Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is the Federal Government trying to provoke resistance to the Sage-Grouse Emergency Order?

from Medicine Hat Review--stakeholders' meeting in Manyberries
Or are they just being ham-fisted and naive about how their words and actions influence landowners and ranchers?

Warning: rumour and unproven speculation ahead, but first here are some things we know for sure.

1. The courts have forced Environment Canada to comply with the Species At Risk Act and finally do something to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse, by enacting the first Emergency Order under the act.

2.The Greater Sage-Grouse is a species that has dwindled down to 2% of what the population was at the end of the 1980s. People are calling it the most endangered bird in the country, because last year there were fewer than 130 adult birds recorded in Canada. (With fewer than ten in the country, the Kirtland's Warbler probably is more worthy of that title.)

3.The oil and gas activity is believed to be a major cause of the decline of the Sage-Grouse. Here is what Mark Boyce, University of Alberta Professor and Sage-Grouse expert, said when Ecojustice began calling for the Emergency Order back in 2011:

“We have strong science telling us how and where oil and gas development must be regulated if sage-grouse are to survive in Canada, but the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the oil and gas industry are refusing to act on it. Unless they change course immediately, sage-grouse will become the first species extirpated because of the oil and gas industry.”
“We have strong science telling us how and where oil and gas development must be regulated if sage-grouse are to survive in Canada, but the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the oil and gas industry are refusing to act on it,” said Dr. Mark Boyce, sage-grouse expert and professor at the University of Alberta. "Unless they change course immediately, sage-grouse will become the first species extirpated because of the oil and gas industry.” - See more at:
“We have strong science telling us how and where oil and gas development must be regulated if sage-grouse are to survive in Canada, but the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the oil and gas industry are refusing to act on it,” said Dr. Mark Boyce, sage-grouse expert and professor at the University of Alberta. "Unless they change course immediately, sage-grouse will become the first species extirpated because of the oil and gas industry.” - See more at:
“We have strong science telling us how and where oil and gas development must be regulated if sage-grouse are to survive in Canada, but the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the oil and gas industry are refusing to act on it,” said Dr. Mark Boyce, sage-grouse expert and professor at the University of Alberta. "Unless they change course immediately, sage-grouse will become the first species extirpated because of the oil and gas industry.” - See more at:

4. No one has made a case that cattle grazing practices on and near Sage-Grouse habitat are a significant factor in the decline.

5. Last week, on January 21st, some representatives of the Federal Government held a public meeting in Consul to discuss what the provisions of the Emergency Order will mean for ranchers.

6. I was not at that meeting, but, [here is where the rumour and unproven speculation begins]....

I have heard through the grapevine that the meeting did not go that well. Some ranchers left feeling like they were going to be told what they can do and cannot do with the land they graze. And it was not so much the details of the potential restrictions that were a problem as the way the information was delivered. In fact, my informant said that it is likely that most of the provisions will align with practices they are already following, but any time you tell ranchers they must do this and not do that, they begin to resent the implied message: i.e. you don't know what is good for the land and its wildlife, but don't worry, we do and here are some wonderful new rules you can follow to tune up your management.

I don't know who was representing the Federal Government at the meeting, and I do not know how they spoke or if they did tell ranchers what they can and cannot do on public land they graze (here is an article on a similar meeting in Manyberries in mid-December, which makes it sound like the meeting pleased no one, conservationists or ranchers).

In my experience, the few federal biologists who remain in this part of the country seem pretty good at presenting information to the public and to ranchers, so I was surprised to hear that ranchers were put off by the presentation. But perhaps rather than the biologists, it was a representative of some other level of the Ministry of Environment, a managerial or policy wonk or, god forbid, some public relations person.

Or was it simply a case of some, not all, ranchers at the meeting not wanting to hear any talk of endangered species protection provisions at all, no matter how carefully the information is delivered? That is possible: ranchers, by nature are independent characters who are slow to warm up to any government program that might require their cooperation. It is part of who they are and some of that irascibility is probably tied up with the same passion and stubbornness that makes many of them good stewards of grassland in the face of a difficult market for beef.

Surely by now, though, everyone in the Ministry of Environment knows that the quickest way to anger a rancher is to stand up at a meeting and announce things that might restrict his autonomy to manage the land the way he sees fit.

