Saturday, March 21, 2015

Harper Government denies funds to purchase Sage Grouse habitat in Alberta

image courtesy of John Carlson

"The Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) provides funding for projects that conserve and protect species at risk and their habitats. Over the past 13 years, the HSP has supported over 2,100 projects across Canada, contributing over $125 million towards on-theground conservation action by partners and stakeholders. The HSP continues to be available to assist individuals and groups seeking to implement actions for the conservation and protection of this species." From Environment Canada web page backgrounder on Sage Grouse 

In my last post I was speculating on the dollars that have been dedicated to Greater Sage-Grouse recovery in Canada since the Emergency Protection Order came down more than a year ago. I have not been able to find actual figures and of course in Harper’s Canada we are not allowed to speak to the staff in Environment Canada who are in charge of Sage Grouse recovery so real information is hard to come by.

In the absence of better numbers I did some rough guessing and talked about the Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP) for species at risk, which the Conservatives love to trot out as a tremendous boon to our endangered species.

To be fair, HSP does a lot of good work, but it is just not enough. And now we are finding out, it is being interfered with and blocked in some cases without just cause.

Some of this continent’s best species at risk scientists work for Environment Canada, but they are hamstrung by poor funding, muzzled by a paranoid PMO office, and in some cases actively subverted by a government that is proving to be hostile to anything that might protect species at risk. Here is the most recent example of that, playing out in Sage Grouse country this winter:

The Alberta Conservation Association, a respected conservation NGO whose members are mostly hunters and fishers, had arranged to purchase a bit more than 1000 acres of deeded native prairie—some Sage Grouse habitat owned by Jim Pitrowski, a rancher in Southeast Alberta. Pitrowski says in this radio interview that he wanted to protect the habitat and was concerned that the land might otherwise be bought by a large farming organization and ploughed under. He has seen similar parcels in his area destroyed and turned into cropland in recent years, he said.

The ACA applied for funding through the Habitat Stewardship Program and passed through the usual screening process without incident. The deal was more or less ready to go when suddenly and without explanation, they were told that Leona Aglukkaq, Environment Canada’s minister, had refused to sign the approval, effectively blocking the purchase.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Ok, so now we have Environment Canada, the ministry responsible for Sage Grouse recovery, blocking funding to a provincial conservation organization in good standing that wants to purchase Sage Grouse habitat.

What is going on here? Who is whispering in Minister Aglukkaq’s ear, telling her to withhold her signature on a grant that went through all of the internal approvals and screening processes?

There is no scientific reason to reject the grant, and the ACA is an organization with a good track record. The ACA, like many other NGOs across Canada who depend on their tax status and federal grants, cannot complain or tell their side of the story, lest they be further penalized.

If you listen to the interview with Jim Pitrowski he makes it clear that he believes that other ranchers intervened somehow. He mentions a new group known as “Sustainable Canada” but when I contacted them they said they were not involved and do not have that kind of influence on the Ministry—which sounds right to me. But someone does have that kind of influence.

Someone in Southeast Alberta who did not want the land to go to the ACA got to Minister Aglukkaq. Was it someone in the oil and gas industry? Perhaps, but it may simply have been someone who lives in the same county where Mr. Pitrowski is trying to sell the land, someone who spoke to his Conservative MP.

We love to think of our ranchers in this part of Canada as conservationist cowboys, as though their “stewardship” uniformly extends to sympathy for the many species at risk on the rangeland they graze. But like any other group of people, ranchers are a diverse lot. Most of the ones I talk to want to do what they can to help the declining birds and other creatures that dwell in grassland. They pay attention to the wild animals around them and are often happy to cooperate with conservation programs when they are asked. But not all ranchers are like that.

Talk to any biologist who has worked on species at risk on Crown grasslands leased by ranchers and they will tell you: most ranchers are good stewards and willing to help, but there are those who are hostile to any kind of conservation program or research on “their” land.

