Wednesday, May 20, 2015

More on prairie trails: unregulated ATVs and unmanaged access

The posters promised “22 miles of scenic trails.” That sounds nice. Where? In Saskatchewan’s beautiful Pipestone Valley, a long and winding oasis of native grass in the southeast of the province where almost all of the surrounding land is cultivated.

But this is not public land and it might be a little noisy for a quiet prairie walk anyway. The twenty-two miles of trails have been made for quads, motocross bikes and all manner of recreational vehicles. Every April five to seven hundred quads (or all terrain vehicles) gather at this stretch of the Pipestone Valley near the town of Wawota to hold a “quad rally.”

Five to seven hundred. Five quads can make a mess of a riparian area along a stream--we see it on our land every summer. If you want to see what hundreds of quads can do, take a look at this Youtube video of the Wawota Lions Quad Derby (yes, the local Lions club sponsors it as a fundraiser) held on April 25th this year.

Slide forward to 0:52 in the video and you will see a 30 second shot of the Pipestone Creek, perhaps a quarter-mile length of its vegetation and banks turned into black mud. Then take a look at the aerial shot in this second video, at the 3:48 mark after the ad is finished running (clearly these videos are getting their share of clicks).

Images like these are appalling to those who see our last small remnants of native prairie as representing some of the rarest old growth ecologies on the continent and deserving of our care and respect, but, of course, this is privately-owned land and that means here in the wild west you can do what you like with an ecosystem if the Land Titles office says you own it.

However, the Pipestone Creek itself is not private property. It is a bona fide stream with several species of fish, birds, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates, draining almost 4,000 square kilometres of Aspen Parkland prairie (most of it cultivated) into the Souris River. Our Provincial Environment Ministry and perhaps the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans have a responsibility to protect it as part of the waters we share and steward as public commons. How is that working out? Is there any regulation or policing of this kind of activity in a riparian area and the stream bed itself?

Well, apparently, the RCMP are usually on hand for the rally--not to protect the land or its non-human residents, mind you, but to protect the seven hundred people from one another.

But this year, the tenth anniversary of the Wawota event, something happened. A Saskatchewan Conservation Officer spoke to the organizers of the event and told them that they are violating conservation regulations. He let them know that he could charge them. He chose not to in the end, but now the Lions’ Club is considering its options and may cancel the rally for next year. When some of the faithful heard this, though, they launched a twitter campaign and a petition on, which has 1200 signatures. They are appealing to the Premier and the Province to save the Wawota Quad Rally.

While there is a fringe of extreme quad owners who will argue they should have a right to muck up a creek bed or native grassland because they are just having good clean fun, there are many more pragmatists even in conservation circles who will say that to minimize this kind of activity you have to keep it to a few pieces of land where the owners give their permission. Then, presumably, other places both private and public, can be protected, because all or most of the quad activity is restricted to a few sacrifice zones.

That sounds plausible, but in the real world, it is not working that way. Some of the people who go to these rallies--and there are many of them—return home to pursue their hobby on provincial Crown lands and on private farmland and pastures, spreading the ecological destruction onto new trails beyond the sacrifice zones.

unauthorized ATV users on our neighbour's land resting after they destroyed a beaver dam

This is a big unregulated problem that is only going to get worse. In Saskatchewan, somewhere between seven and eight thousand of these all-terrain vehicles are sold each year. It goes without saying that not everyone who owns a quad behaves badly, and some of the folks at the Wawota rally would no doubt be responsible ATV operators, but all it takes is a small number of yahoos to make a mess of hiking trails in our Provincial Parks, to destroy a stretch of creek bed or a hillside of native grassland on our private and Crown lands.

the garbage we collect regularly from ATV users

Farmers and hunters use quads responsibly for the most part, but they too are getting tired of seeing the damaged habitat. They will tell you their stories of disrespectful quad drivers cutting fences, chewing up trails, tearing apart beaver dams to play in the gush of water. On our pasture south of Indian Head we have had all of that. At times I have had to stand on the trail to put a halt to a local ATV poker derby with dozens of quads coming across our property.

water running out of the beaver dam after the ATVs left

Earlier this spring I heard a second hand story that came from a rancher I know from the Val Marie area. He is a member of the group of community pasture patrons who were more or less coerced into forming a grazing corporation to take over management of the Lone Tree community pasture on the Montana border.

