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


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bring back the Great White Birds of the Plains, Part III

After posting Parts I and II of "Bring back the Great White Birds of the Plains," I received a note from Kerry Finley, the retired biologist who did the research and put together the story of the last Whooping Cranes to breed in Saskatchewan. Kerry, who reminds me that he is not so much "irascible" as he is "cantankerous" (though only when necessary, he says), has some more facts and reflections to add to the narrative as well as some pertinent images. Here is what he sent along a few days ago:

Since Trevor has shone a light on the future of the PFRA pastures and endangered species, it is ironic that it falls on the R.M. of Progress, and a large chapter in - not only my life - but in Canadian history. His beam focused on the moment it came together – early on a fine spring morning of May 8th, 2012, on an isolated dirt road running along the four-strand PFRA fence, near Shallow Lake, the last nesting grounds of the whooping cranes on the prairies. It was the moment that Bill Cholin pulled out the ‘Yellow Poster’ and laid it out on the hood of the truck. It was an unplanned historic occasion, going back to the remarkable coincidence of three events in 1922 – the discovery of the last breeding ground by Neil Gilmour of the provincial museum, the killing of a whooping crane family by my grandfather, and federal protection under the International Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916.

2012 expedition--from left, Lorne Scott, Bill Cholin, and George Archibald

My first natural history anecdote, published in 1972, was based on the infamous photograph of my grandfather and Mr. Perry’s “crime scene”, dully titled “A 1921 photograph of Whooping Crane”. It was a crime, their friend, Dinny Hanbidge, later-judge and Lieutenant-Governor, told them that Ottawa would hang them for, so the evidence was hidden until my grandfather confided it, and Mr. Perry confessed. The year was based on his recollection, and was only recently corrected in my follow-up article “Return of the Golden Bird” (200?). In fact, it happened in the autumn of 1922, and I was able to reconstruct the setting and circumstances.

Only two years prior to my revealing this dark family secret, I’d been initiated into Gruidae (Crane) culture, in my first job as the caretaker of the “international crane breeding centre” under Al Oeming at the Alberta Game Farm. Little did I know that George Archibald had begun his career at the same facility a few years earlier, before co-founding the International Crane Research facility in Aldo Leopold country, Wisconsin. So when I first met George, on the evening before our rendezvous with Bill Cholin and others, we had much to catch up on, as I took him on a brief tour around the Progress PFRA pasture.

A year earlier George had read my article on the Golden Bird and one day I received a real letter in the mail, thanking me for my observations, concluding with this inspiration : “And what a goal it is to return Whooping Cranes as breeding residents on the prairies of Saskatchewan!” Dr. George Archibald, International Crane Research Centre.

It was a golden evening, the prairie lush, the sloughs full of waterfowl, as the last small flocks of the Sandhill Cranes migrated through on their way to Alaska (where George was headed on his peripatetic schedule), and onward, I learned from him, to Siberia. We heard a Sprague’s Pipit and an Upland Sandpiper sing, prompting thoughts of Aldo Leopold. We saw a White-tailed Jackrabbit, and a Ferruginous Hawk on its nest in the long-abandoned schoolyard, where Archie Smith and his siblings attended school (see Trevor’s blog re: Archie’s contributions), before the settlers were bought out and the sandy area amalgamated into a large community pasture.

George was deeply impressed at how much wilderness had been reclaimed under PFRA management. I told him about my foray the previous autumn around the great marsh, in relation to the diorama at the Saskatchewan Natural History Museum, that had so impressed me, and so many young prairie naturalists. Its location had been deliberately obscured to protect the last breeding pairs.

Diorama at Royal Sask Museum, formerly "Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History"
I recalled the time, when I was about six, that I got on a homemade ice sailboard with my dad’s friend, and we sailed wildly to the far side of the big marsh, only to discover that the thrill was going down-wind, and my trusted adult, no sailor. After the interminable walk back, I never set foot in the vast monotonous, short-grass pasture in spite of the fact that I was an avid hunter and naturalist, until the previous autumn when I traced Neil Gilmours footsteps around the southern shore.

