Sunday, March 29, 2015

Keep White Butte as a natural area

native spear grasses and sage at White Butte

Saskatchewan people love grass—some of us prefer needle and thread (our provincial grass) in native grassland, and some of us prefer wide swards of Kentucky blue grass cut short so we can walk over its soft carpet and enjoy the beauty of a lawn or golf course.
                There are people who think lawns are an abomination, but I’m not one of them. I love the scent of fresh cut grass and the landscaped aesthetic of a green stretch between clumps of trees. I spent thousands of hours golfing as a teenager, mostly because I liked the look of rolling hills of bluegrass with trees casting long shadows—it certainly wasn’t the satisfaction of a well-struck ball that kept me coming back. These days, I might golf once a year if a friend invites me, but I spend a lot of time walking through the wild grass that has made this land prairie. 
In Saskatchewan, where cultivated land makes up more than 80 per cent or more of the land base south of the forest, we have room for many golf courses without harming native prairie. In fact, it is said that this province has more golf courses per capita than any other.
Now that our native grassland has dwindled down to small remnants in many areas, though, you would think there is no reason for golf courses and native prairie to come into conflict.  Unfortunately, that is not the case. When we build golf courses in coulees and river valleys (e.g. Katepwa and Ochapowace), native grassland is destroyed to plant the fairways and create greens and tee boxes.  There are more recent examples where native grassland ecosystems were permanently damaged to create golf courses in Saskatchewan, such as Dakota Dunes near Saskatoon.
These places are often passed off as “sustainable” or “ecological” golf courses, but this is a lot of rear-guard PR that has no data to back it up. A survey of the biodiversity of any “ecological” golf course will show that there are important species diminished or entirely absent from the landscape when it is compared to intact habitat nearby. Sure, robins, deer, foxes and other abundant species that tolerate or prefer disturbed landscapes will flourish, helping the course claim to be “wildlife-friendly”, but many of the rarer species and ecological relationships will simply disappear.
I found out recently that one of Regina’s only remaining patches of native prairie is being considered for a golf course. Speaking to friends who belong to the Regina Ski Club, I learned that a private golf course company is asking the Province to let them build a course on the southern half of the White Butte Recreation Site, a couple of miles east of Regina along Highway One.

Walking trail sign for trails (in red) where a golf course is proposed at White Butte

looking north from the proposed golf course site
White Butte contains two square miles of one of the rarest grassland types in Canada—Aspen Parkland. According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, less than ten per cent of the Aspen Parkland remains in Canada, though it once formed a wide swath of the northern Plains from southern Manitoba northwest to Edmonton.
Unlike almost all of the surrounding private subdivisions now filling up with starter castles, this piece of public land at White Butte has never felt the farmer's plow or the developer’s bulldozer.
The Regina Plains landscape area contains 1.1 million acres of land. Less than 0.1 % of it is native prairie. The rest has been plowed up to grow crops or paved over with roads and urban development. White Butte represents a big chunk of the public lands that are included in that miniscule 0.1 % remnant.
As unbroken prairie, it contains vital habitat for both the increasingly rare rough fescue grass and our provincial bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, which winters and breeds on the property.  I have seen them dancing there myself in April right in the middle of where the golf course would be built. Two weeks ago a handful of birding friends came with me to look for Sharp-tails and we quickly found seven. They will no doubt be on their dancing grounds or “lek” very soon and then building nests. This is a species in decline in the province, as any experienced upland bird hunter or naturalist will testify. The Aspen Parkland is its preferred habitat and with urban sprawl near our cities, our provincial bird is getting harder and harder to find without a long trip south.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse, our provincial bird, depends on White Butte for habitat