Now this fellow is not one to complain or kick up a fuss, but he is worried. During the last seventy-some years of federal management of Lone Tree, access was controlled and no one could just drive onto the land with quads and trucks. There were clear regulations and a department to back them up, including a full time manager in residence with keen eyes for anything out of place.

As of last year, that system of oversight is gone. In early April, the rancher happened to be at Lone Tree and caught a group of men on quads who were driving over the pasture collecting antler sheds left behind by the elk and mule deer that winter there. Fire is a constant threat on grassland this far south and ranchers live in fear of a truck or quad muffler causing a big spring conflagration and eating up thousands of acres of grass.

He explained his concerns and asked them politely to not enter the pasture without permission. Their response? “We were told this isn’t a community pasture any more so those rules don’t apply.”

Unfortunately, there is some truth in that statement. The old rules protecting the pasture don’t apply. What is needed now are some new rules and government support, both for access to these lands and for ATV use in general.

Respectful and managed public access is important for all of our public lands, but if Saskatchewan’s provincial government does not wake up to see that they have responsibility for the ecological wellbeing of the 1.6 million acres of grassland being handed over to the province, we will see more unmanaged access at its worst, and the former PFRA pastures could become the latest ATV sacrifice zones.

ATVs are not going away any time soon, but we need to start licensing and regulating their use. From what I hear, the people who run the Saskatchewan ATV Association are reasonable folks who also want the Province to step in and work with stakeholders to develop a full set of guidelines, including licensing--an important first step that almost every other province in Canada took long ago.

Children and adults die on ATVs every year in this province and yet we have no rules on how these vehicles are used; streams and rivers and native prairie on Crown land and First Nations’ property (take a look at the Little Arm/Kinookimaw area by Regina Beach) are being destroyed every day and there are no serious penalties enforced, no licenses to trace when someone violates a law.

There is an opportunity here to do something good. The Conservation Officer who took a stand at the Wawota rally needs someone to back him up. And that doesn’t just have to be his department or ministry; it doesn’t just have to be conservationists and hunters. It should be all reasonable people, including all quad owners who want to see responsible and sustainable, regulated ATV use come to this Province.

Write or talk to your MLA, challenge our Provincial Cabinet members, ask them what they are going to do to licence ATVs and stop irresponsible ATV use from damaging our natural landscapes.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A conscious threshold: how to walk alone in grassland

When we walk in grassland, or in any place where the natural order of things holds a rich array of life together, the quality of our encounter can easily default to a collection of views from hilltop to valley, experiences that may linger on the skin and on the retina but go no deeper. You talk to the friends you came with, and the bubble of ordinariness that surrounds you every day follows you out onto the prairie, protecting you from the persuasions of birdsong and wind.
But then there are those other, too rare times when a walk draws you in and the world takes you down to another kind of awareness. Your friends cannot come so you go alone. The light seems different, the grass, but you too seem more and less than yourself, a hand's span, a breath's free and passing gift away from who you were when you left home.
To get there, Franciscan Richard Rohr suggests that we might try consciousness. He offers the following set of instructions, beginning by "finding or creating a conscious threshold":
Wilderness Wandering
Go to a place in nature where you can walk freely and alone, ideally some place where human impact is minimal—a forest, canyon, prairie, bog, mountain. Tell someone where you will be and how long you expect to be there. Take adequate water and clothing for the conditions.

Begin your wandering by finding or creating a conscious threshold (perhaps an arched branch overhead or a narrow passage between rocks). Here offer a voiced prayer of your intention and desire for this time. Step across the threshold quite deliberately and, on this side of your sacred boundary, speak no words, but only expect!

Let the land, plants, and creatures lead your feet and eyes. Let yourself be drawn, rather than walking with a destination or purpose in mind. If you are called to a particular place or thing, stop and be still, letting yourself be known and know, through silent communion with the Other. Before you leave, offer some gesture or token of gratitude for the gift the wild has given you.

