ANIMALS AT RISK
Learn more at Canadianwildlifefederation.ca
BURROWING OWL Athene cunicularia
Borrowing owl is more like it: it seldom digs its own holes to nest. Instead, it usually moves into burrows vacated by ground squirrels, badgers and prairie dogs. To discourage predators, it mimics a rattlesnake’s hiss. Unlike most owls, this small bird thrives in the open, hunting day and night. Canadian populations declined by 90 per cent in the 1990s, and declines continue. Extirpated from B.C. and Manitoba, it was designated endangered in 1995.
BLACK-FOOTED FERRET Mustela nigripes
The only ferret native to North America is well adapted to its prairie grasslands habitat with its sandy colouring, periscoping neck and acute hearing and smell. Because it preys almost exclusively on prairie dogs, it suffered with that species’ decline. By the 1970s, it was extirpated from Canada. In 2009, the Toronto and Calgary zoos, Parks Canada and partners released 34 into Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. A small but growing population lives there still.
SWIFT FOX Vulpes velox
Small as a house cat and super-quick, the swift fox deserves its name. It uses a den year-round (rare for a fox), something that is at least partially explained by one of its quirks: it cannot abide being in windy conditions, which is odd since historically it has thrived in open, sparsely vegetated mixed-grass prairie, where its vision and agility are unimpeded. Once common across the Canadian plains, its vulnerability means swift fox are now endangered.
FERRUGINOUS HAWK Buteo regalis
Often taken for a golden eagle, thanks to its similar behaviours and appearance, this secretive raptor is found in the grass and shrubs of western North America. In Canada, its range has been shrinking for more than a century: it now occupies only 48 per cent of its historical purview here, and much of that is compromised by farming, oil and gas exploitation, and other human encroachments. It is considered endangered.
GREATER SAGE GROUSE Centrocercus urophasianus
The size of a big turkey, it is the largest grouse in North America. The extreme southern portion of Canada represents its northernmost reaches. It is under siege, primarily from the effects of agriculture and the oil and gas industry. Still, the population is stabilizing: the 2016 Canadian population of sage grouse was estimated at 340 birds (including 38 females imported from Montana). That was an improvement over recent years, although still down more than 50 per cent from 20 years ago, when it was already compromised.
For many years, the conservation community, including ranchers, looked to public pastures as a place where good opportunities existed to manage native prairie grassland both for ranching and wildlife. These pastures were created in the 1930s when, in response to severe drought and subsequent issues with soil erosion, the Canadian government created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. Through that process, the feds took control of native prairie grasslands, rehabilitated them and leased them to ranchers for livestock grazing.
There are 89 Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration pastures in the Canadian Prairies, totalling 2,256,072 acres, the majority (78%) of which are in Saskatchewan. Within their fence lines are some of the biggest and best tracts of remaining native prairie grasslands, providing habitat for 31 species at risk that live there, including the burrowing owl, swift fox, black-footed ferret, Sprague’s pipit and greater sage grouse. As federal lands, these pastures were subject to the rules and protections that came along with federal legislation, like the Species at Risk Act. However, the 2012 decision of the Harper government to dismantle the federal community pasture program and turn the pastures over to the provinces has changed that.
PRAIRIE ECOSYSTEMS CAN PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN RESPONDING TO CLIMATE CHANGE: THE ROOT SYSTEMS OF GRASSLANDS RETAIN MOISTURE IN THE LAND, RELEASING IT DURING DROUGHT — THEY ALSO HELP HOLD BACK FLOODWATERS AND STORE MORE CARBON THAN THEY PRODUCE
Since then, Alberta’s only three pastures were transferred to management by the federally operated Suffield Military Base and remain subject to the Species at Risk Act. The Association of Manitoba Community Pastures, a producer-led non-profit, took over the management of 20 pastures with the help of transitional funding provided by the province. Though pasture management is no longer subject to the Species at Risk Act, protecting prairie ecosystems is part of its mandate.