Crane and coyote tracks on shores of Shallow Lake

George was surprised that no-one had bothered, in ninety years, to retrace the expedition, or evaluate the particular features that constituted their archetypal habitat … even though one of the long, outstanding recommendations of the International Crane Recovery team was to re-establish Whooping Cranes on the Canadian prairies. The last time that that prospect had been investigated was during a drought when most of the large alkali sedge marshes had dried out, and though these particular sites were identified from the historical accounts, it was a literature review, without any hands-on experience. In fact, because of the drought, it was recommended that possible re-introduction sites should be in the inter-lake district of Manitoba or in Last Mountain Lake. This plan was not followed up because of the disastrous initial steps in the re-introduction and cross-fostering programs, which have cooled any enthusiasm for re-introduction into populated areas.

Yet, as I pointed out to George as we passed invisible “Baloil”, rural Saskatchewan has been greatly de-populated since my grandfather’s time and places like Shallow Lake are actually protected by their monotony, and their administration as community pastures. As if on cue, the appearance of a Jackrabbit, along a carragana row, allowed me to unleash some of my local traditional knowledge and natural history, which, as Trevor noted, has gotten me into trouble from time to time. 

My exhilaration at seeing the date of December 1922 on the the Yellow Poster, was not only due to the exoneration of my grandfather and Mr. Perry. They did not willfully kill a protected species. In fact, in the long run, nothing matters except the protection of their known archetypal habitat. The touch-down of the radio-tagged “Golden Bird” and its parents in 1982 indicates that their innate desire for traditional habitats is as deep as their deep ancestry.

In 2016, Canada will be recognizing the 100th anniversary of the International Migratory Treaty.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sowing the land with hope: Sunrise Farm

Gate sign at Don and Marie Ruzicka's farm--for the Ruzicka's, the meadowlark is a symbol of the land's recovery

This week I am posting a story from a friend who reads Grass Notes from time to time. Don Ruzicka is a farmer who has found ways to make a living growing food while keeping the ecosystems on his land healthy and alive. Sunrise Farm, his 800 acres of prairie parkland near Killam, Alberta grows pasture-fed chickens, laying hens, turkeys, beef cattle, and hogs, but it also grows some native prairie, badgers, Mountain bluebirds, Sprague’s pipits, and a long list of other birds including 18 kinds of waterfowl.

a Mountain Bluebird nesting in one of 240 nest boxes Don has erected

I remember once Don telling me that he believes our agriculture is compromising who we are as a "prairie people". He believes that, while it is important to be financially sustainable, those who switch to more ecologically sustainable models experience a change, a "peace and contentment” that comes from rebuilding and restoring the integrity to the land that industrial agriculture eventually destroys.

I invited Don to write a guest post for Grass Notes, describing that shift he and his wife Marie made away from conventional high-yield farming toward peace of mind.

Here is his story, along with a string of photos at the end--all provided by Don:

A question that I have long pondered regards the definition of “success” when it comes to farming. I read many agriculture publications and the picture that comes to mind is that it is based on the number of acres owned and rented; the size and how new the tractor, combine, air seeder, sprayer, grain hauler and grain storage system are. The latest SUV and pick-up also appear to be key indicators as well as a condo or home in some “away” place where the mercury favours the top end of the thermometer.

When we moved to the farm in 1983, many of the above were on my radar of possible achievements. We grew grain and raised cattle for the commodities market. Our debt load spiraled out of control. To stop the bloodletting, I began to clear trees, work up wetlands and sloughs and turn native prairie upside down in order to grow more grain. The short story regarding this first chapter of our life on the farm is that I failed. I could find many excuses but in all honesty, my management decisions were not sound. I took on too much debt along with expectations of bountiful crop yields and high grain prices.

Our debt load ballooned to where there was no way out other than to sell the farm or change the way we farmed. We signed up for a holistic management course in the fall and winter of 1995-96. This course was quite humbling for me. We learned that those wetlands, sloughs, trees and native prairie that I had found to be expendable, were essential pieces of the prairie ecosystem. When we finished the 8 day course, we were excited because we could see there was a "way" that we could remain on the farm by going in the opposite direction; rebuild the ecosystem and move to an “organic niche market” way of farming. To erase the debt, we sold two quarters of land and all of our grain farming equipment.

We seeded all of the crop land to pasture and began planting trees and restoring the wetlands. Our new grass based model of farming was taken from Joel Salatin’s example where he pastures poultry and hogs and raises cattle on a total forage diet. It is an agrarian way of farming which does not depend on expensive technology and is considerably more labour intensive than conventional agriculture.