Hmmm--ok, this is where it is easy to get paranoid and conspiratorial. What if that is the Federal Government's goal? Is it too much of a stretch to say that the Harper Government is reacting against the Emergency Order they were forced to implement by doing a bad job of it? And, further, that they may be trying to drive a wedge between cattle producers and conservationists concerned about the Sage-Grouse?

In my house this is called a "display of inadequacy." I give one of my kids a chore to do in the kitchen. They do a poor job of it, hoping I will in frustration either let them off the hook and do it myself, or not bother to ask them next time round, or, ideally, both. (When this happens, I try to give them an extra task for "practice" to ensure this strategy backfires, but sometimes they win and I get sucked in to the inadequacy vortex.)

Others might call this "malicious compliance," a kind of "work to rule" protest--just do the minimum, but do it grudgingly and badly to punish whomever made you do the work in the first place.

I realize this is for now a largely groundless accusation, but the Harper Government has given us ample cause to expect the worst. And this very first SAR Emergency Order will be something of a template. Are there people higher up in the Ministry and in the government who want this to fail so they can dissuade the Environmental community from holding their feet to the fire on the Orca, the Woodland Caribou and other species rapidly declining across the country?

As I said, I was not at the meeting and can't be sure who was doing the speaking, what was said or how it was delivered, but it sounds like ranchers walked away feeling unappreciated, disrespected, and imposed upon by people who neither live nor work where they live and work.

If the rumours are true, some of them may have left with a sour taste in their mouths for those damned city environmentalists and their endangered species. How will they respond the next time a conservation organization wants to "partner" on this or any other species that uses their land?

If the rumours are true, conservationists in Alberta and Saskatchewan will have some damage control to do. We can't let the Federal Government, either willfully or through ineptitude, degrade the relationships and mutual trust built during hours of going to meetings to discuss the Sage-Grouse and other grassland conservation concerns.

I would love to hear from others who were at this meeting in Consul. Did the Federal representatives botch it, how did ranchers respond, what are the ranchers' concerns? Are the Ministry of Environment reps just being careless or have they been instructed to act in ways they know will alienate the ranchers from the process, stirring up resistance to the Emergency Order? And if that is happening, what can we do to disable that strategy? Leave a comment or email me at

image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj

Sunday, January 19, 2014

When government set limits, industry pushes back: Sage Grouse

Male Greater Sage Grouse in dancing form (from Toronto Star report)
Joanne Havelock, who sits on our steering committee for PPPI (Public Pastures-Public Interest) and keeps us all pointing in the right direction in so many ways, sent out to our PPPI membership a series of links on recent stories about the Greater Sage-Grouse. Here are a couple of them especially worth a look.

First, here in Canada, with only 100 to 150 Sage Grouse remaining, the Calgary Zoo hosted a meeting last week on strategies for the species' recovery. Here is a link to a Toronto Star report on that.

Meanwhile, in the United States, where the species has traditionally been more abundant, the Federal Government is very concerned about what the oil and gas industry is doing to Sage Grouse habitat. There, in the states of Wyoming and Colorado, among others, the Greater Sage Grouse is in rapid retreat as oil and gas exploration moves across the sage flats. Vast stretches of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands have traditionally been good breeding and nursery habitat for Sage Grouse, but disturbance from the resource industry (noise, roads, vertical structures and other forms of habitat degradation) has put these grand iconic birds of the prairie into a death spiral in some parts of their range.

The petroleum industry is mounting a powerful lobbying effort to stop the U.S. government from restricting oil and gas activity in Sage Grouse habitat. Take a look at this pdf posted online by the "Endangered Species Watch" website, paid for by the Independent Petroleum Association of America". It contains a series of letters to the Federal Government, signed by several resource companies.