It is entirely possible that the golf course builders have no inkling of how rare and important White Butte is in the Regina area. No doubt they are excited by the potential for savings in this opportunity. Leasing Crown land to build a golf course near Regina is much cheaper than having to spend many millions to purchase an adjacent piece of private land.
I wonder what the other golf courses in the Regina area would say to this. You have to think they would disapprove of a new course receiving what amounts to a government subsidy. There are twelve golf courses in the immediate Regina area by my count: Aspen Links (just across the highway at Emerald Park), Deer Valley, Flowing Springs, Joanne Goulet, Lakeview (par 3), Regent Park (par 3), Murray, Royal Regina, Sherwood Forest, Tor Hill, Wascana, and Green Acres. Widen the radius to an hour’s drive and you can rope in many more.
Twelve golf courses, but only three pieces of public land where you can hike or experience natural prairie near the city—Condie, Wascana Trails, and White Butte. The White Butte Recreation area provides ski trails and hiking trails maintained by the Regina Ski Club. The proposed golf course would be built immediately south of the existing ski trail network, but the members of the club passed a strong resolution to oppose the course nonetheless. Many of them are also nature lovers and they are concerned that the natural buffer zone of wild landscape to the south would be severely damaged by a golf course.
As well, snowshoers, hikers, bird-watchers, other naturalists and dog walkers use the natural area where the golf course would go. The day we looked for grouse I spoke to a man who was training his dog on the site. I asked what he thought of the idea. “That would be awful,” he said. “I like it the way it is.”
            That pretty well says it all. I imagine that most people who like to visit White Butte would feel the same way, even if they are golfers. Most of us know that if you build a golf course on disturbed landscape like cropland, you can improve habitat, but if you build it on native prairie, you destroy it.
I have included some more photos from two recent trips to White Butte, but if you want to keep White Butte as wild prairie for future generations, please take a moment to send a letter or email to the Minister of Parks, Culture, and Sport:

Hon. Mark Docherty
Room 315, Legislative Building,
2405 Legislative Drive,
Regina, SK,
Canada, S4S 0B3

Or email (though letters are always better):

Better yet, phone him:


more images of White Butte  

looking for grouse

deer trails

open area frequented by the sharp-tailed grouse

blue grama grass left from last summer

two northern harriers were doing their spring sky dance over the site

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Harper Government denies funds to purchase Sage Grouse habitat in Alberta

image courtesy of John Carlson

"The Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) provides funding for projects that conserve and protect species at risk and their habitats. Over the past 13 years, the HSP has supported over 2,100 projects across Canada, contributing over $125 million towards on-theground conservation action by partners and stakeholders. The HSP continues to be available to assist individuals and groups seeking to implement actions for the conservation and protection of this species." From Environment Canada web page backgrounder on Sage Grouse 

In my last post I was speculating on the dollars that have been dedicated to Greater Sage-Grouse recovery in Canada since the Emergency Protection Order came down more than a year ago. I have not been able to find actual figures and of course in Harper’s Canada we are not allowed to speak to the staff in Environment Canada who are in charge of Sage Grouse recovery so real information is hard to come by.

In the absence of better numbers I did some rough guessing and talked about the Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP) for species at risk, which the Conservatives love to trot out as a tremendous boon to our endangered species.

To be fair, HSP does a lot of good work, but it is just not enough. And now we are finding out, it is being interfered with and blocked in some cases without just cause.

Some of this continent’s best species at risk scientists work for Environment Canada, but they are hamstrung by poor funding, muzzled by a paranoid PMO office, and in some cases actively subverted by a government that is proving to be hostile to anything that might protect species at risk. Here is the most recent example of that, playing out in Sage Grouse country this winter:

The Alberta Conservation Association, a respected conservation NGO whose members are mostly hunters and fishers, had arranged to purchase a bit more than 1000 acres of deeded native prairie—some Sage Grouse habitat owned by Jim Pitrowski, a rancher in Southeast Alberta. Pitrowski says in this radio interview that he wanted to protect the habitat and was concerned that the land might otherwise be bought by a large farming organization and ploughed under. He has seen similar parcels in his area destroyed and turned into cropland in recent years, he said.

The ACA applied for funding through the Habitat Stewardship Program and passed through the usual screening process without incident. The deal was more or less ready to go when suddenly and without explanation, they were told that Leona Aglukkaq, Environment Canada’s minister, had refused to sign the approval, effectively blocking the purchase.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Ok, so now we have Environment Canada, the ministry responsible for Sage Grouse recovery, blocking funding to a provincial conservation organization in good standing that wants to purchase Sage Grouse habitat.

What is going on here? Who is whispering in Minister Aglukkaq’s ear, telling her to withhold her signature on a grant that went through all of the internal approvals and screening processes?

There is no scientific reason to reject the grant, and the ACA is an organization with a good track record. The ACA, like many other NGOs across Canada who depend on their tax status and federal grants, cannot complain or tell their side of the story, lest they be further penalized.

If you listen to the interview with Jim Pitrowski he makes it clear that he believes that other ranchers intervened somehow. He mentions a new group known as “Sustainable Canada” but when I contacted them they said they were not involved and do not have that kind of influence on the Ministry—which sounds right to me. But someone does have that kind of influence.

