Sunday, February 26, 2017

The opportunity at Govenlock Community Pasture

There is a large former PFRA pasture in the extreme southwest of the province called Govenlock, named for the nearest settlement (today a ghost town, but a rum-running hub during the Prohibition era), which was founded by William Govenlock who homesteaded in the area and then swung a land deal with the CPR in 1913 to found the town.

At approximately 200 km2, Govenlock serves as critical habitat for at least 13 federally-listed species at risk—including Swift Fox dens, sage flats for Greater Sage-grouse, and nesting sites for Burrowing Owls and Ferruginous Hawks.

Govenlock is an Important Bird Area, designated by Birdlife International—one of the only grassland IBAs in the province. But the pasture is also an important grazing area, and the grazing, when managed for a balance of cattle production and biodiversity, is a vital tool for keeping this arid and short-grass pasture healthy.

Unlike the other 61 PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan, though, the land that was made into Govenlock community pasture was always federal land and therefore it is not being transferred to Saskatchewan government. That difference has presented an opportunity that so far has not been taken up.

A couple of years ago, Environment Canada, conservation groups and the local grazing patrons began discussing the possibility of getting the federal government to retain some of the conservation management at Govenlock, to ensure that the land’s biodiversity and species at risk continue to be part of management priorities. For that to happen, responsibility for the land would have to be transferred from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). Nature groups started to talk about a new National Wildlife Area at Govenlock, or some designation to capture its multi-use nature as rangeland with both cattle-grazing and ecological significance.

In July 2015, the Harper Government announced that the land would be transferred to Environment Canada. Here is the media release posted by the local Conservative MP, David Anderson, at the time.

However, for some reason the process stalled out in the handoff from the Harper Conservative Government to the Trudeau Liberal Government. This week, I heard a rumour that the transfer never did happen and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) still does not have the land.

Meanwhile, in a phone conversation I had with one of the cattle producers who depend on Govenlock for grazing, I learned that, despite the foot-dragging at ECCC, they are still interested in working out some kind of arrangement with the ministry. However, they need long-term grazing agreements that give them some economic stability (no producer can live with one-year terms), and some assurance that the federal government will take care of any costs associated with managing for species at risk and biodiversity.

Ferruginous Hawk on Govenlock sage flats
If National Wildlife Areas are too restrictive and do not allow for long-term grazing agreements, then let’s move on and find a solution that will create a multi-use prairie conservation zone at Govenlock that meets ranchers’ needs for grazing and protects Canada’s 75-year investment in the ecological wellbeing of this important ecosystem and its species at risk.

The Liberal Government has made some strong promises to Canadians in its “Pathway to Canada Target 1” announcements, wherein they have said, “By 2020, at least 17% of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas, are conserved through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.”

In a news release just before Christmas, ECCC Minister Catherine McKenna said that, “by working together with Indigenous groups, non-profit organizations, the private sector, and other stakeholders, we can meet the 17 per cent biodiversity land target for Canada by 2020.”

That sounds very good, but what are they going to do for grassland in Canada? From the hayfields of Nova Scotia where bobolinks struggle to survive to the grassy slopes of the B.C. interior where some of the planet's northern-most long-billed Curlews nest, grasslands in Canada receive very little conservation programming or official protection, compared to alpine, arctic, and forested landscapes.

Govenlock is low-hanging fruit. It represents a relatively easy opportunity for Minister McKenna to do something to protect a 200 km2piece of ecologically rich grassland. It would be an excellent start.

Ranchers in the area are ready and willing to sit down and negotiate terms, and the conservation community from Nature Canada, to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, to the Canadian Wildlife Federation have all been calling on the government to take steps to help producers protect the former PFRA pastures. Why not use Govenlock to pilot a biodiversity and grazing plan that could help Canada and Saskatchewan to keep all of the former PFRA pastures on the protected areas map?

If not, it will become clear that neither Saskatchewan nor the federal government is doing anything to replace the conservation programming on the former PFRA lands and conservation groups will insist that Canada and Saskatchewan de-list all sixty-two pastures, totalling more than 7,000 km2.
Govenlock community pasture--image courtsey of Branimir Gjetvaj at

Friday, February 17, 2017

How is Saskatchewan doing on its protected area targets?

Sask is the worst of the larger provinces (chart from Environment Canada report)

Next week, environment ministers and parks and protected areas ministers from across Canada will be gathering in Alberta to meet with the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change, the Hon. Catherine McKenna. The plan is to talk about two topics: species at risk, and meeting protected areas targets.