The document features some desperate and hilarious attempts to blow smoke into the issues, including the following lines which accuse the BLM of wanting to "clear cut" trees in the Sage Grouse lekking areas.
"Under Alternative D, the BLM preferred alternative, there is only one preferred design feature (“PDF”) which address predation. The PDF, which is for all designated habitat, is to “remove standing and encroaching trees within at least 100 meters of occupied GRSG leks and other habitats (e.g., nesting, wintering, and brood rearing) to reduce availability of perch sites for avian predators, as appropriate, and resources permit.” This approach is extreme and ineffective because it does not consider other perch sites or landbased predators such as red foxes and coyotes. Moreover, it is extreme because it calls for the clearcutting of trees,which will have an adverse impact on other species. This approach can hardly be held up as a scientific and effective approach to minimize the threat of predation."
 The spin doctors writing these lines thought they might be able to use public perceptions about clear-cutting to somehow make the petroleum industry appear more environmentally conscious than the Federal Government (note: trees or any vertical structures introduced into sage brush habitat pose a serious problem for Sage Grouse nestling survival, because they give an unnatural advantage to avian predators--hawks and owls. Trees are a minor threat compared to the oil and gas drilling and pumping equipment and utility lines serving the industry, which all make for ideal perches).

It will be interesting here in Canada to see how the petroleum industry responds to Environment Canada's Sage Grouse Emergency Order and its provisions, particularly in Alberta where most of the critical habitat has been designated.

Pronghorn, another creature that loves Sage Brush country (image courtesy of Hamiliton Greenwood)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Are Neonicotinoids hurting wild insects and the birds that eat them?

Black-necked Stilt on a slough on a farm near Kendal, Sask--one of many beautiful bird species who deserve aquatic ecosystems free of contaminants like Neonicotinoids

When colony collapse disorder began to gain public attention a couple of years ago with beekeepers around the northern hemisphere reporting sudden die-offs in their honeybee colonies, our first worry was that agricultural pollination might be placed at risk. Perhaps because I had kept beehives in the past, I was disturbed as anyone at the prospect of a world with fewer honeybees. In fact, it was the mystery of colony collapse disorder that persuaded me to start beekeeping again. We have a relatively remote piece of prairie with no other hives nearby and nothing but natural landscapes and native grassland on all but one corner of our property. Whatever was hurting honeybees might be in lower concentrations on our property. Three years later, we have produced a lot of honey and some mead, and so far the only colony collapse has been me after a day of carrying supers full of honey and cranking the extractor handle to spin out the frames.

a look at one of our honeybee frames in spring

But, like others, I have begun to wonder if the pathology that is killing honeybees might also be killing other insects and therefore affecting ecology up the food chain. The honeybee, because it is an agricultural species that generates profit and GDP, is the one insect we keep a close eye on. Who would know if there was a similar die-off happening among midges, flies, and mosquitoes?

Once researchers began to link colony collapse disorder to the family of seed-coating pesticides known as Neonicotinoids (lets just call them "neonics" from here on), however, it was only a matter of time before a smart biologist would start the important work of finding out whether neonics are remaining in the environment and hurting wild insects and the creatures who depend on them for food.

Enter Dr. Christy Morrissey.

Dr. Christy Morrissey, image courtesy of

A week ago, CBC ran an excellent story on research being done by Dr. Christy Morrissey at the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability. Morrissey is in the middle of a four year project researching several angles on the affects of neonics in the environment--their persistence in water, as well as problems they are causing for aquatic insects that live in contaminated agricultural wetlands and for the birds that depend on those insects for food. With a team of graduate students and some NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) funding, Dr. Morrissey is doing some very important work that may some day help us to convince the Federal Government to ban neonics.

Last year the American Bird Conservancy published a report on bird decline and neonics produced by Dr. Pierre Mineau, a Canadian and one of the world's most respected environmental toxicologists and experts on pesticide effects. Recently retired from Environment Canada, which is now under seige by the science-silencing barbarians in control of Ottawa (did you watch "The Silence of the Labs" on Fifth Estate on Friday? See it here online), Mineau did the work that led to the de-registration of granular Carbofuran and has done much to demonstrate that we need to overhaul the way we register and regulate pesticides in North America.

In the American Bird Conservancy study, Mineau and his co-author examined existing research including the studies done to register neonics in the United States, to see if there could be any links between these contaminants and bird decline. The 100 page report, entitled "The Impact of the Nation's Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds" is available online. Using Freedom of Information provisions to get a look at the registration studies done by the chemical companies and then reviewing several other studies, Mineau discovered that the chemical corporations were not required to come up with any way of diagnosing  poisoned wildlife or measuring exact impacts during their registration process.

What's more, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in the States (and no doubt our Pesticide Management Review Agency in Canada) appears to have ignored all the peer-reviewed studies that would have warned them of the powerful toxicity of several neonics. Instead they grossly underestimated the environmental outfall caused by the chemicals that are now being sold around the world, and used on canola, corn and wheat.