Someone in Southeast Alberta who did not want the land to go to the ACA got to Minister Aglukkaq. Was it someone in the oil and gas industry? Perhaps, but it may simply have been someone who lives in the same county where Mr. Pitrowski is trying to sell the land, someone who spoke to his Conservative MP.

We love to think of our ranchers in this part of Canada as conservationist cowboys, as though their “stewardship” uniformly extends to sympathy for the many species at risk on the rangeland they graze. But like any other group of people, ranchers are a diverse lot. Most of the ones I talk to want to do what they can to help the declining birds and other creatures that dwell in grassland. They pay attention to the wild animals around them and are often happy to cooperate with conservation programs when they are asked. But not all ranchers are like that.

Talk to any biologist who has worked on species at risk on Crown grasslands leased by ranchers and they will tell you: most ranchers are good stewards and willing to help, but there are those who are hostile to any kind of conservation program or research on “their” land.

Unfortunately, ranchers who are reluctant to cooperate will sometimes take it to the next level and work at a political level to actively oppose the sale of any land to conservation organizations, arguing that it drives up the price of land and takes it out of grazing production. Land prices are being driven higher by many forces, but conservation is not one of them. The oil and gas industry and land grabs by pension funds and corporate farm operations can take most of the blame. As for not allowing grazing on the land, almost all conservation organizations recognize the need for grazing as a management tool in grasslands ecosystems.

Regardless of who influenced this decision to refuse the funding for this land deal, the bottom line is that Minister Aglukkaq’s office is being influenced more by private interests than by its own scientists. There are biologists and programs ready to go inside the ministry that could help endangered species like the sage grouse, and there is some funding available, but, as we can see from the Pitkrowski story, political interference may be killing good initiatives before they can get underway.
image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Friday, March 13, 2015

Show me the money--where is the money for Sage Grouse recovery?

Last week's post reviewed the Greater Sage-Grouse Emergency Protection Order one year later. In it I asked why ranchers are not reassured when they hear from Environment Canada that “funds are available” for people who want to volunteer to take actions to help the species.

There is money available. In a document called “Questions and Answers to the EPO,” Environment Canada says “The Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) provides funding for projects that conserve and protect species at risk and their habitats. Over the past 13 years, the HSP has supported over 2,100 projects across Canada, contributing over $125 million towards on-the-ground conservation action by partners and stakeholders. The HSP continues to be available to assist individuals and groups seeking to implement actions for the conservation and protection of this species.”

Now, let’s take a look at the math here. $125 million sounds like a lot of money, but if you divide it by 2,100 projects that are supposed to be helping Canada’s Species at Risk, you get an average of just under $60,000 per project. But wait a minute—this $125 million was spread out over 13 years. It takes many years of work to see results in any species recovery work. Let’s assume a minimum of 4 years per project. A project with $60,000 spread out over four years is getting merely $15,000 a year to help a species in trouble. Should this be reassuring to anyone who is worried that they might be left holding the bag for the Sage Grouse recovery?

To be fair, Environment Canada does spend money on its own programs to help species at risk recover—at least I think they do. Canada’s Economic Action Plan (can we have a plan without the word “economic”?) in 2012 stated proudly that it was “providing $50 million over two years to support activities to protect species at risk.” 
Ok, $25 million a year to protect the Whooping Crane, Orca Whale, Caribou and all the other creatures on the list? Canada’s growing roster of species at risk has more than 500 creatures on it. But only 195 of them have actual recovery strategies in place (that is a whole other issue). Let’s say that half of those will spend some of that $25 million a year. How much annual funding goes to each species recovery? About the price of a bungalow in Regina--$250,000. Anyone reassured yet?

Of course, this is a lot of spitball math. How much actual government money is being spent on the recovery of the Greater Sage-Grouse? I don’t have access to all the figures but Alberta and the federal government have put together a total of $4.2 million to spread over a ten year captive breeding and rearing project at the Calgary Zoo.

The Zoo says it will raise another $1.1 million bringing the total to $5.3 million or $530,000 a year over the ten years of the program. Not a lot of money but we can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Let’s say the program works and they breed and rear a lot of Sage Grouse. They can release them into the available sage brush habitat in Saskatchewan and Alberta but clearly there is something amiss in the habitat or else we would not be thinking of raising them in captivity.
Sage brush country (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

And that brings us back to the good ol’ EPO. So far I have not heard of actual dollar amounts that will go to the most important work of all—helping landowners in sage grouse habitat comply with the order without having to pay for any new costs, and paying for programs that will support any landowners who are willing to take special measures to enhance habitat.

