Thursday, January 22, 2015

More signs of hope for Saskatchewan's pastures

mixed grass prairie close-up at a community pasture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Birds of 2014: a photo gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sage Grouse: the View from the Saddle--Part II

all photos courtesy of Miles Anderson

Last month, I bumped into Fir Mountain rancher Miles Anderson at The Exchange in Regina, where his daughter Kacy was on stage performing with Clayton Linthicum. When you have a chance to visit with one of Saskatchewan’s most respected rancher/stewards of native grass--the fellow who has more Greater Sage-Grouse on his land than anyone else in Canada--you don’t pass it up.

Some of what I learned from Miles that night I wrote up in a previous post, The View from the Saddle, Part I, but before we parted ways he mentioned he was heading to a conference.

“I’m off to Salt Lake City next week to talk at a conference sponsored by the Sage Grouse Initiative.” He agreed to let me call him afterwards, to get his impressions of the conference, and talk a bit more about sage grouse and prairie conservation.

This week we finally caught up with one another on the phone and had a good long talk about ranching, stewardship, and the sorry state of sage grouse at the northern edge of their range.

“It might seem like we have a lot of sage grouse habitat here and in the park (Grasslands National Park),” Miles said, “but if you look at their whole range on the continent, we are just a postage stamp. One of the things that makes this land different is that it wasn’t glaciated. So it starts right in the soil, and its part of why we have so many rare species. It’s not something I am doing. It’s just the way this place is.”

Miles and his wife Sheri run cattle on 30,000 acres, including 22 sections of native grass right along the international boundary--all of it excellent habitat for Greater Sage-Grouse and many other species at risk. The sage grouse use a variety of landscapes on his range: wet places such as alkali flats, as well as uplands and lowlands. “In winter, they need places where they can feed on sage brush, which means it has to be high enough to poke out of the snow. If the snow’s too deep, they move south to find sage brush they can get at.

“My neighbour to the south in Montana was at the conference as well. His land runs from the border almost all the way down the Milk River. He was a guest speaker too and we both had some good air play.”

Miles said that most presenters and participants at the conference were from the science and conservation sectors, but there was some representation from industry (mining and oil and gas).

One of his favourite moments at the conference was when Noreen Walsh, Regional Director with U.S. Fish & Wildlife was speaking. “She said something that agrees with what I see on our land: ‘what’s good for the birds is good for the herds.’”

“Sure, it’s just anecdotal, but I saw some things this past summer that prove the point. It might sound funny but I know what I saw.”

The strangest thing he learned this summer was that sage grouse seem to like hanging around his cattle. The Anderson land adjoins part of the East Block of Grasslands National Park. That side of the park had not been grazed by any kind of bovine in 25 years. This summer, though, the Park welcomed Miles and his Angus cattle onto a portion of the East Block. 

The hard part was getting them to stay there once they opened the fence. 

“The grass is old and ugly, so we were always having to chase them back into the park.” That meant Miles was on horseback and moving cattle during a time of the summer when he does not usually ride among his herd.

“We saw sage grouse every day, but we always saw them with the cattle.” In his experience, the hens leave the sage brush bottom lands soon after the young hatch, but later in the summer they return with half-grown chicks. 

one of Miles' photos showing sage grouse near his cattle

“They might be showing them how to feed on sage--I don’t know--and maybe they like the cattle because it helps them find bugs.”

Though Miles was excited to see good numbers of sage grouse with young this summer and well into the fall, he knows the next trick is to get good survival into the next year.

Survival is influenced by many factors, but, like many who live in sage grouse country, he is concerned about predators. “We’ve got ravens like you wouldn’t believe. Then the coyotes, hawks, and swift foxes are probably taking their share. And that might be another reason the grouse like cattle around. I’ve watched them take refuge close to cattle when a harrier flies overhead. You have to ask yourself if there is something we’re doing that gives predators an advantage now. Coyotes especially--back in the days when people could control coyotes we used to see hundreds of sage grouse.”

But a rancher like Miles Anderson knows there are no simple answers. He thrives by respecting the complex interrelationships between weather, grass, the genetics of his herd, and his own management practices. “One of the speakers at the SGI conference said ‘there is no single cause of sage grouse decline. There isn’t going to be any single solution.’ That seemed right to me.”

Toward the end of our call, I asked Miles what he would do if he had a couple million dollars to help out the Greater Sage-Grouse in his corner of Canada’s grassland.

“That’s a tough one, but I guess I would spend it on connecting the science people with ranchers. I think the Sage Grouse Initiative has done some good things in the States. There are a dozen or more programs that a producer might qualify for down there, but they send out a rep and if you’re interested they’ll assess your operation and then figure out which programs might work for you. Might be something to do with fencing or infrastructure, might be about water development, deferred grazing, grass banking. All kinds of things. Then they do all the paper work for you. It’s all completely confidential so the ranchers feel safe and they don’t have to do all the applying and figuring. The resource person comes back with a program or two and gets it going. I think they get pretty good uptake that way.”

Miles added that, while ranchers are naturally cautious and some have had bad experiences in the past with conservation programs, he agrees that building trust and rapport between producers and the conservation and government sectors must be a priority.