When it is time to return to the human world, find again your threshold and cross over. But now you have learned to expect God in all things.
Richard Rohr

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Best grassland hikes for this summer

an ephemeral wetland (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
From Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” submitted to California’s “Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission” in 1960.

Summer is a good time to head out and find an expansive piece of native grassland where you can go for a long walk. If you live in places like Alberta or Montana or North Dakota (look at this web page) it is fairly easy. There are established trails on state and federal grasslands where you are welcome to hike and in some cases camp overnight.

In Saskatchewan, however, there are very few places where you are allowed to hike and camp on our publicly-owned native grassland.

On leased Crown grassland or community pastures in the province, you have to track down the manager or leaseholder to ask for permission. In most cases, they will grant the permission and let you know where you can go and where you cannot go, and how to behave while you are there.

In the case of the federal PFRA community pastures still run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, you are supposed to apply for a permit with the head office in Regina and then get the pasture manager’s signature approving your plan to enter the pasture. Once you have that, then your permit will be processed. This can take some time, but it is worth doing to get a chance to walk through these remote and often breath-taking landscapes.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

As for the former-PFRA pastures now passing into the hands of private groups of cattle producers who are leasing the land for grazing, there is no formal process for gaining access and it remains to be seen how each pasture corporation and their managers handle public requests for recreation access or research or traditional medicine gathering.

Fortunately, and thanks to the foresight of Nature Saskatchewan and the great and wise George Ledingham, Saskatchewan does have one big and beautiful piece of publicly-owned grassland where you don’t need to ask permission to go for a walk--Grasslands National Park (GNP).

Most GNP visitors restrict themselves to the shorter trails in the West Block, which have their appeal but cannot compare to the grandeur of the landscapes you will encounter in the East Block. One of the longer and most rewarding East Block hikes is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail," which departs from the Rock Creek Campground and day use area. Here is a pdf of a pamphlet showing the campground and the start of the trail, the red trail marked "4".

(click on the image to see a larger version) the red trail marked "4" heading off in the top right corner of this image is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail"
The total distance of the hike from Rock Creek Campground is 16 km round trip. As you move through a mixture of habitats, from native grasslands to creek valleys to badlands there will be birds and a mix of native grasses and wildflowers all the way. You could well see a long billed curlew, or a prairie falcon pass overhead; ferruginous hawks and golden eagles nest in the area. If you go in June or July the characteristic prairie songbirds will sing all around you and overhead: in open grasslands you will hear Sprague's pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, Baird's sparrows, and grasshopper sparrows. As you move through the badlands, you may hear the rock wren’s improvised song echoing from butte to butte.

And when the day is over, you may know something of what Stegner was talking about: that we need such wild country, need to know it is there, and that we can travel to its edges and restore ourselves with the reassurance that comes from a “geography of hope.”

Buttes in the mist, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Finding a publicly-owned grassland close to home

When I talk to people about Saskatchewan’s publicly-owned grasslands they will often tell me they’ve never seen one, have never had the chance to walk or even drive through a big piece of Crown grassland. Many have been to Grasslands National Park but have never spent any time at other grassland places.

That is a shame, but completely understandable for a couple of reasons: 1. most of these places are a few miles away from the largest urban centres, 2. it is hard to find our public grasslands, and 3. gaining access can be tricky.
The first problem can be solved with a vehicle, but the other two take some work. In this post I am going to try to explain how to find a community pasture and then how to get access permission.
Some day I would love to make a really good map showing all our Crown owned grasslands—in provincial parks, in leased WHPA (Wildlife Habitat Protection Act) grasslands, and in our provincial and federal (PFRA) community pastures. The closest thing to that is Saskatchewan’s Representative Areas Network map (click here to see pdf) , which uses colour coding to indicate most if not all of these grasslands. Unfortunately, they are not named so it takes some interpretation and cross-referencing with other maps to figure out which piece of grassland is which.