Will Saskatchewan’s ministers be going? I phoned the offices of Saskatchewan’s Environment Minister, the Hon. Scott Moe, and our Minister of Parks, the Hon. Ken Cheveldayoff today to see if they are planning to attend. The woman who answered the phone in Mr. Cheveldayoff’s office said no, he will not be attending. When I called Scott Moe’s office I spoke to a woman in charge of his calendar and she said she cannot share the minister’s calendar details with the public, although yes he did receive an invitation. But, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he will be there representing the province in this important discussion.

Why are protected areas important? Well, believe it or not, nature is actually the stuff that makes life possible on the planet—the soil, air, water, climate and species that we depend upon. The earth is running out of landscapes where those ecological goods and services are being protected from the kinds of urban, agricultural, and industrial development that harm them. Protected areas are vital sources of ecological integrity and diversity that we will need more than ever under climate change scenarios of flood and drought.

Over the last twenty-some years Saskatchewan has joined with the rest of Canada in signing a series of national and international agreements on protected areas, beginning with 1992’s United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. That same year Saskatchewan signed on to the “Statement of Commitment to Complete Canada’s Networks of Protected Areas.” At that time, 12% was set as the target for protecting a percentage of each province’s total area. The intention was to protect that percentage of our forests, grasslands, and wetlands, to ensure representation of the full range of the province’s biodiversity.

Saskatchewan got to work and within five years unveiled its Representative Areas Network (RAN), devising a plan to reach the 12% target by the year 2000. While we were making steady progress in the early years of RAN, we stalled out at 8.7 per cent or 9.7 per cent depending on which report you read. Our grassland ecoregions in the south are stuck at well under 6%.

this graph from one of the more recent reports on protected areas
posted by Saskatchewan`s Environment Ministry shows
that we flat-lined in 2004

Meanwhile, the international targets on protection have moved. In 2010 Canada signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, raising the bar to a target of 17% by the year 2020.

So if you were Saskatchewan’s Minister of Environment heading to a meeting to discuss protected areas what would you report? What could you say about what your government has done in recent years and what it plans to do in the next few years?

Well, first you would point to a huge protected area we added to our Representative Areas Network in 2013—the Pink Lake Representative Area Ecological Reserve 160 kilometres north of La Ronge in the Churchill River Upland Ecoregion, the 3600 sq km reserve is our biggest protected area. That addition has the province now claiming that it protects 9.7% of its area—far below the target of 17% and still the worst in Canada excluding the maritimes and NWT.

But believe me it is hard to find any recent reports from Saskatchewan on protected areas progress. However, a friend just today sent me this map recently printed in Canadian Geographic (Walker, N. (2017). ["To preserve and protect: All of Canada's protected areas on one map." Canadian Geographic 137(1): 32-33.) celebrating all of Canada’s wonderful protected areas. ]

a snip from a map in Canadian Geographic article about protected areas in Canada

Yep, it is pretty up to date. There’s big ol’ Pink Lake, all fat and sassy up north so I am sure they got the data from the right source--the The CARTS (Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System) geodatabase, which is run by the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas.

But, hold on, down in the south there are all these little green dots that look very familiar (red circle in southwest corner on this map). Hey, what the heck!—Saskatchewan is still claiming the federal community pastures as protected areas!

That can’t be. Those pastures, all 1.8 million acres, are being leased out to cattle producers and run entirely for private profit from grazing. They have no support or programming for conservation, and the Province is trying to get the cattle producers to buy them! Manitoba decided to not sell their 20 pastures but even they have de-listed them as protected areas. Either the Sask. government is practicing make believe conservation here or playing fast and loose with the facts to make it look like we are making progress towards our protected areas goals.

Any way you slice it, Saskatchewan should have to remove 1.8 M acres from its protected areas tally. If we were honest and did delete them, this province would have to admit it is actually losing ground in its protected areas effort, and the grassland ecozone, already the least represented, would be looking very thin in any kind of protection—thank God for Grasslands National Park and the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s preserve at Old Man on His Back.

But let’s back up a minute—Saskatchewan doesn’t get all the blame for the loss of protection for the federal pastures. They were a federal responsibility for 75 years after all. Sure it was the Harper government that pulled the plug on the program, but the current administration can’t just shrug its shoulders and walk away from a process that is removing protection from millions of acres of the most endangered ecosystem on the planet.

It is not too late for Ottawa to do something good for the grasslands that Stephen Harper cut loose. This year will see the transfer of the last twenty or so community pastures. These are the big ones with the highest ecological value and the longest lists of species at risk. Most are in the southwest of the province. 

