Monday, August 31, 2015

Ask your local candidate what they will do to protect the prairie

Taken in a coulee at the south end of Lone Tree pasture (former PFRA, now privately managed)

With a federal election on the horizon, we have a chance to ask candidates what they will do to foster the kind of private and public stewardship that will protect our native grasslands and the many rare creatures they contain.

There are lots of things you could throw at the candidate standing on your doorstep looking for your vote, but here is a quick review of what has happened to Canada’s best protected grasslands since 2012. [If you know this stuff, skip to the bottom of this post for a couple of questions you can use when speaking to political candidates and their supporters.]

That was the year that the federal Agriculture minister, Gerry Ritz, announced that his ministry was discontinuing the federal community pasture program, turning 2.2 million acres of grassland, much of it native, over to the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Saskatchewan chose to lease out the pastures to the grazing patrons who use the pastures, just as they lease out smaller co-op pastures and private leased Crown land. 

But there would be no effort to continue any conservation programming for species at risk, and most of the provisions under the federal Species at Risk Act would no longer apply to the rare plants and animals on the land. The conservative stocking rates of the PFRA system to conserve the ecology and viability of the grass would be replaced with higher rates set by the province and the leaseholders. And the stronger federal restrictions governing oil and gas development on pastures would no longer apply.

So, what does this mean to our native prairie? What is being lost? In Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives, Bernard Thraves described the federal PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan as “vital reservoirs of biodiversity . . . [that] deliver essential ecosystem services, such as protecting watersheds and soils.” In the same paragraph he mentions that the World Commission on Protected Areas lists the PFRA pastures as Class VI protected areas, providing critical habitat for endangered species, and says these public lands were recognized in the International Convention on Biodiversity, adopted in Rio at the Earth Summit in 1992.

Justifying his decision, Mr. Ritz said repeatedly that the PFRA program had achieved its goals and therefore could be discontinued. Really? Have I missed something? Have we somehow once and for all managed to conserve our soils, watersheds, and grassland ecosystems into the future? Then how do we account for scenes like this being played out each summer in Saskatchewan?
native grasslands ploughed up north of Swift Current this summer

But even if the grass is not ploughed, a healthy grassland can become overgrazed and infested with invasive species, and lose its species at risk within a few years if pressure to increase revenues overtakes conservation values. 

This summer the southwest of the province had a reminder that drought changes everything. What if we receive the longer, more intense droughts widely predicted by climate-change models? All too soon, we could be wishing we still had the research capacity and rigorous management systems of the PFRA to fall back on.

The PFRA has been a smart investment for Canadians, returning far more in public benefits than its meagre costs.

A study sponsored by Agriculture Canada in 2006 estimated those benefits at $55-million a year, compared with the $22-million required to administer the pastures, more than half which was covered by fees charged for grazing cattle.

Phrases such as “food security” seldom arise at the coffee shop or rink, but many farmers know the PFRA was a bulwark against the forces now consolidating and globalizing the beef industry. With large feeder cattle operations and foreign-owned meat processors tilting the marketplace their way, community pastures have at least the capacity to sustain smaller operators, keeping our national livestock herd connected to local economies.

So that is what Stephen Harper’s government abandoned when Gerry Ritz cut the PFRA pastures. Here are a couple of simple questions to ask a candidate looking for your vote in the upcoming election:
the grace and beauty of Caledonia-Elmsthorpe PFRA pasture, one year away from its transition to private management
  1. The federal government recently abandoned the PFRA pastures system. How will you and your government ensure that there will be publicly accountable management of these important grasslands and other Crown grasslands managed by private producers?

  2. How do you intend to protect the environmental benefits and the cultural heritage our Crown grasslands provide for Canadians, and the grazing opportunities that they offer for smaller livestock producers?

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