Dr. Morrissey's ongoing studies of wetlands, insects and insectivorous birds in agricultural landscapes contaminated with neonics will no doubt contribute further to the evidence that these products are persistent and serious contaminants that we must ban as soon as possible. Our insectivorous birds, all in rapid decline over the past decade and more, depend on the Canadian public--you and I--to take the next step and see that that ban happens. Science can only take us so far. The rest is up to citizen action and public policy.

Here is a petition begun by Canada's Green Party calling for a ban of neonics. Sign the petition, but spread the news too and tell your Member of Parliament you have had enough. Canada's farmland is not a dumping ground for Bayer's and CropLife's misbegotten chemicals. It is time to reform the PMRA and our system for approving pesticides so that these egregious registration debacles do not happen. We should not have to be constantly fighting rear-guard actions to get rid of toxic farm chemicals that should never have been approved in the first place. It happened with the Carbofuran that was killing grassland and farmland birds in the 1980s and now it is happening all over again with neonics.

Like many people who own land in farm country, I have seen our barn swallow and tree swallow populations drop at Cherry Lake over the past decade, despite no apparent change in the habitat. To prove a link would take some testing of spring runoff, the water in our creek, lake and upland sloughs, and some work on the insects that hatch out of those waters, but we are not seeing the great spiraling pillars of chironomids that we once saw rising like smoke near the lake and I can't remember the last year we were seriously bothered by mosquitoes. Bugs are part of a prairie summer and if we lose our abundant insects, the birds and other creatures who depend on them will fade away too.

four of the five swallow species recorded at Cherry Lake: from left, Bank, Cliff, Barn, and Tree Swallows. All of these birds depend on insects that hatch out of water

Friday, January 3, 2014

Birds of a Prairie Christmas, 2013

This female merlin tearing into a pigeon was on the sidewalk of a street in Regina's Cathedral Area a couple days after the Christmas Bird Count. The bits of stuff in the foreground are grains of millet from the pigeon's crop--image courtesy of Brian Sterenberg.
This year's Christmas Bird Counts on our part of the northern Great Plains were held in extremis. The two counts I helped with--one for Craven/Lumsden area and the other for Regina--came with temperatures of -20 to -30, high wind chills, and blowing snow.

And yet, of course, the birds were there. Not in great numbers and some of the species were hard to find at all, but there were some great moments before, during, and just after the bird counts. The following photos were taken by two photographer/birders who participate in these two Christmas Bird Counts.

The following four images were by Fran Kerbs, who has helped out on the Lumsden/Craven CBC for the past two years.

This landscape gives you a sense of the bleak winter day we had for the count. Not a lot of heat in that sun.

This was one of more than thirty Blue Jays recorded on the Lumsden/Craven count--most were in the town of Lumsden, which also had a cardinal (none of us were able to photograph it, though it was recorded by feeder watchers during the day of the count).

Fran caught this shot of a Black-capped Chickadee coming to a feeder in the Qu'Appelle Valley. Chickadees survive the cold by eating a lot of food with fat and by fluffing up their feathers, as this one has done.

Fran and Chris Harris, another birder who helped on both the Craven/Lumsden and the Regina counts, found a flock of ten American Robins early in the morning near the Lumsden Cemetery.

On the Regina Christmas Bird Count, held December 28, I was joined by Chris Harris and Brian Sterenberg. On a very cold day we managed to record 19 species in our sector (we do the southwest piece of the 15 mile diameter pie). Highlights were a Song Sparrow that has been coming to Chris's feeder for a few weeks, and 11 Snowy Owls. Brian managed to get some photos of the snowies, despite distance, dim light and turbulence in the air from the heat escaping our car window and meeting the cold. Here are two different males he photographed, both perched on power poles despite the wind and cold.

Regina had nearly thirty Snowies all together. Last year we had 33 which tied Ladner BC for the highest tally of the species.

We also recorded two Great Horned Owls, including this one roosting in an out building inside a small corral with cattle. The light was failing, but Brian's camera managed to get a nice shot of it.

In the same corral a few feet away we found a covey of Grey Partridge facing into the stiff wind. Here are two shots by Brian showing a bit of what life is like for a wild bird in a prairie winter.

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