Unfortunately, ranchers who are reluctant to cooperate will sometimes take it to the next level and work at a political level to actively oppose the sale of any land to conservation organizations, arguing that it drives up the price of land and takes it out of grazing production. Land prices are being driven higher by many forces, but conservation is not one of them. The oil and gas industry and land grabs by pension funds and corporate farm operations can take most of the blame. As for not allowing grazing on the land, almost all conservation organizations recognize the need for grazing as a management tool in grasslands ecosystems.

Regardless of who influenced this decision to refuse the funding for this land deal, the bottom line is that Minister Aglukkaq’s office is being influenced more by private interests than by its own scientists. There are biologists and programs ready to go inside the ministry that could help endangered species like the sage grouse, and there is some funding available, but, as we can see from the Pitkrowski story, political interference may be killing good initiatives before they can get underway.
image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Friday, March 13, 2015

Show me the money--where is the money for Sage Grouse recovery?

Last week's post reviewed the Greater Sage-Grouse Emergency Protection Order one year later. In it I asked why ranchers are not reassured when they hear from Environment Canada that “funds are available” for people who want to volunteer to take actions to help the species.

There is money available. In a document called “Questions and Answers to the EPO,” Environment Canada says “The Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) provides funding for projects that conserve and protect species at risk and their habitats. Over the past 13 years, the HSP has supported over 2,100 projects across Canada, contributing over $125 million towards on-the-ground conservation action by partners and stakeholders. The HSP continues to be available to assist individuals and groups seeking to implement actions for the conservation and protection of this species.”

Now, let’s take a look at the math here. $125 million sounds like a lot of money, but if you divide it by 2,100 projects that are supposed to be helping Canada’s Species at Risk, you get an average of just under $60,000 per project. But wait a minute—this $125 million was spread out over 13 years. It takes many years of work to see results in any species recovery work. Let’s assume a minimum of 4 years per project. A project with $60,000 spread out over four years is getting merely $15,000 a year to help a species in trouble. Should this be reassuring to anyone who is worried that they might be left holding the bag for the Sage Grouse recovery?

To be fair, Environment Canada does spend money on its own programs to help species at risk recover—at least I think they do. Canada’s Economic Action Plan (can we have a plan without the word “economic”?) in 2012 stated proudly that it was “providing $50 million over two years to support activities to protect species at risk.” 
Ok, $25 million a year to protect the Whooping Crane, Orca Whale, Caribou and all the other creatures on the list? Canada’s growing roster of species at risk has more than 500 creatures on it. But only 195 of them have actual recovery strategies in place (that is a whole other issue). Let’s say that half of those will spend some of that $25 million a year. How much annual funding goes to each species recovery? About the price of a bungalow in Regina--$250,000. Anyone reassured yet?

Of course, this is a lot of spitball math. How much actual government money is being spent on the recovery of the Greater Sage-Grouse? I don’t have access to all the figures but Alberta and the federal government have put together a total of $4.2 million to spread over a ten year captive breeding and rearing project at the Calgary Zoo.

The Zoo says it will raise another $1.1 million bringing the total to $5.3 million or $530,000 a year over the ten years of the program. Not a lot of money but we can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Let’s say the program works and they breed and rear a lot of Sage Grouse. They can release them into the available sage brush habitat in Saskatchewan and Alberta but clearly there is something amiss in the habitat or else we would not be thinking of raising them in captivity.
Sage brush country (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

And that brings us back to the good ol’ EPO. So far I have not heard of actual dollar amounts that will go to the most important work of all—helping landowners in sage grouse habitat comply with the order without having to pay for any new costs, and paying for programs that will support any landowners who are willing to take special measures to enhance habitat.

Of course, there is always the funding available through the Habitat Stewardship Program mentioned above—whether it is $15,000 a year or $150,000 a year. Not a lot of money but even so how do landowners get it? Do they have to take the initiative and fill out the forms and create the plans and programs themselves? Do they wait for some NGO to come along with a program?

