Saturday, November 22, 2014

Big Screen Premiere of "Grasslands" documentary--Nov. 26 at the Royal Sk Museum

This Wednesday, November 26 at 7:30 Public Pastures-Public Interest is joining with the Friends of the Museum to put on a public showing of Grasslands, Ian Toews latest documentary.

I wrote about this film here a few weeks ago when it first aired on television. Those who caught it on TV loved it, but now we have a chance to see it on a big screen, so we are calling it the big screen premiere of the film.

PPPI is charging $10 a seat as part of a fundraiser to support grassland conservation on publicly owned grasslands in the province.

Take a look at the website for the documentary or check out the trailer here.

image courtesy of Victoria Times-Colonist

Ian's Arri Alexa camera, now the standard for Hollywood features, seems to love the great expanses of grass speckled with distant bands of bison. There are some stunning scenes in this film and the sparing narration and interviews do justice to the complexities behind grassland conservation on the northern plains.

Two of the grassland conservation people featured in the film will be on hand at Wednesday's premiere--Wes Olson, the man who brought bison to Grasslands National Park, and myself.

As well, the filmmaker, Ian Toews, is flying in from Victoria to introduce the film and answer questions afterward. Ian's company, 291 Films, was formerly based in Saskatchewan but had to move after the film industry dried up thanks to Brad Wall cutting the film tax credit program.

Ian says Grasslands is the last film to be made under the old tax credit program.

To lead the evening off, we are also showing a twelve minute short called Soil Carbon Cowboys. Made by Peter Byck of Arizona, the filmmaker behind Carbon Nation, this documentary takes a brief look at one particular slice of cattle ranching that is gaining a lot of attention lately.

I talked with Peter on the phone last week and he offered to let us screen his film. He is working on a long-term project considering the ecological benefits of grassland management.

Soil Carbon Cowboys shows us three cattlemen who are applying some of Allan Savoury's holistic range management concepts. These men have seeded cultivated land to a mix of mostly non-native grasses and legumes. Then they cross-fenced with electric fencing so they could rotate their herd from one tiny half-acre or one acre paddock to another, resting any given patch long enough to recover. Using this "mob-grazing method" they say they can build up the health of the soil and increase soil carbon while maximizing weight gain on their animals.

This is a lovely little film and, with a great prairie sound track and some splendid slo-mo shots of bugs hopping and flying through the grass. It features Saskatchewan's most charming advocate of mob-grazing, the inimitable Neil Dennis, along with other producers from North Dakota and Mississippi who use similar systems.

screen capture from Soil Carbon Cowboys
While we may not want to see a lot of mob grazing used on native rangeland, it has its place as a way to improve cultivated lands while raising cattle. I like what the Prairie Ecologist, Chris Helzer, says on this topic.

Though this kind of extreme rotation is not a cure-all, there is a net gain for biodiversity if you take land that was seeded entirely to wheat, canola, or crested wheat grass and plant a good mix of non-natives with legumes.

The insect life will be richer, some birds may survive the mobbing, and the soil may recover from the years of mono-cropping and pesticide use.

Soil Carbon Cowboys will make a perfect warm-up for the main event paying homage to the original carbon sequestration model of native grass and bison.

Please come on out and help us spread the word so we can fill the Museum Auditorium and celebrate our precious grasslands together.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"One Hundred Miles of Hawks"

Sub-adult Swainson's flying over Panama. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama
The Swainson's hawks were late leaving the northern Plains this fall but a few weeks ago the last ones departed, eventually to be replaced by small numbers of rough-legged hawks arriving from the arctic.

The Swainson's is I think my favourite buteo, perhaps because it is still common enough that most days out in open country I can find one circling in the sky. But I am particularly in awe of its long migration, one of the lengthiest of any hawk. Each year the Swainson's hawks that nest here on the mixed-grass and moist mixed grass prairie travel 11,000 kms twice as they migrate between northern nesting grounds and the Pampas of Argentina.

What route do they take to get from northern to southern pastures? The people of Panama can tell you. In early November the narrowest parts of the isthmus of Central America witnesses one of the world's greatest avian spectacles. In the skies above Panama City, when clear migrating weather returns after several poor days, a river of hawks will pass by. Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged and Swainson's hawks numbering in the hundreds of thousands boil overhead in great kettles swirling their way southward.