According to a study by the World Wildlife Federation, our planet has lost 50% of its wildlife since 1970. I had no idea that these parts of the prairie ecosystem that I had trashed, when we first began farming, were necessary to provide food, clean water and air for essential human wellbeing. I had not consulted what author Wes Jackson refers to as “the genius of place,” or, “what does nature require of me here?” Rather, I had imposed my own will on the land which I call “farmer knows best.”

It is puzzling to some that rather than seek advice from the agri business dealer about what our farm requires, I now consult with riparian specialists, waterfowl biologists, ornithologists, entomologists, agroforesters and ecologists. These folks offer advice on how much to take and more importantly, how much to leave.

Authors Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold have been welcome teachers on the journey. Wendell writes, “when we realize how much is enough; we know how much is too much.” This way of farming has taught us how much is too much. If we want too much, the land pays the price. Leopold’s definition of a land ethic is that “it reflects the existence of an ecological conscience which in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.”

I have had the conversation more times than I care to remember about which comes first; financially sustainable or environmentally sustainable? I don't win too many debates when I explain that environmental sustainability must come first. I have seen examples of farmers who make the money first and then there seems to be improved technology that needs to be purchased and there is never enough money to restore the ecosystem side of the equation and nature loses--again.

If there is going to be a future of hope for those who come after us, I think we will all have to lower our expectations of what we need to be happy and that is an uncomfortable discussion for many. There is not a meal that we sit down to where we do not give thanks. We feel that we are blessed to be able to enjoy the bounty of the land and often everything but the salt, pepper and milk products are from the farm. Perhaps we have selfishly redefined "success."

Don says that the badgers "have landed immigrant status on our farm. They roam our pastures and keep the gopher populations in check without the use of strychnine"

Female bluebird on the nest

Annual bird surveys turn up more than sixty species on the farm
Hog shelters hooked onto a retired Doepker rod weeder.  Shelters are moved twice daily
Don: "After fencing off our 10 dugouts, dragon flies made a come back as we had unknowingly created habitat for them.  They are policing the grass hopper populations on the farm."
Two row shelter belt with maples on the right row and a variety of berry bushes like sea buckthorn, buffalo berry, hawthorn, chokecherry and pincherry in the other.  These diverse shelterbelts provide habitat for many birds but also native pollinators.  The closer to the shelterbelt, the more prolific the alfalfa grows. The snow trapped by these trees also provides moisture for the pasture
cattle grazing along electric fence with new wildlife plantings (Don has planted hundreds of thousands of bushes and trees on the farm)

An "eco-buffer" planting made with support and consultation of the PFRA shelterbelt system before the Harper government gutted the program


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Bring back the Great White Birds of the Plains--Part II

this lovely image courtesy of Val Mann

Not far from the town of Kerrobert in west-central Saskatchewan, sixty some kilometres east of the Alberta border, there is a series of large wetlands--broad, alkali marshes--where the prairie Whooping Crane in the early 1920s made its last stand. It is believed that this small remnant was one of the last groups of free-nesting Whooping Cranes to breed anywhere outside Wood Buffalo National Park.

Bill Cholon of Luseland, born in the dustbowl of the 1930s, recalls his father speaking of the big white cranes or “herons” that nested at one of these wetlands, which is still known as “White Heron Lake.” His father told him he saw Whooping Cranes nesting in the early 1920’s after a great prairie fire roared over the plains, forcing them to flee to the eastern shore of the big marsh.

Here is a satellite image of the lake today:

The next to last official nest record for Whooping Cranes outside Wood Buffalo N.P. (and at the time no one knew about the Wood Buffalo breeding grounds), comes from a few miles away from White Heron Lake at another wetland near the town of Baliol, which no longer exists.

The nearest large slough to Baliol today is called “Shallow Lake,” sometimes called “Baliol Lake,” a couple of miles to the southwest. Here is a satellite image of Shallow Lake:

If you know anything about the way native prairie looks on satellite photography, you may have already noticed that both of these large shallow lakes are surrounded by native grass. In fact, each of these historically and ecologically significant wetlands exists on federal PFRA community pastures. Shallow Lake is part of Progress Community Pasture in the Rural Municipality of Progress and White Heron Lake is in Mariposa Community Pasture in the Rural Municipality of Mariposa.

Kerry Finley grew up not far from these prairie wetlands on a farm close to Luseland. Kerry is a rare biologist (spent much of his career in kayaks studying Canada’s Bowhead Whales), whose respect for natural history and other forms of traditional and non-scientific knowledge has gotten him in trouble from time to time. An inveterate and some would say irascible defender of prairie wildness, he has dug into the story of those last Whooping Cranes, beginning with the local lore that came to him through his grandfather and other local Luseland people.

