Friday, March 31, 2017

Inspiration from the best of our ranchers

Ponteix rancher, Orin Balas (left) showing his excellently managed prairie to
Bob McLean from the Canadian Wildlife Service

The Province is saying it will dismantle Saskatchewan's provincial community pastures system. Not good news, but here is a four-step process on how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear:

1. First, for inspiration and food for thought, take a look at this short, ten minute video (below) put out by the South of the Divide ConservationAction Program (Sodcap). It is called "Prairie Pride" and features some of Southwest Saskatchewan’s best private managers of native rangeland, ranchers who graze large expanses of Crown grasslands on long-term private lease holdings—much of which would be included under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.

Listen to what they have to say. The video contains a hopeful, aspirational message that speaks to possibilities that could help us make that silk purse.

Now, keeping in mind the stewardship ethos expressed so well in the video by those three ranchers—good people I have had the privilege to meet—let yourself imagine a partnership between private interest (cattle producers), the wider public interest (government administered Crown grasslands of various kinds), and the local community interest of rural areas—a partnership that would aim to foster a mix of private and public benefits: economic, cultural, social, and ecological, including improved carbon sequestration and climate resiliency.

How? Take the gospel of stewardship and prairie protection we heard from the ranchers in the video and use public policy to help it spread across our prairie ecozone to all land managers—First Nations, farmers, mixed farmers and other ranchers.

Next, consider the moment and its rich possibilities:

a.) The last of the former PFRA federal community pastures, and the biggest ones with the highest ecological values in terms of biodiversity and species at risk density, are poised to be transferred to Saskatchewan and then placed into private management for cattle production by groups formed by the former grazing patrons.

b.) First Nations in the province are concerned about the sell-off of Crown lands and meanwhile are increasingly interested in land management opportunities.

c.) Organizations launched by ranchers, from Sodcap to Ranchers Stewardship Alliance to the Prairie Conservation Action Plan (PCAP) are concerned about the business risks that Species at Risk pose for private producers. This is a reality. If land managers see SAR as a liability, bad stuff happens.

d.) The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture just announced that it is planning to close its provincial community pastures program, but it is inviting the public to join in a discussion on what should happen to these fifty pieces of land containing 780,000 acres, some of which is native and some of which is tame grass.

4. Finally, take a look at maps that show the federal and provincial pastures, as well as the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act grasslands nearby—here is an example below.
click on the image to see a larger version: pale green pieces are PFRA pastures,
the baby blue in the middle is Arena Provincial Community pasture, and the
small violet squares are WHPA lands leased as private holdings. Most of the dark
brown area remaining is private land that has been cultivated.

Now, keeping the grazing needs of cattle producers in mind, consider that as of today all of that land is still Crown provincial land—most of it leased out or soon to be leased out privately—but as Crown land it remains an instrument of public policy. Interesting possibilities come to mind, but any seizing of this opportunity would have to arise from the cattle producers of the region, but then widen to include the interests of the public that would ultimately be helping to absorb the costs of any programming or support.

Each region has its own soil and climate and therefore may need its own solution—a solution initiated locally that would honour and take advantage of the two kinds of range management knowledge that have been keeping the best of our Crown grasslands in good condition for generations: one, the traditional, intergenerational knowledge of private managers, which reaches back through some Indigenous land managers into the distant past, and two, the science of the range ecologists and biologists who support and work closely with private cattle producers.

With a new vision of how public lands, private interest and the community can work together in grassland regions, and the right support from the conservation community and federal and provincial governments, those two sides of range management knowledge and science could ensure that the example of stewards like those shown in Prairie Pride will not only live on in one corner of the province but will begin to spread to other areas as well.

Who knows? One day the pipits, longspurs, shrikes and burrowing owls that have vanished from large portions of their range might return. Once a better private-public bargain is in place and producers are feeling supported and appreciated, the ethic of stewardship could even extend to grassland restoration, helping to connect some of our isolated expanses of native grassland with richer habitat suitable for cattle production as well.

In the bargain, Saskatchewan could be proud of its contribution to national protected areas and carbon sequestration targets by working with land managers to increase our percentage of the prairie ecozone under protection and our net storage of carbon in soils under well-managed perennial cover. 

Now that would be prairie pride times ten.
Govenlock area rancher Randy Stokke on a Sodcap field tour

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Keep your hands off our public lands

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Ok, the vandals in charge of the legislature have delivered another sucker punch to our natural prairie, announcing in the budget that they will be disposing of the 51 provincial community pastures, likely putting them up for sale.