One trio—Govenlock, Nashyln, and Battle Creek—together make 812 square kms of grassland right along the Montana border—that’s bigger than Waterton Lakes National Park. There is a terrific opportunity here to grant official protection to the remaining pastures being transferred or at least to those three in the southwest. Failing that, the federal government has a responsibility to find its own way to ensure that the conservation legacy on the former federal pastures is not lost in the handoff from their agriculture ministry to the provinces to the private cattle producers who graze them.

But Saskatchewan has ample opportunity too with the transfer of the pastures to increase its protected areas quotient. It would not be hard—in fact, the Saskatchewan Party in its very first election platform promised us it would establish a new wilderness park. They have not delivered on that yet. We have two wilderness parks already in the north—Clearwater and Athabasca—why not make one in the south?

We could grassland wilderness park along Lake Diefenbaker from up river of sk landing to the bend south of Douglas plus parts of Beechy, Matador, and Monet. Gosh that would look good on a map, and make it a whole lot easier to attend ministerial meetings on protected areas.
much of that big streak of green along the South Sask River
could be included in a grasslands protected area or grassland
wilderness park

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mapping Our Birds--the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas kicks off in 2017

this image I took of a Long-billed Curlew nestling (and others with parents in view)
 confirms its status as a breeding species in Grasslands National Park
How far south do loons breed in Saskatchewan? Are some songbird breeding ranges shifting north under climate change? Do White-faced Ibis breed in the Qu'Appelle watershed?

In the next five years, fresh answers to those and many other questions about the province's breeding birds will emerge. 2017 will see the launch of five summers of field work aimed at figuring out which species of birds are breeding where in Saskatchewan. While preparations and planning were underway last year, Bird Studies Canada (BSC) and its partners officially launched the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas in the New Year, with an attractive new website and a solid plan in place. 

To manage the data collection, the atlas design subdivides Saskatchewan into 6,900 10 km by 10 km squares. Even with that army of volunteers and a crack team of scientists, skilled staff people and an energetic coordinating committee, it won't be possible to survey every one of those squares. 

In a recent article posted by Planet S in Saskatoon, project coordinator Kiel Drake said that they will follow "a sampling grid" that will provide representation of the province's geography and birdlife, aiming for somewhere between 1300 and 1500 atlas squares. On each of these he said they hope to get 20 hours of "general atlassing". 

Even at the low target of 1300 atlas squares covered in five years, that amounts to a total of 26,000 atlassing hours--more than five thousand hours a year. That could be achieved with fifty atlasers averaging 100 hours a summer or 100 atlasers averaging fifty hours--or some such multiples.

Daunting? Perhaps, but Manitoba just finished up their five years of survey work--and if they can do it so can we. This is where you and I come in--as volunteers. 

Of course the more skilled you are at identifying birds the better, but not everyone is a hotshot ear-birder who can nail down the hiss of a Nelson's sparrow a half kilometre away. Meanwhile, there are thousands of Saskatchewan people who are confident identifying certain familiar species--for example waterfowl or farm yard birds. They may not think of themselves as birders but they pay attention to the birds they know and leave the rest aside. This too is a perfectly legitimate way to help out as a citizen scientist. For the Saskatchewan Atlas project you could sign up to help in your region (the province is divided into sixteen regions, each with their own volunteer coordinator), and then simply report breeding data on the species that you can comfortably identify.
a screen capture of the southern half of the Breeding Bird Atlas map of regions

And if you choose to, you could take some of the bird ID training that will be available during the atlas project, and increase your list of the birds you can identify. 

Regardless, throughout the five years, there will be help on hand if you are uncertain of the identification of a particular bird. Of course it helps if you can take a photograph, even a fuzzy one, and email it to your regional coordinator.

As for the more skilled birdwatchers out there--now is the time for you to step up and give something back to nature. You have had many pleasant hours chasing vagrants, watching the warblers pass through on a spring morning or the hawks head south in fall. The birds need you to give a few of your mornings this summer to the atlas. The breeding data you help gather will provide the kind of information we need to recognize, defend and protect breeding habitat from south to north in the province. Without solid data on breeding bird populations, the pressure to reduce regulation and government oversight, and the logic of endless economic growth will continue to destroy the places our birds need to nest and rear their young.

Healthy landscapes that support a diversity of breeding birds are healthy landscapes for all of us. 

Please register to help with the atlas when you get a minute--using this web page from the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas site.

this dapper fellow, a Black-crowned Night Heron, breeds at certain choice
wetlands throughout Region 8 of the Sask. Breeding Bird Atlas

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