In the fall of 1922, Kerry’s grandfather, J.V. Finley, and a friend named Joe Perry, shot two Whooping Cranes at Buffalo Coulee, fifteen miles straight south of Luseland and a couple of miles southwest of Shallow Lake. Here is the photo taken at the time. (“Yvonne,” written at the bottom, was Kerry’s aunt, born in 1919.)

From today’s perspective, we are aghast that someone would kill a Whooping Crane (they actually shot three, but only retrieved two), but this incident occurred in a moment in Canada’s history when we were just beginning to enact laws and treaties to conserve birds. In 1918, Canada signed a new Migratory Bird Treaty Act, taking an important step toward protecting all migratory birds from unregulated hunting. Enforcement would fall to game guardians, men appointed by the Crown and paid abysmally to travel wide stretches of countryside policing the hunting and fishing practices of settlers.

On the 19th of May in 1922, the year Finley and Perry shot the Whooping Cranes at Buffalo Coulee, Saskatchewan’s first game guardian, Neil Gilmour, traveled to Shallow Lake to look for Whooping Crane nests. His notes say he soon found a pair of nesting adults but it took him hours of tromping the muddy margins of the lake before he came upon the nest in a small patch of open water: “The nest resembled a half-submerged cock of hay, flat on top and completely surrounded by water. Carelessly on the top of this mass of grass, was deposited the two large brownish-buff coloured eggs, about four inches in length.”

The story was written up with some enthusiasm by the great American bird encyclopedist, Arthur Cleveland Bent, recounting what he believed to be one of the most important nest records in his twenty-one volume, Life Histories of North American Birds.

That spring a total of three Whooping Crane nests were found in this part of Saskatchewan by Gilmour and others, two at Shallow Lake and a third at Kiyiu (Cree for “eagle”) Lake south of the town of Plenty, thirty miles away. In an exhaustively researched paper on Whooping Crane records published in the June 1994 Blue Jay, biologist Dale Hjertaas reported that another Kerrobert area observer, a man named Archie Smith, told Chief Game Guardian Fred Bradshaw that ten years earlier there were as many as twelve Whooping Cranes nesting at Shallow Lake.

In May of 2012, a century since that last concentration of nesting Whooping Cranes on the prairie, the famous conservationist and president and co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, Dr. George Archibald, traveled from foundation headquarters in Wisconsin to Regina to speak at a conference. A year before he had written to Kerry Finley to commend him on his article published in The Blue Jay, an article detailing the records at Shallow and Kiyui lakes as well as his grandfather’s story of shooting three of the last cranes. Finley ended the article stating that “as the whooping crane population continues to grow it will need to re-occupy this traditional nesting ground.”

During their correspondence, Finley invited Archibald to come to the area to see the last known significant nesting ground of the Whooping Crane south of Wood Buffalo. That May, Finley took Dr. Archibald to see the wetlands, accompanied by the PFRA Community Pasture manager. Joining the tour was Lorne Scott, long time conservationist and board member of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, and old Bill Cholin, whose father had seen the great white birds at White Heron Lake when a prairie fire pushed them to its shores in the ‘1920s.

Bill kept his silence until just before the group walked over the fence and into Progress Community Pasture. Here is Kerry’s account of that moment:

“We were about to wrap up our roadside reconnoitre, when Bill brought out a manila envelope and unrolled a single yellow page. I was dumbfounded : “Whooping Cranes”, it read in bold letters, “also known as White Turkeys are in danger of becoming extinct”. It was a notice from Ottawa, signed by J.B. Harkin, [commissioner of Canada’s National Parks at the time and sometimes referred to as the “Father of Canada’s National Parks.”]. He said it had been found by a local man, in the abandoned home of Archie Smith in Kerrobert. At the bottom, in small type, I noted with exhilaration that it was dated December 1922.”

Why "exhilaration"? Well, that meant that that the official notices against killing Whooping Cranes were posted several months after Finley’s grandfather and his friend Joe Perry shot the three cranes.

Archie Smith is something of an unsung hero in this story. Smith took out a homestead on the shores of Shallow Lake and likely knew its cranes better than anyone. Finley believes that he was the one who guided Neil Gilmour around to the nesting sites at Shallow Lake, though he receives no mention in Bent’s Histories. 