Among our large provinces and territories (i.e. excluding the Maritimes), Saskatchewan already leads the nation in the ratio of private land to public. Across Canada, 11% of land is privately owned. In B.C. 7% of land is private. In Alta, 30%. Saskatchewan is at 40% but south of the boreal forest in this province the figure is 80% and rising. In fact, believe it or not, by 1980 24% of all privately held land in Canada was in Saskatchewan[i]—almost all of it in the Prairie Ecozone. And now we are adding more?

southern Saskatchewan has 24% of all private land in Canada

Canada keeps its forested ecosystems public (94% of forested lands are Crown owned) to ensure they are managed for a mix of private and public interests. What about our grasslands, which have very little protection and are much more endangered than our forests?

Once we privatize Crown land, easements or not, we severely weaken our ability to create and enforce the laws, regulations and policies required to meet any priorities for sustainable grassland management for the wider public interest: climate change mitigation and carbon management, species at risk, biodiversity, soil and water conservation, heritage conservation, access for education and recreation....and so on.

Our Crown lands—so scarce in the south—are the last shadows of the prairies we were entrusted to share and protect together under treaty, the closest thing we have to land held in common for the benefit of all treaty people.

If we stand by and let this government sell them off, we will be abandoning any possible renewal of the spirit in which the treaties were signed, and inviting a new form of colonization taking us even further from any legitimate social contract with the land and its first peoples.

There is no dressing up this kind of decision—when you strip the protection from large expanses of old growth prairie that were listed under the province’s Representative Areas Network (RAN) you are essentially saying that their protection does not matter.

Crown conservation easements on their own cannot protect the habitat and its many rare and threatened species. Saskatchewan Agriculture has neither the staff nor the desire to monitor and prosecute private producers who violate any of its existing regulations—are we to believe they will enforce easements on all of the public lands they are selling off?

Twenty-eight of the provincial pastures totaling 240,000 ha (593,000 acres) are listed as protected areas under RAN, which contributes to Canada’s national totals of protected areas it reports to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Until the Wall government got hold of our Crown lands, Saskatchewan had 2.4 M ha (5.9 M acres) of land in the Prairie Ecozone under RAN protection. You could call that 2.4 M ha a good start but this government is taking the scant RAN protection we had in the prairie ecozone and slashing it by thirds.

First the PFRA federal pastures lose their protection and conservation programming. That subtracts 720,000 ha from RAN. Then they sell another 720,000 ha of Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands that were also listed under RAN. Add the 230,000 ha portion of the provincial pastures that have been included in RAN and now instead of Saskatchewan protecting 2.4 M ha of the Prairie Ecozone, we are down to a mere 760,000 ha—which is about 3% of the ecozone’s 24 M hectares, and abysmally short of the Canada 2020 target of 17% protection for Canada’s ecozones.

Stay posted. This land is worth fighting for. On a stage in downtown Regina tonight, I heard Joel Plaskett and his father Bill sing a new song that ends with these words:

The next blue sky is ours. 
We're in this fight to win
and we will.

[i] Land Use in Saskatchewan. P.C. Rump and Kent Harper. Saskatchewan Environment. 1980. p. 56

Friday, March 3, 2017

Auctioning off the Farm: Satellite Views of Crown Land up for Auction

Saskatchewan's Provincial Bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, is
 declining and needs the grassy habitats Crown lands provide

Ok, so the Ministry of Agriculture is saying that the 80 parcels of land it is auctioning off this month have little or no ecological value.

Let’s check that out with a little help from Google Maps satellite view and the Province’s Agricultural Crown Land Map Viewer.

The first parcel I searched for on the Crown Land Map Viewer was NW 12-28-3 W3rd, in the Rural Municipality of Rosedale, south of Kenaston and west of Bladworth. As you can see in the screen capture below, the parcel of 160 acres is part of a larger block of Crown land (marked in pink) totaling 800 acres, and only one mile east of an even larger block of Crown land totaling 2,560 acres. 

Click on image to see a larger view

Together the two discontinuous pieces of Crown land make up more than 3,300 acres.

Ok, that is a lot of land but maybe it’s all cultivated land with no natural cover of any kind, no habitat or ecological value.

To figure that out, we have to go to Google’s satellite view and see what is there. Here it is, with red marking the Crown land and yellow indicating the Crown quarter up for auction.