The fate of pastures in Saskatchewan has been the most tenuous since the 2012 decision, when at first the provincial government considered selling some of them for private use. Outcry from the ranchers who leased the land convinced the government to hold off on selling the PFRA pastures. More recently, in 2017, the Saskatchewan government announced that it was terminating its Community Pasture Program and possibly selling about one third of these lands. Public response, and subsequent comments on a province-wide survey, showed the people of Saskatchewan to be overwhelmingly in favour of government ownership and continued use of the land for community pastures. As a result, members of the Community Pasture Patrons Association of Saskatchewan now lease the pastures from the provincial government, but with no support for species at risk management from either the federal or provincial government, says Callaghan. The last of the federally held pastures that Callaghan says are “some of the biggest and the best” will be turned over to Saskatchewan this year.
One option for management of pastures that supports both ranching and biodiversity conservation may be available through Pathway to Canada Target 1, a federal government program that aims to protect at least 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland water by 2020. This will be done through the creation of networks of protected areas and “other effective areabased conservation measures,” or OECMS. The International Union for Conservation of Nature characterizes an OECM as “a geographically defined space, not recognized as a protected area, which is governed and managed over the long-term in ways that deliver the effective in-situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem services and cultural and spiritual values.” In other words, as long as core conservation values are being met, these areas can serve other purposes. Callaghan says public pastures are a perfect fit. “They could be protective for native grasslands, while also supporting beef production.”
Callaghan would also like to see Canada formalize grassland protection in policies that enable conservation and guide research and action on the ground. “We don’t have the tools in place to know how much native prairie we really have left,” she says, though she adds that Agriculture and Agri-food Canada is working on remote sensing capabilities toward this end.
In addition to that, she says, “We need to support the ranchers who are maintaining their prairie right now.” Many private ranchers have native prairie on their lands. Callaghan suggests government subsidies or tax breaks could be provided as incentives for ranchers to continue to protect native prairie grassland. More speculatively, perhaps grasslands could be folded into the carbon market, whereby ranchers could receive payment from energy companies for maintaining grasslands, which store plenty of carbon.
While these issues are foremost in the minds and hearts of many prairie people and conservationists, it’s been difficult to rally the rest of Canada to action on prairie conservation. Dan Kraus at the Nature Conservancy of Canada says, “Many Canadians, when they think about globally rare ecosystems, think about tropical rainforest or coral reefs, which are important, and we need to protect those. But I think we need to raise the awareness that here in the heartland of Canada is an ecosystem that is as rare and endangered as anything else on the planet.” The Nature Conservancy of Canada is working on creating conservation easements with ranchers and farmers to offset the cost of protecting native prairie. Kraus would like to see more protected areas representing grassland ecotypes.
Formalized awareness campaigns, sustainable management of prairie pasture and some kind of formal federal protection would go a long way, but in the end, Herriot suggests a reframing of people’s relationship with the prairies may be needed. Not only are prairie ecosystems intrinsically worth protecting, but they also provide opportunities for cultural and spiritual connection with nature.
To that end, he suggests we include Indigenous people — whose ancestors hunted bison across the prairie for millennia — in the conversation about protecting native prairie grasslands. “There are deep cultural values that come from Indigenous voices,” he says. “If we can work with Indigenous people in Canada who are concerned about conservation and have them involved not just in the conservation about grasslands but other ecosystems too, I think we will start to see the cultural shift that all Canadians need.”
Herriot, though, needs no convincing. His connection to the land is apparent when he describes the singing of the meadowlarks as they return in the spring. He’s seen a burrowing owl at its burrow, and ferruginous hawks circle overhead. “Those things are immeasurably important. You can’t put a dollar value on them.”
Callaghan agrees. “You have to have patience for the prairie, but if you do, you’ll see its wild beauty all around you. The stars are incredible. It’s quiet — if you go to southwestern Saskatchewan, you won’t hear human sounds except for your own. That’s exceptional. All we need is a different way of looking at the prairies and of enjoying the beauty in its subtlety. Then, I think, people could become quite protective of it.”1
Visit Canadianwildlifefederation.ca and Hinterland Who’s Who (hww.ca) to watch videos filmed in the grasslands and learn more about this important ecosystem and how you can help with prairie conservation efforts.
(Left) Prairie dog on alert. (Right) Grasslands as far as the eye can see PRECIOUS LANDS
SUN SETTING ON THE GRASSLANDS The waxing crescent moon in twilight over the sage and priairie grass