Regardless, after 1922, the nest records at Shallow Lake and Kiyui Lake thinned out, and as we know the Whooping cranes stopped coming. In a letter Archie wrote to provincial Game Guardian Fred Bradshaw in 1932, he reported that he saw the last pair nest in the summer of 1928. They visited briefly in 1929, he said, but did not return in 1930.

When the Big Dry of the ‘30s hit, the lakes evaporated and blew away, returning in wetter decades as prairie lakes will. By 1941 the world was down to fifteen Whooping Cranes wintering on the Texas coast and no one had a clue where they nested. Wood Buffalo was not discovered until the mid-1950s.

What does this all mean? If Canadians want to protect its wild breeding population of Whooping Cranes, we need to help them start a second nesting site in this country. Breeding at a single location downstream from the blight and poison of Alberta’s tar sands, the species is in a precarious place.

For some time now, people in Whooping Crane conservation circles have discussed the pros and cons of re-establishing a second Canadian breeding population at a wetland complex on the plains.

Why not try it in Saskatchewan near the very centre of their historic continental range, as Dale Hjertaas once suggested? There are two or three locations in the province that may work, but there is something historically satisfying in the dream of re-establishing the species in the last place on the prairie where they were breeding in numbers a mere century ago.

Regardless of whether these large lakes are used to re-establish a prairie population of Whooping Cranes, two of them are on federal community pastures. These two pastures will soon be transitioned to provincial responsibility, where if all goes according to plan they will be managed by private cattle producers who will receive zero assistance or support to protect the public interest in this land.

As former Whooping Crane nesting areas, these places deserve better. The grazing patrons deserve better too, for they should not be handed the burden of protecting this heritage all on their own. Of course, this is but one story among many demonstrating that the heritage and ecological treasures of our community pastures are being placed at risk.

These grasslands form some of the largest contiguous blocks of original prairie on the Northern Great Plains. If it is not a story about Whooping Cranes, it is about a historic site where the Metis once lived, or it is about one of the last places where the yellow-bellied racer (an endangered snake) survives, or where Wallace Stegner spent his childhood summers and fell in love with the wild prairie.

Remembering the Whooping cranes that once depended on the wetlands of Progress and Mariposa pastures, can we not find a solution here? Is it not possible for public and private sectors to work together to balance grazing interests with the wider public interest in conserving heritage and ecological benefits? There are conservation NGOs who would like to help, the grazing patrons at the pastures would like to help, and there are many people in both federal and provincial public service who would like to help.

It is within our reach to sit down at a table and take a second look at how we manage the transition of the pastures in Saskatchewan, and to find a cost structure and creative management model that satisfies a range of public expectations here: for fiscal responsibility, for access to the pastures, and for protection of the heritage and ecological resources they contain. And, if we do it right, it should not have to cost the Province a dollar.

That may or may not happen one bright day but, at the very least, Shallow Lake, White Heron Lake, and Kiyiu Lake deserve to be designated with some kind of heritage and ecological protection. It might be nice to give Archie Smith some posthumous recognition for his service as well.

[Note: almost everything in this post is based on information passed on to me by Luseland naturalist, James (Kerry) Finley, or gleaned from back issues of The Blue Jay (the natural history journal of Nature Saskatchewan), specifically Hjertaas, D.G. 1994. Summer and breeding records of the Whooping Crane in Saskatchewan. Blue Jay 52(2) : 99- 115; and Houston, C.S. 2010. Saskatchewan’s First Game Guardian: Neil Gilmour, 1859-1940. Blue Jay 68(1): 41- 44; and Finley, J.K. 2011. Return of the Golden Bird: the last breeding ground of the whooping crane on the prairies. Blue Jay 69 (2): 88-94..]

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bring back the Great White Birds of the plains—Part 1

plains bison at Grasslands National Park, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Before the first wave of settler agriculture on the Great Plains, both here and across the border in the U.S., our ancestors had all but eradicated the largest and fiercest mammals: the bison, grizzlies and wolves.  Like the indigenous peoples starved and swindled onto small reserves, wild grazers and predators would have to go before the open range cattle and sheep grazing of that early period could create a foothold for colonists. Although the native grass was still intact at the time (the mid to late 1800s), the sudden disappearance of these mega-fauna, and the plains hunters who managed the grass with fire, set in motion a cascade of ecological degradation that continues to be felt today on our remaining prairie landscapes.