Click on the image to get a bigger view. And then look at this view from higher up to see the surrounding area.

You don’t need a lot of experience reading satellite images to see that the Crown land appears to be grassland of some kind, and most of the surrounding privately-owned parcels have been cultivated to grow annual crops.

It has a small ephemeral stream running through it and appears to be under permanent cover—which means, whether it is native grass or partly tame grass, it sequesters more carbon, provides natural habitat for prairie creatures like the Sharp-tailed Grouse, protects biodiversity, and does a better job of conserving soil and water, and handling the extremes of drought and flood, than the surrounding private land under cultivation.

But there is one more way to see if it is native grassland or not.

The quarter up for sale (marked in yellow) is listed by the Province in its Crown Land Search feature online, which tells you what condition the land is in, using a category they call "Production State". Here is the results when I searched for this quarter near Kenaston up for auction:

Ok, it is native grassland, but as you can see in the satellite image the quarter not just an isolated fragment; it is attached to hundreds of acres of habitat and in close association with thousands.

I did some more digging and found that the remaining 640 acres (four quarters), which are also native grassland, are also for sale--not in this public auction but to the current lessee if they choose to buy.

What's more, there are no restrictions preventing sale or requiring conservation easements for the quarter section of native prairie up for auction nor the adjoining four quarters of Crown native grassland.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been telling us that no native grass is being sold without an easement. Are they lying or just wreckless?

Let's look at another parcel.

Here is a screen capture from the Crown Land Map Viewer showing a parcel up for auction in the RM of Eagle Creek, whose legal description is NW 30-37-12 W3rd.
Click on image for a bigger view

This parcel is not connected to the main larger chunk of Crown land to the south but only a half mile away. Now let’s go to the Google Satellite View to see whether the parcel for sale has natural cover and if the intervening private land makes a natural corridor or is broken land.
Click image for larger view

Whoa--this is native grass, and a lot of it. Ok, yes, there are a few acres of plowed land just south of the quarter up for auction, but the parcel itself appears to be native grassland and it is nearly surrounded by more of it. This Crown land is part of a large block of native prairie—some of which is private but some is likely Wildlife Habitat Protection Act land. 

We have less than 20 per cent of our native prairie remaining in this province. It is the most endangered ecosystem on the continent. Why would the parcel rate as low or moderate ecological value?

Doing some more clicking on the Crown Land Map Viewer, I launched the “Search Crown Land” feature in the green box pointing at the parcel, then went one more layer into the data to find a small table indicating that the parcel has “Heritage Value,” which may “restrict or limit the sale, use or development of the land.” Hmmm. Are there archeological sites on the land? There may well be.

The Ministry of Agriculture, let’s assume, has deemed that this parcel is of “moderate ecological value,” and therefore it will be one of the few that will have a conservation easement when it is sold, but I have no confidence in the capacity of an underfunded and understaffed government agency like Agriculture to monitor or enforce its easements all over the countryside.

These parcels were placed in the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act for a good reason. De-listing them now has nothing to do with ecological science and everything to do with political ideology and the short-term thinking that is forcing ministries to help balance the books by selling off assets and cutting the hours of staff.

A couple of years ago the Wall Government called in its few remaining scientists and made them rank the ecological value of WHPA lands. The biologists and ecologists did what they were told and devised a system called the Crown Ecological Assessment Tool. But they did not sign off on or approve the Province’s choice of where to draw the line that would determine what can be sold and what must be retained. That was entirely a political choice, like a university professor marking his students on a curve.

A certain percentage is required to fail and the line is drawn at an arbitrary place to make sure that happens. In this case, the Wall Government decided it wanted to hit a certain revenue target so they drew the line just above the place that would allow them to sell roughly 1.8 million acres. Arbitrary, political, and ideological—the placement of that line had nothing to do with the science of determining which land is worthy of protection under the Crown.

It is a strategy that sells well in the board rooms of industry and land developers because it removes government oversight and environmental regulations from a lot of land. 

It might even please farmers who have the financial support to buy the land, but it does nothing for the majority of farmers faced with escalating costs amid increasing pressure for them to steward ecological services that the rest of us benefit from.

What about the rest of us? Are we going to sit by and watch even more Aspen bluffs bulldozed, wetlands drained, and grass plowed under: the province’s rural landscapes sacrificed to produce high yield crops and country estates for people with out-of-province money?
The Common Pintail, no longer common, needs the kind of habitat our
Crown farm lands have always provided

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