Of course, there is always the funding available through the Habitat Stewardship Program mentioned above—whether it is $15,000 a year or $150,000 a year. Not a lot of money but even so how do landowners get it? Do they have to take the initiative and fill out the forms and create the plans and programs themselves? Do they wait for some NGO to come along with a program?

To get some real progress in Sage Grouse country we probably need to work with ten to twenty landowners who have the right habitat and are willing to participate. They will have to go to meetings and take time out to host the biologists and ecologists at their ranchers and perhaps will have to do some of the actual fence work and changes to habitat themselves. If they agree to proposed changes, they may end up changing their grazing plan for the year. Their time and opportunity costs are worth as much as yours or mine. Let’s say, for the sake of argument that an average of $3000 to $6000 per year each would cover the costs incurred by landowners who agree to participate. Assuming fifteen participating landowners, that would amount to a total of somewhere between $45,000 and $90,000 a year.
Telling people that funds are available sounds good, but how do these funds translate into actual support for landowners who we expect to take actions to help the Greater Sage-Grouse? From their perspective the Species at Risk Act makes an endangered species and its habitat a liability. It costs them money, or could cost them money. Until they see some real money supporting the changes to grazing and fencing that they are supposed to sign up for voluntarily, why would they see the Sage Grouse as anything but a hassle?

A couple of weeks ago, region four of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association met for a meeting in the Province's southwest. They passed resolutions to urge the federal government to review or change the Species at Risk Act to make it “less onerous on landowners and land managers.”

Can you blame them? 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A year after the Sage-Grouse EPO

image by Dennis Evans, used in "Grasslands" documentary
A lot has been said in the year since Canada enacted its first ever Emergency Protection Order (EPO) under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), to finally begin doing something to protect the habitat of the nation’s most endangered bird, the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Ranchers who lease Crown land in the roughly 1200 km2 of crown land in Saskatchewan and Alberta where the EPO provisions apply have said they feel betrayed both by Environment Canada and by the conservation communities who sued the Federal Government forcing it to do something for a species they had been dithering over for decades.

There is no point trying to dismiss that feeling of betrayal. It needs to be heard and understood.
If you and your family have been holding onto native grass and grazing it sustainably for generations, working with biologists and government agencies when they show up with their clipboards and habitat programs; and if you have meanwhile seen others in your region plough their grass under when cattle prices dip and grain prices rise, you might get more than a little upset one day when the government announces a new set of restrictions aimed at the way you manage your pastures. 

The way you see it, the rare prairie creatures have only made it into the 21st century because you and other ranchers have stuck with ranching native range even when it wasn’t profitable, even when the government was providing incentives to switch to grain production and everyone else was jumping on a tractor and ploughing the prairie under.

Fewer and fewer ranchers tending a smaller amount of native prairie are now left holding the species-at-risk bag. As the last defenders of native grass, they are naturally going to be upset when they see the government enact laws that focus on what can and cannot be done on the land they graze. After all, it was government policy that brought the plow to the prairie in the first place, and it was government policy that introduced generations of agriculture support programs that continued to cause the cultivation of native grass right through into the 1990s.

That is how the people who live and ranch in Sage Grouse country see things and their perspective must be recognized and respected.

Hereford and Cowbirds

The biologists and species at risk folks at Environment Canada (EC), meanwhile, need to be heard as well. I think it is fair to say that, like the ranchers, the staff at Environment Canada sincerely want to see things work out well for the Greater Sage-Grouse and for the ranching families who graze its remaining habitat.
The biologists and communications people at EC have spent much of the last year trying to recover from the negative reaction the EPO stirred up in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta.

After some initial clumsiness in announcing the EPO, EC has done a much better job of communicating to landowners in recent months.

They have made it clear that, in fact, the EPO does not regulate grazing. It does not restrict, limit or affect grazing levels and stocking rates. The Ministry has produced and distributed some excellent documents that clear up most of the misunderstanding about what the EPO does and does not mean. Take a look at this one that Environment Canada posted online. 

And, while Environment Canada has said that the EPO does not apply to privately-owned land, where it does apply, on Crown lands, they promise that funds are available to producers to make their fences sage grouse-friendly and to take other stewardship measures.

That sounds pretty good. But the ranchers have seen the same documents I have read from Environment Canada, heard the same reassurances that funds are available. Why are they not reassured? I will try to address that question in the next post, but it begs another question—who should hold the bag for species at risk? The tiny minority of ranchers who have been grazing the habitat, or the wider Canadian public that benefits from the stewardship of our last remnants of native prairie?
Black Angus on native range, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Monday, March 2, 2015

Do our farm policies really support stewardship?