There was a greater devastation to come, of course, thanks to generations of farmers and the John Deere plow, but notice something that happens when you read the story-line in the preceding paragraph. True though it may be, this story divides prairie people into two camps.

If you or your relations still live on the land, make a living in agriculture on hills and plains where once ran the bison, wolves and grizzlies, you get understandably nervous when this narrative is presented. Why? Because the other camp—mostly consisting of urban people, either does not care at all or, more dangerous, takes this story as the way things should be, the way things could be again.

These facts of our ecological history on the plains form the premise that has led many urban environmentalists to dream of and advocate re-introduction of these important prairie mammals. From the Buffalo Commonsproposed by Frank and Deborah Popper in the late 1980s to the more recent “re-wilding” movement, people easily get swept up in the romance of a restored prairie wildness.

It’s an attractive idea until you stop to think about what this would do to the farmers and ranchers who have lived for several generations on the land to be re-wilded. City folks love the wild in theory until a great horned owl eats muffy or a moose walks through the deck doors. Few prairie people, urban or rural, native or settler, would be content living with grizzlies chasing herds of bison through the landscapes they tend.

That does not mean there is not a place for bison restoration projects in conservation areas such as the American Prairie Reserve or Old Man on His Back, but any work done to restore elements of prairie ecology must involve and respect the needs of the people who make a living on and around our native grassland remnants.

Meanwhile, there is a large and charismatic prairie creature that could be returned to the plains and fostered in the right habitat without endangering the life and property of rural people.

I am thinking of the Whooping Crane.  It has been gone from our prairie landscapes for so long that we are inclined to think of it as a northern species that merely passes through the plains. But large prairie wetlands were once the stronghold of the Whooping Crane.

Whooping Cranes love the Saskatchewan prairie for staging on migration; is it possible they may once breed here again? (click on this image to see its three whooping cranes (left) with three sandhills (right) by permission of Val Mann)

Passing through the Eastern Qu’Appelle Valley in July, 1858, Henry Youle Hind wrote, “the white or whooping crane (grus Americana) was first seen today. This beautiful bird is common in the Qu’Appelle Valley and in the Touchwood Hills range.” (Hind, Narrative of the . . . Saskatchewan and Assiniboine Exploring Expedition of 1858)

While it was never as numerous as the Sandhill Crane, the Whooping Crane did nonetheless breed here and there across the northern Great Plains, perhaps moreso in its northern reaches and in the Aspen Parkland in particular.

This graceful, heart-stirring bird deserves to be back on the prairie where it evolved and spent its summers for thousands of years until our European ancestors arrived in the footsteps of explorers like Hind at the end of the nineteenth century.
With the arrival of thousands of farmers tearing up the ancient sods, draining wetlands and shooting every wetland bird large enough for the pot, the Whooping Crane rapidly thinned out.

Almost a century later, their descendants living on the land are asking, why not bring the Great White Bird back and see if a prairie population could be re-established?
Next week, I will recount the story of a large wetland where the last Whooping Cranes nested in Saskatchewan, and a group of people who want to see the birds back where they belong.

(And my favourite part: it appears that the last whooping cranes to breed in this province were nesting on sloughs that are now part of two PFRA Community Pastures.)

with many wetlands recovering in recent years, is it time to bring back the Whooping Crane?


Thursday, January 22, 2015

More signs of hope for Saskatchewan's pastures

mixed grass prairie close-up at a community pasture

Last night, as I sat listening to Jason Unruh’s lecture on his research into how the oil industry is affecting grassland birds (a terrific talk and part of the Prairie Conservation Action Plan’s (PCAP) speakers series—soon to be posted on PCAP's Youtube channel), I looked around the room at the others sitting in the seats, all of us keen to hear what Jason would say about oil and these vulnerable prairie birds.

There were members of Public Pastures-Public Interest, and there were students and scientists who focus on grassland ecology. There was a staff member of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, PCAP people, a couple of provincial government biologists, at least two federal government employees, and an assortment of others who volunteer with, work for, or at least support the non-government organizations that are trying to conserve our remaining grassland.

Three years ago, most of us took it for granted that there would always be a federal community pasture system (which we still call the “PFRA,” or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration). It had been there for seventy-five years, managing large expanses of native grass for the wider public interest and providing affordable grazing for local cattle producers. Surely not even the Harper Conservatives would be so foolish as to discontinue such an effective model of agricultural sustainability.