On November 2nd this year, Panama City set a new record for counting hawks: two million hawks in a single day, which more than doubled the highest  previous count at Panama. From a press release put out by the Smithsonian:

"The official count from Sunday's massive raptor migration is 2,105,060 birds, most of them turkey vultures and Swainson's hawks," said George Angehr, a Smithsonian ornithologist.

And here is a news report from Panama

What caused the high count this year though? No doubt weather played a role, but the previous high of 900,000 was from 2013. Are the overall numbers of these species increasing? Certainly turkey vultures are increasing. And I have heard birders, naturalists and ranchers say that they are seeing more Swainson's hawks than they were a decade ago.

That could be good news and makes sense considering that their numbers were down to a record low after the mass die-off in the mid-90s caused by Argentinian farmers using Monochrotrophos and Dimethoate to kill grasshoppers. Six thousand Swainson's were killed directly by the poisons; many more were severely weakened. Monochrotrophos has been banned for almost twenty years, but Dimethoate is still in use in South America. However, it does seem that Swainson's hawks may have regained some of their numbers, at least here in Saskatchewan.

Birdlife International estimates that the total population of Swainson's hawks is around 580,000 and Canada may have a little more than 100,000 of those coming to spend each summer. Having departed from prairie farms and rangelands mere weeks ago to ride the river of hawks across the bottleneck of Panama, the northernmost Swainson's hawks on the planet are now gliding and soaring their way to the grasslands of Argentina where they will pass the winter eating crickets, grasshoppers, mice and voles.

Those of us who admire these elegant-winged hawks and want to keep seeing them in our summer skies need to do what we can to protect the wellbeing of their habitat at both ends of their yearly journeys. If the winter brings them plenty of prey free of pesticides, most of them will come back again in fine shape next April.
Swainson's Hawk, just north of Grasslands National Park

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sage grouse: the view from the saddle, Part 1


Last night my wife Karen and I went to hear the Sadies play at the Exchange, but we really were just as excited about the lead act, Kacy and Clayton, a folk duo from Saskatchewan's Wood Mountain ranch country.

Kacy & Clayton (and friends), image from

Kacy Anderson and Clayton Linthicum are cousins who, in the words of one bio I found online, "grew up immersed in ranching in the Wood Mountain Uplands of Southern Saskatchewan, and were educated by Kacy’s Grandpa/Clayton’s Great Uncle Carl in the ways of rural music. Ranching and music are family traditions that can be traced back 5 generations."

At least two of those generations were well represented in the room last night. I sat down next to two proud fathers who had come to town to catch the show.

Both family names run deep in the ranching culture of this province, but I have long wanted to meet Miles Anderson, Kacy's dad, and even better known as one of our most respected grassland stewards.

A few years ago, he was given the prestigious Prairie Conservation Award for Saskatchewan, from the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference. From what I have heard, no rancher deserves it more.

Right up against one flank of the East Block of Grasslands National Park, the grass and sagebrush the Anderson family looks after is an island of biodiversity and abundance that would make anyone question the need for prairie conservation.

Waiting for the show to begin, Miles told me stories about the great numbers of Long-Billed Curlews and Sage Grouse he has seen from the saddle of his horse this year.

"People don't realize it, but where there are sage hens you often see them right in with the cattle. I think they feel safer there. I never see the northern harriers fly over a herd."

Then he told me a story about a sheep rancher he knows near Glasgow, Montana, who says they come right into the corral with his sheep at night.

Later I found this video Miles shot and posted on the Sage Grouse Initiative Facebook page. It shows what he sees all the time from the back of his saddle horse--Sage Grouse in close proximity to cattle.

Before we settled in to listen to Kacy and Clayton play, Miles tells me he is heading to Salt Lake City Utah next week to speak at the International Sage-Grouse Forum.

"They want me to speak on a panel about working on sage grouse conservation as a private rancher."

I asked if he'd mind me calling him after he is back home to see what the forum was like and maybe get some more of his thoughts on Sage Grouse conservation. He agreed, and so with luck I will have more on Miles Anderson and Sage Grouse in a post in the near future.

Kacy and Clayton were a delight as always--Clayton's sharp and snappy guitar playing the perfect accompaniment to Kacy's soulful voice on some fine old ballads. Do check them out if you get the chance.

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