But if you are like me and find maps fun you can actually figure out where the community pastures are and where the WHPA lands are. Here is a piece of the RAN map blown up which I printed and then scribbled on to show where the parks, community pastures and WHPA grasslands are located in one small piece of the province triangulating Swift Current, the Elbow of the South Saskatchewan River and Moose Jaw. Click on the image to enlarge it.
mapping the publicly-owned grasslands in one region
Interpreting the colour coding from the RAN map and correlating things with two maps that show the PFRA pastures (click here) and the Provincial Community pastures (click here), I was able to figure out which piece of land is which.

The next step is to get a road map version that will show you how to get to the place you want to try to see. Here is what a road map for the same region looks like.
same area showing roads and waterways more clearly
Of course a more detailed back roads map or Google Map would get you the gravel roads in the vicinity too, which are often the best way to visit a piece of grassland.

Ok, so let’s say you map out a piece of grassland you want to visit. Then what? How do you get permission to go for a walk in a community pasture or a privately managed piece of WHPA land? If it is a community pasture and you know the name of the pasture, you can often find the phone number for the pasture manager online.

For the provincial pastures in my example, they are all in the south region of the pastures system and the managers phone numbers are listed on this web page.

For the PFRA pastures, at least those that have not been transitioned to private management yet, you can simply Google for contact information by the name of the pasture and usually you will find the phone number. (If you have trouble, contact me at and I will see if I can find the phone number for you.)

So you phone (evenings are usually best) and cordially ask for permission to go for a hike on the pasture on a certain date. The manager may tell you which areas of the pasture you can and cannot go. If it has been terribly dry, the manager may not allow you on the pasture at all. They will remind you about leaving closed gates closed and open gates open, and tell you to not drive on the pasture, other than on the main gravelled roads.

If things go well, you may stop in at the pasture headquarters to talk to the manager in person when you arrive and get some more guidance on how to treat the land and where you can go and where you can’t go. In general I have found pasture managers to be straight shooters who will respond to well to honesty and respect, but they have every right to deny you access so bear that in mind when you contact them.

Now, what if it is WHPA land under a private lease that you have your heart set on? That gets trickier, but if you are willing to do some asking door to door you can often get permission to hike in their grassland. What works best is to drive to the area and then look for the nearest farmstead where there are some vehicles parked in the yard. Knock on the door and explain your interest in walking through a pasture. If it is not their lease they will know whose it is and either phone them for you or give you a number or directions to their yard site.

Once you locate the leaseholder who has the WHPA land, it is the same as with pasture managers. Be polite and deferential, explain that you will not drive off trails, and will leave gates as you find them, and you will stay away from their livestock. In most cases you will find a friendly person who takes pride in their land and loves to talk about the landscape and the wildlife.
As you can tell, it can be a bit like a treasure hunt, but that is part of the fun.
Once your visit is over, it never hurts to check in again and thank your hosts, tell them what you saw, and let them know that you appreciate their stewardship of the prairie.

If you do visit one of Saskatchewan's public grasslands this summer, drop me a line and tell me how it went:

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Why habitat matters: the flight of a long-billed curlew

Long-billed Curlew (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

If there is a voice of wildness on the high plains of Canada’s last native grasslands, it drifts from hillside to swale in the cry of the long-billed curlew.

You are out walking through the river breaks or hills in the Missouri Coteau, and the wind suddenly resolves into a low, melancholy  whistle that breaks  and rises, shifting into a bubbling rapid set of notes that makes you look up to the horizon. And there it is—something big flying in apparent agitation straight at you with its long down-curved bill agape, and you wonder for a moment if it will turn away before it knocks you down. It gives its cry once more and then turns away just before you think to duck.

There is a curlew nest somewhere hidden in the speargrass and, as a large intruder, you are not particularly welcome. But an intimidating nest defence has not been enough to protect Canada’s long-billed curlews from declining along with the rest of the birds that depend on native grassland for survival.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists the long-billed curlew in its “special concern” category, for though its decline has not been as marked as other grassland species, its range has retracted from the north and east and there are some indications that it continues to decline in certain regions.

Here is a COSEWIC management plan for the species, issued in 2013 and listing the following causes: “i) habitat loss and degradation from urban encroachment, cultivation of marginal native habitat and oil and gas development, ii) increased frequency of droughts associated with climate change, and iii) increase in predators associated with habitat fragmentation.”

