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Canadian Wildlife - - WILD THINGS -

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.


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 Cana­di­an­wildlifefe­d­er­a­ and Hin­ter­land Who’s Who ( 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

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