We were wrong. In March, 2012, the Government of Canada trashed the PRFA along with many other vital environmental programs in the nation, sending the pasture lands back into provincial hands.

Looking around that room last night, I saw many people who have, one way or another, done their part in the intervening three years, to make the best out of a bad political decision--many from within government departments and agencies. Not all of us have had the privilege to speak our minds in public on the issue, but most have found their own way to contribute to the cause of protecting these invaluable ecological treasures as they make the perilous passage from federally-funded programming to private leaseholder grazing corporations.

The first ten out of the sixty-two Saskatchewan pastures were handed over last summer to the new patron-run grazing corporations: McCraney, Estevan-Cambria, Excel, Fairview, Ituna-Bon Accord, Keywest, Lone Tree, Newcombe, Park, and Wolverine (even the names of these places carry a certain poetic weight).

The transition for these first ten through the chute has not been easy, but they had a wet summer with no shortage of grass and could look forward to record high beef prices. Throughout, the cattlemen have acted with honour and remarkable composure in the face of terms and conditions that at times seemed all but impossible. They get the lion’s share of the credit for pulling together and devising business plans on short notice and in the absence of sufficient information. But the terms of their leases would’ve been much less favourable had it not been for the pressure exerted on their behalf by the Community Pastures Patrons Association ofSaskatchewan, which was formed in the wake of the announcement in March, 2012.

Just this week, we saw another example of the courage and wisdom of community pasture patrons in the face of this maelstrom of change. Confident in their own abilities to continue managing their shared pasture (after all, they each manage their own private holdings), the patrons of Lone Tree Community Pasture nonetheless made the decision to sign a management partnership agreement with theNature Conservancy of Canada.

I was not surprised when I heard it was Lone Tree. I remembered a moment during the Atwood tour two summers ago, when Lone Tree's committee chair, Clint Christianson spoke to us most eloquently about their lives and all that was at stake. "It's all native grass from here to Val Marie," he said, his voice cracking with emotion and pride. Clint has the kind of character and courage that made this deal with NCC come into the light of day.
Clint Christianson (left) image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj
Under the terms, NCC's Saskatchewan Region will work with Lone Tree’s pasture shareholders and manager to record best practices for management of the 33,697-acre pasture. Paying for some of the costs of management, they will also consult on conservation practices and develop a best practices guide that will be made available to other community pasture groups.

With this kind of creative solution fostering new connections between cattle producers and an organization like NCC, the road ahead for Saskatchewan’s community pastures is looking a little brighter today.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Birds of 2014: a photo gallery

This Prothonotary Warbler was one of the most photographed birds of the year in Regina. A stray
from farther east on the continent, it stayed near Wascana Park for several months, singing
each morning for a mate that never came.
I know some very good bird photographers with terrific equipment, so I am reluctant to display my fuzzy shots, but I do it anyway now and then. Here are some of my best bird memories of 2014, caught on the pixels my Canon Supershot puts together when I point it at feathered things.

One of the last birds of winter was this Northern Shrike I found east of the city on a March morning.
Toward the end of May, the Say's Phoebe showed up on a cold and damp day when there were no flying insects out. I caught some flies in a vacuum and then placed them on the deck of our cabin, where the phoebe could see them. Within minutes she was eating them off the deck.

The signature bird of Cherry Lake is the black-crowned night heron. These birds of dawn and twilight nest in the marshes between the local lakes and along the creek.

Their red eyes apparently help them to see in dimmer light.

I see American wigeons off and on through the summer near and on Cherry Lake.

By June, nests were being made . . . (this one is a Wilson's Phalarope nest) . . .

And here is a Sharp-tailed Grouse hen, brooding her new hatchlings in a pea field near the road where I do my Breeding Bird Survey at Tyvan. When she lifted her skirts, a dozen caramel and ochre-coloured feather balls jumped up and skittered off into the vegetation.

In June, during a bird blitz on and around Cherry Lake, one group found a pair of Trumpeter Swans, very rare for the prairie region. A couple of weeks later, I got image of them far across a large slough with five new cygnets.

While kayaking the rapids on Swift Current Creek on Canada Day, I took this distant shot of a Yellow-breasted Chat in full song. There were seven of them along that stretch of creek.

These white pelicans roost on the spit that cuts across Deep Lake just north of Cherry Lake.

And, finally, we came across this male snowy owl on the Regina Christmas Bird Count on December 27.

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