Habitat matters when you are a bird that needs native grass to nest and Gulf Coast beaches to winter. A recent bird-tracking project initiated on the Gulf Coast of Texas  has made it very clear just how much the long-billed curlew depends on our efforts to hold on to the last pieces of its habitat north and south.

The website (thanks to photographer friend Val Mann for the tip!)tracks the movements of eight long-billed curlews that were given geo-locators, Argos Satellite Transmitters, last October as they arrived for winter in the Corpus Christi region of Texas. It appears that most of them spent much of the winter on a state park called Mustang Island, one of the few pieces of the Texas barrier islands that is not shellacked over with housing and resorts.

With the maps on the website, which are regularly updated with new satellite data from the birds’ geolocators, you can see that three of the curlews have made it to the Canadian Plains already. As of this week, one is north of Medicine Hat, Alberta, one is west of North Battleford, and and a third one is on the river breaks along the South Saskatchewan River north of Swift Current.

If you look at the movement of these three birds in recent days you will see that all three are using native grassland, though the two Saskatchewan curlews are travelling back and forth between cropland and native grassland.  In my experience at this time of year long-billed curlews are sometimes seen foraging in irrigated haylands, but they almost always make their nests in native grasslands nearby.

Here are a couple of maps showing the recent movements of the one north of Swift Current, back and forth between native grassland and cultivated land, but it always seems to be returning to one area in the native grass (circled in red in the second map).
It is a flight of seventeen hundred miles to get from the Texas coast to these northern plains. Hundreds of curlews give everything they have to make that journey twice a year. The least we can do is make sure that the habitat is still here and in good shape when they arrive.

Friday, April 17, 2015

“Grasslands” helping to build momentum for the cause

Candace Savage addresses the crowd (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj of
Last night at Saskatoon's Frances Morrison Central Library, a group of PPPI volunteers co-hosted a showing of “Grasslands,” the stunning documentary by Ian Toews highlighting our grassland at risk in this part of the continent. PPPI and Ian’s company, 291 Films, worked with Yvonne Siermacheski, Film Specialist at the library, who did much of the organizing, media contacts, and promotion for the event. She was a delight to work with and by the end of the evening had become an ardent PPPI supporter.

We estimate we had 250 people come out. The room was full to the brim, with people standing in the hall and outside the door listening to the film and presentations.

Branimir Gjevaj’s slide show on the PFRA pastures was a fine warm up, then Yvonne introduced the film. Afterwards, Candace Savage and I each did some talking--me a little too much probably, but people were good enough to sit still for a bit of an update on the PFRA pastures and a letter-writing campaign pitch.

After some questions and door-prizes, we retired to the adjoining room for a letter-writing session with cookies and coffee. That is where once again I saw how this film is helping to bring out new people and connect them to the issues surrounding our public grasslands now being placed at risk.

I spoke to a young grad student who works on sustainable public policy in a post hydro-carbon world. He had lots of ideas and may be in touch with us. Two pasture patrons from the Dundurn PFRA pasture were kind enough to introduce themselves. We chatted about the problems they are facing as they near the 2016 deadline for their pasture to transition. It will not be easy or cheap and they fear they may lose many of their existing patrons.

I spoke with a retired public servant who helped establish grazing co-ops in Saskatchewan. He was fervent with ideas and thoughts on how a co-operative approach could be the solution. And I spoke to a wildlife veterinarian who works on the prairie dogs and other wildlife at Grasslands National Park.

So many people with knowledge and passion for our prairie places. It was a night for engendering a spirit of hope and possibility. 

The news is getting out there: Saskatchewan people love and deeply value their publicly-owned and managed grasslands, and they want to ensure that a publicly-accountable system will be in place to ensure that they are protected and managed well for generations to come.

The film is available for screening in your town too. If you want to arrange a public showing, you can contact PPPI at and we will help you get in touch with 291 Film Company.

packed house at the Frances Morrison Library last night (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj of

Saturday, April 11, 2015

From White Butte’s 1000 acres to the 1.7 million acres now at risk

folks gathered to write letters to save White Butte (from Global TV)
Like many people, I sometimes find myself bemoaning the state of democracy in the world today, but it only takes the leadership of one responsive and responsible elected official to remind me that an engaged public of informed citizens can still carry the day.

