hoping you would help out with some information on the vulnerability of our remaining native grass. Much obliged.

  3. If the minister of agriculture thinks that their hasn't been much land broken up since the 1930's he isn't looking out his window while travelling the province, really does he think we are that naive?


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