1910 steam tractor breaking the land with the new Saskatchewan Legislature looming on the horizon

“These producers are outstanding stewards of the land and . . .  they are in the best position to ensure the future protection of the land they have devoted so much of their lives to.” Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture

“Relatively small investments in small farms would achieve a number of public and private socio-economic benefits.” Paul Hanley, Eleven

I spent part of the afternoon re-reading “A New Agriculture,” Chapter 8 of Paul Hanley’s outstanding new book Eleven. As a central piece in Hanley’s cogently argued re-visioning of the planet’s destiny with eleven-billion humans to feed, this chapter contains the surprising insight that we will have little choice but to move agriculture to the centre of our priorities.
I think he is onto something here. We seem to have fostered a civilization that measures its advance in part by how far we get away from agriculture; how far we can remove ourselves from the land by encouraging high yield mechanized production that converts the fruits of creation into global commodities. Our policy makers and the electorate itself pay little mind to the needs of farmers, though some pay lip service to supporting farm families even as they endorse policies that ensure further consolidation of farm resources into the hands of fewer and fewer producers, industrializing and emptying farm landscapes at the same time.

Hanley says that to make it through the ecological straits associated with feeding eleven billion people on this planet, we are going to have to bring agriculture in from the margins. That means investing resources in the wellbeing of our farm land and farm communities.

In this most agricultural part of Canada, we have an opportunity to take the lead. What has Saskatchewan done lately to invest in the long term viability of the land we use to grow food and the people we use to grow it?

In a couple of weeks, the government will reveal its 2015 budget. We are already being told that it will be a tough one, with cutbacks and belt-tightening to make up for a revenue shortfall from the oil sector. Will there be any new programs that help farmers take care of the land the way they would like to; any funding to foster greater sustainability, watershed protection, carbon sequestration? Any assistance for small farmers who adopt practices that protect our agro-ecosystems from the depredations of the marketplace?

Snow Buntings in a farmer's field in early spring

Or will we hear that some of the few helpful agricultural programs are being cut? I am not sure I believe it, but there are rumours that the Province may cut the Provincial Community Pasture Program, privatizing the lands and turning responsibility for these important grasslands over to the grazing patrons. That move would be one more step in exactly the wrong direction, further driving agriculture to the margins, demonstrating that we really do not care about our food-growing landscapes or the people who work there.

When our provincial Agriculture Minister says that our farmers and ranchers are “outstanding stewards” and in “the best position to ensure the future protection of the land,” he certainly sounds like he does care about the land and the people who farm it.

But the minister's statement is a little like saying that our First Nations people are in the best position to restore their cultures and bring economic wellbeing to their communities. True, but not the whole picture.

A man with the desire and some tools to build a house is in the best position to build a beautiful house to last in ways that will benefit his family and the community. No one else is in a better position. But if the tools, materials, and knowledge he has are not up to the job, or if economics squeeze him between high costs and a poor income, he may not build the beautiful house after all.

Of course farmers and ranchers are in the best position to adopt agricultural practices that steward the land well. Who else would be? No one who lives in a city is in that position. Our farmers and ranchers are the ones we need to adopt land use practices that mitigate climate change, improve soil structure, restore the health of our waterways, reduce erosion and flooding, and increase biodiversity and habitat for species at risk.

Right now, though, only a tiny minority can afford to follow such practices because, aside from political speeches calling them good stewards, every other signal they get from our policy-makers and from the marketplace is driving them in the opposite direction, where saving on costs and maximizing yields will always trump sustainability.

Until we move food and agriculture to the centre, the non food-producing majority who benefit from the stewardship practices we would like to see enacted by the producing minority will not be ready to invest in the kinds of agriculture that will make such stewardship the norm.

If we really believe that our farmers and ranchers are outstanding stewards then we must put our money where our mouths are--both policy-makers and consumers. We must invest in policy and programs that will ensure our farmers and ranchers have the tools, materials, and knowledge to bring that stewardship ethic to bear.

On budget day, will there be any programs to help our cattle producers and farmers through the economics that make it harder to adopt the best practices that sequester carbon, protect watersheds and species at risk? Or will we continue to move agriculture farther from the centre of our priorities and out to the margins?
Barn Swallows swirl around the evidence of bad farm policy


Share this post

Get widget