Saturday, March 22, 2014

Message from a rancher affected by the Sage Grouse order

Greater Sage-Grouse (image courtesy of John Carlson)
Today's post is a message that came to me from Randy Stokke, one of the ranchers who manages a large stretch of Saskatchewan's Crown grasslands in the southwest. For generations, cow-calf operators like Randy have been supporting their family by grazing the native grass that also supports many plants and animals that Canada now lists as Species at Risk. As I often point out in this space, to remain healthy grassland needs the disturbance provided by grazing. And, in a world where every landscape needs to pull its weight economically, the private management provided by stewards like Randy Stokke helps keep the land under natural cover and is one of Canada's best examples of sustainability in agriculture. In leasing Crown grasslands over decades and often passing the land lease down from generation to generation, these ranching families know that they are protecting the ecology of the natural prairie. They have seen what happens to native grassland that is not treated properly and they believe strongly in keeping the prairie grass side up.

That natural and traditional ethic should make such ranchers strong allies of those of us who are concerned about conserving our remaining native grassland ecosystems, and over the years there has been a lot of co-operation between private ranchers and groups like Nature Saskatchewan and the Alberta Wilderness Association.

But it has always been a tenuous relationship because none of us have as much skin in the game as the folks who live on the land. If your livelihood and retirement plans depended entirely on the income you can gain from your leased and deeded grassland, you too would be wary of anyone else--in government or a conservation organization--who shows up with ideas, suggestions, or regulations that may affect your income.

Some of the land that Randy and his sons run their cattle on (he uses the term "private crown lands" to describe his leased Provincial land) has been listed under the new Emergency Protection Order for the Greater Sage-Grouse as "habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of the Greater Sage-Grouse."

Though in the past Randy has welcomed sage grouse researchers and other biologists onto his land (he says he has not seen any sage grouse on his land for twenty years), as this message shows, he may well be wondering if that was a good idea.

This is not a lone voice. I believe that Randy Stokke's words represent concerns being expressed by many if not most of those people who have land listed in the EPO. We need to start listening and the find a way to start over. Most important of all, we need to get the Federal Government to come back to the table with some serious money that will ensure that having Sage Grouse habitat on your land does not become a cost and a liability. Paying a zoo to captive breed the birds may play well to the public, but those millions of dollars should be spent on a program that will ensure that our rancher-stewards can be fully engaged and involved in developing a recovery model that has a real chance of working.

The EPO as it stands will do nothing to help the Greater Sage-Grouse because it does not have the support of the people we are expecting to follow it.

I would love to hear from Environment Canada people or other biologists who have some ideas on how we can fix this mess.

Here is Randy's message (I placed two sentences in boldface that I think are especially important):

Hello Trevor:

I was reading your blog on the sage grouse this morning and felt the need to contact you with some comments. I am a rancher in the Consul area. I am one of the unfortunate land holders whose lease was selected under the EPO for Sage Grouse. I was at the meeting in Consul. Because of the EO I and many other landholders have been forced to take time out of our busy lives to research the sage grouse and the implications of the Species At Risk Act (S.A.R.A.). My family and many others like us have been observers of this land and the wildlife for generations as most ranches in this area of Sask and also SE Alberta are the 3rd and 4th generations on the land. The majority of us find the science behind this to have many flaws and inaccuracies.

I or none of my family was ever contacted by any of the conservation groups who were clients of Ecojustice to see if we could help in SG recovery. You can imagine the concern we felt when receiving a registered letter informing us that some 7500 acres of our lease was selected as habitat and was put under an EPO with enforcement under SARA. This was in early Dec. 2013. It is very difficult to talk to anyone in Government during the holidays. Our first contact explaining the Recovery program for the SG was the meeting in Consul. They explained the recovery strategy. The science behind it which we now realize is flawed.

The recovery strategy from first appearance made it seem as there would be very little effect on us. We have now realized that there will be many possible intrusions into the managing of our land. The SARA regulations are nothing more than marshal law on landholders. The permit process for fencing and water development will be slow and takes the management for these decisions out of our hands. To comply with these prohibitions will be at our expense. Grazing of livestock is recognized as necessary but they use words like light grazing and timely grazing. The research I have done into SG studies all recommend grazing reductions. In fact if we followed the recommendations of some biologists we would not be allowed to graze any livestock. As most research has been done in Wyoming and other states south of our border it doesn’t take into account climate and weather conditions here.

There was a study done at One Four Research Station in Alberta from 1929 to 1939 on the effects of livestock grazing and how it affected the different species of native grasses forbs and brush. It is rather interesting how areas not grazed lost the same amount of species of plants as the grazed areas. There is no mention in the recovery Strategy of any compensation or alternate grazing if we are forced to reduce or adjust our grazing. So again this will be at our expense. The land is our retirement program as most livestock producers have spent most of their equity in maintaining their ranches due to BSE and other political restrictions on trade. The EO on the land will definitely lower the value of my deeded land as most ranches in this area sell as a complete unit. It is the only way to make these ranches viable.

We and all other landholders in the south feel that we are under attack from conservation groups. We feel these groups are blaming us and oil and gas for the loss of the SG and we know that that is far from the truth. There are large areas where there has been no oil and gas activity but yet there is no SG. The Govenlock PFRA pasture has had good grazing management and yet no SG seen there for 20 years. We know it is environmental conditions, extended droughts through the late 80’s and 90’s severe winters. There are many predators that have increased in the last 15 years, some by conservation efforts. The west nile virus is quite established in this area it has killed many birds and horses in the past year. We know as observers of this habitat that biologists seem to have tunnel vision when saving species and that most of us with cooperation from these people could manage wildlife far better.

We would like to see the EPO removed from private crown lands and a more cooperative approach with biologists, landowners and oil and gas interests. It needs to be recognized that with compensation to landholders for assistance in species recovery it will happen faster and with less conflict between the different interest groups.

There is much at stake here and we need to get it right for the benefit of all concerned. I hope this sheds some light on how we feel.

Randy Stokke
Sage brush habitat (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

1 comment:

  1. The able stewardship of prairie pastures needs to be recognized and respected by those who look from afar at cattle ranchers. In as much as they have utilized an effective means..grazing rotation..and herd manage these prairie pastures for decades.....with sustaining populations of the precious sage grouse and sharptail, and during very lean times for these species apparent loss of these populations..
    Stewardship plans can be used to sustain return on cattle concerns and the vitally needed successional state needed for habitat critical to the birds...without extreme policies once those with skin in the game respectfully recognize that they can work toward integrated stewardship.


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