To get some real progress in Sage Grouse country we probably need to work with ten to twenty landowners who have the right habitat and are willing to participate. They will have to go to meetings and take time out to host the biologists and ecologists at their ranchers and perhaps will have to do some of the actual fence work and changes to habitat themselves. If they agree to proposed changes, they may end up changing their grazing plan for the year. Their time and opportunity costs are worth as much as yours or mine. Let’s say, for the sake of argument that an average of $3000 to $6000 per year each would cover the costs incurred by landowners who agree to participate. Assuming fifteen participating landowners, that would amount to a total of somewhere between $45,000 and $90,000 a year.
Telling people that funds are available sounds good, but how do these funds translate into actual support for landowners who we expect to take actions to help the Greater Sage-Grouse? From their perspective the Species at Risk Act makes an endangered species and its habitat a liability. It costs them money, or could cost them money. Until they see some real money supporting the changes to grazing and fencing that they are supposed to sign up for voluntarily, why would they see the Sage Grouse as anything but a hassle?

A couple of weeks ago, region four of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association met for a meeting in the Province's southwest. They passed resolutions to urge the federal government to review or change the Species at Risk Act to make it “less onerous on landowners and land managers.”

Can you blame them? 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A year after the Sage-Grouse EPO

image by Dennis Evans, used in "Grasslands" documentary
A lot has been said in the year since Canada enacted its first ever Emergency Protection Order (EPO) under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), to finally begin doing something to protect the habitat of the nation’s most endangered bird, the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Ranchers who lease Crown land in the roughly 1200 km2 of crown land in Saskatchewan and Alberta where the EPO provisions apply have said they feel betrayed both by Environment Canada and by the conservation communities who sued the Federal Government forcing it to do something for a species they had been dithering over for decades.

There is no point trying to dismiss that feeling of betrayal. It needs to be heard and understood.
If you and your family have been holding onto native grass and grazing it sustainably for generations, working with biologists and government agencies when they show up with their clipboards and habitat programs; and if you have meanwhile seen others in your region plough their grass under when cattle prices dip and grain prices rise, you might get more than a little upset one day when the government announces a new set of restrictions aimed at the way you manage your pastures. 

The way you see it, the rare prairie creatures have only made it into the 21st century because you and other ranchers have stuck with ranching native range even when it wasn’t profitable, even when the government was providing incentives to switch to grain production and everyone else was jumping on a tractor and ploughing the prairie under.

Fewer and fewer ranchers tending a smaller amount of native prairie are now left holding the species-at-risk bag. As the last defenders of native grass, they are naturally going to be upset when they see the government enact laws that focus on what can and cannot be done on the land they graze. After all, it was government policy that brought the plow to the prairie in the first place, and it was government policy that introduced generations of agriculture support programs that continued to cause the cultivation of native grass right through into the 1990s.

That is how the people who live and ranch in Sage Grouse country see things and their perspective must be recognized and respected.

Hereford and Cowbirds

The biologists and species at risk folks at Environment Canada (EC), meanwhile, need to be heard as well. I think it is fair to say that, like the ranchers, the staff at Environment Canada sincerely want to see things work out well for the Greater Sage-Grouse and for the ranching families who graze its remaining habitat.
The biologists and communications people at EC have spent much of the last year trying to recover from the negative reaction the EPO stirred up in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta.

After some initial clumsiness in announcing the EPO, EC has done a much better job of communicating to landowners in recent months.

They have made it clear that, in fact, the EPO does not regulate grazing. It does not restrict, limit or affect grazing levels and stocking rates. The Ministry has produced and distributed some excellent documents that clear up most of the misunderstanding about what the EPO does and does not mean. Take a look at this one that Environment Canada posted online. 

And, while Environment Canada has said that the EPO does not apply to privately-owned land, where it does apply, on Crown lands, they promise that funds are available to producers to make their fences sage grouse-friendly and to take other stewardship measures.

That sounds pretty good. But the ranchers have seen the same documents I have read from Environment Canada, heard the same reassurances that funds are available. Why are they not reassured? I will try to address that question in the next post, but it begs another question—who should hold the bag for species at risk? The tiny minority of ranchers who have been grazing the habitat, or the wider Canadian public that benefits from the stewardship of our last remnants of native prairie?
Black Angus on native range, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

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..]

Share this post

Get widget