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

1 comment:

  1. never knew about this (yet one more Harper govt. environmental suffocation) .. with a species at risk such a key part of what makes our province beautiful I'm heartbroken


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