At the end of March, when the Hon. Mark Docherty, Minister of Saskatchewan Parks, Culture, and Sport announced in the media that there would not be a golf course made at White Butte Recreation Site, there were about three thousand Regina and district folks who were digging in for a battle. The news took everyone off guard in the best possible way, and people who were appalled that the Province would even consider such a proposal were expressing surprise that Minister Docherty and the Saskatchewan Party came through with the right decision so quickly. 
So what is the take home message here? Well, part of it seems to be that Docherty is an elected representative who takes his democratic responsibilities seriously and includes all members of the public in a single unitary category of the citizenry he represents, rather than sorting them into friends and enemies.

It is important to note another force at play here, demonstrating that the system does work if we use it. Public accountability depends on opposition and scrutiny in the legislative assembly. In this case it was provided ably by the NDP's Trent Wotherspoon, who did a fine job raising the question in the legislature and supporting the public interest in protecting White Butte.

Hon. Mark Docherty, MLA Regina - Coronation Park and Minister of Parks, Culture and Sport

But the main lesson here is that the public sent a clear signal to all of our legislative representatives. The traffic on Facebook, Twitter and stories in the conventional media got a lot of attention, but in the end I think it was the letters, emails, and phone calls to the Ministry that helped the Provincial Government to see that many people value the public amenities and ecological heritage of the native prairie at White Butte.

All of which is good news for the 1000 acres at White Butte so important to Regina people. It is fair to say, however, that the public has perhaps not spoken loudly and clearly enough to help the provincial government see what needs to be done to protect the 1.7 million acres of grassland contained in the former PFRA pastures now being transferred to Saskatchewan.

Why is that? Well, first, the threat is not as clear and present as a golf course proposal. For the 62 federal community pastures, there is the threat of sale at some point down the road and there is the loss of publicly-accountable governance and management as each pasture is leased out to private grazing corporations or co-ops.

These are major threats to some of the most ecologically-significant landscapes in Western Canada, but they are just not big and bold enough for many people. Read that sentence above starting with “For the 62” and you can feel your interest drifting when you hit “publicly-accountable”. A couple more phrases like that and you are snoozing or clicking onto other things more compelling.

But the main reason the public has not been as engaged as they could be has to do with access and experience.  We love White Butte because we walk there, ride horseback there, and store memories there. By contrast, for most Saskatchewan people, the community pastures are remote agricultural landscapes that they may never have seen, much less hiked or ridden through.

Public Pastures – Public Interest (PPPI), the non-profit that led the charge defending White Butte, is hoping that over time there will be more public access to at least some of the community pastures, but right now access is nothing but a burden on the private cattlemen who have suddenly been saddled with the responsibility of caring for the public values on these rare grasslands.

Managed properly, with support from the Province, increased public access to some of the community pastures could help people to understand the way grazing, carbon sequestration and biodiversity can work together; to see that cattle, when managed well on native grass, are good news for the environment.
image from Parks Canada website

If the governance structure and management model made room for it, there could be safe and controlled access allowing people to hike or ride horseback through some of these beautiful plains and coulees, and welcoming First Nations people to experience a prairie one step closer to the world their ancestors knew. It happens on Provincial Grazing Reserves in Alberta and on public grazing lands in Montana—why not here?

But that will never happen unless we ask for it. If you like exploring White Butte, you can be sure you would love to spend time at the many undiscovered prairie places with names like Caledonia-Elmsthorpe, Auvergne-Wise Creek, Wolverine, Battle Creek, and Govenlock.

The volunteers at PPPI have launched a new letter-writing campaign aimed at getting 1000 letters to Premier Brad Wall, letting him know that Saskatchewan people want to see our community pastures kept in the public domain and managed for the whole public interest and not merely agriculture.

Please take a few minutes to write and then pass this on to everyone you know who might also like to help.

image courtesy of Angie Evans

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