“Take the pipit (Sprague’s pipit, another species at risk on his grasslands). You look across the fence and see, well this guy has a lot more pipits than his neighbour. Why not get to know him, spend some time there and learn what he is doing that makes the difference? Then you’ve got to find a way to encourage more of that, to make it worth other ranchers’ time to try something new.”

You don’t last in the ranching life as long as Miles has by jumping to conclusions or adopting every new management trend that comes along. Applying the same caution to sage grouse, he is not going to make any rash predictions about its future or claim to know exactly what needs to be done.

And yet, after listening to him discuss the prairie and its declining birds, you go away believing that there might be some hope left. With people like Miles Anderson on the land, and some resources and political will to work with ranchers and industry, is it possible that we could find the mix of private and public management, science-based and traditional stewardship to bring the Greater Sage-Grouse back into its long vacant breeding grounds on the Canadian Plains?

To even take a shot, though, Alberta and Saskatchewan are going to need some government (federal and provincial) commitment to create programming that is a lot closer to what the Sage Grouse Initiative has going south of the border. Take a look at the SGI web site--you will see right away that Canada has nothing to compare with this program.

If you look very closely, there is a grouse in the centre-right of this photo just taking flight

Monday, December 1, 2014

"The Last Cowboy," a mini-doc about the PFRA's Jim Commodore of Val Marie

I have written a couple of stories in this space about the cowboys who are the lifeblood of the PFRA community pastures. Men like Mert Taylor and Eric Weisbeck are among the last of the public servants who saddle up a horse to manage Canada's federal grasslands now being transferred back to Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

They are at the tail end of a lineage of PFRA cowboys running back three-quarters of a century. A couple of days ago a friend sent me a link to a new documentary that pays tribute to one cowboy whose life runs almost all the way back to the origins of the PF system.

Jim Commodore was born in 1941 at the Val Marie PFRA pasture, just west and a bit north of Grasslands National Park. The Val Marie pasture is the largest in the system at more than 90,000 acres and it is an ecological and cultural treasure that should remain in the public trust and be granted the kind of protection Canada's rarest landscapes all deserve.

Jim Commodore, retired PFRA cowboy at Val Marie

Megan Lacelle and Kaitlyn Van De Woestyne, two young women studying Journalism at the University of Regina, made the six minute documentary to fulfill a class assignment. They call it "The Last Cowboy" and it is for my dollar the best piece of work showing some of the human costs of abandoning the PFRA system. I hope it is seen far and wide and that its message, told entirely in the humility of an honest cowboy recalling his days on the land, will pluck a few heart strings and remind prairie people why we must retain and honour the legacy of the community pastures system.

Kaitlyn and Megan graciously agreed to allow me to post The Last Cowboy (see below), and sent me some of their reflections on the project. I am including Megan's comments below as an introduction to the film. As fate would have it, Megan and Kaitlyn shot the documentary on Remembrance Day weekend. Here's hoping that the professional media world will welcome the kind of sensitivity and light hand that Megan and Kaitlyn are already applying as students.

"I grew up in Cadillac, Sask. (about 30 minutes north of Val Marie). My mom grew up in Val Marie and my grandparents still ranch there. My mom worked on the PFRA when she was younger (before me) and as I was growing up I heard lots about them from my parents and grandparents. I started working for my dad at his gas station when I was 13 and that's when I started to meet the men and women who worked for the PFRA. Among them was Jim Commodore. I always found him so humble, interesting and well-spoken that I knew when I got into Journalism school that I would love to tell his story. When I heard about the decisions to shut the PFRA's in 2012 I knew I wanted to shine a spotlight on the people and culture surrounding them. This year we were able to do a mini-doc assignment on anything we chose - I asked Kaitlyn about doing it on this and she agreed!
So we phoned Jim up and asked if he'd be okay with it. Jim, always the gentleman, said he would do whatever it took to help us out. So we road tripped down to Val Marie on Remembrance Day weekend this year and we filmed him and our B-roll all in one day.
I love the area, the people and the culture in the southwest rural corner of the province - I got into journalism to shed a spotlight on incredible "everyday" people and this gave us a great opportunity to tell Jim's story as well as tie into a greater story about the loss of the PFRA's and what that means to the area, people and culture.

Oftentimes people get caught up in statistics and big figures and forget to talk to people who know the topic best - I knew Jim would be a great resource and a way to make a historical document. His father worked PF's before him and so he'd always known what they meant to the area. He's an amazing person. He, like my grandparents, I believe are the last of a breed of cowgirls and cowboys who understood the importance of people, community and the environment."

The Last Cowboy from Megan Lacelle on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Big Screen Premiere of "Grasslands" documentary--Nov. 26 at the Royal Sk Museum

This Wednesday, November 26 at 7:30 Public Pastures-Public Interest is joining with the Friends of the Museum to put on a public showing of Grasslands, Ian Toews latest documentary.

I wrote about this film here a few weeks ago when it first aired on television. Those who caught it on TV loved it, but now we have a chance to see it on a big screen, so we are calling it the big screen premiere of the film.

PPPI is charging $10 a seat as part of a fundraiser to support grassland conservation on publicly owned grasslands in the province.

Take a look at the website for the documentary or check out the trailer here.

image courtesy of Victoria Times-Colonist

Ian's Arri Alexa camera, now the standard for Hollywood features, seems to love the great expanses of grass speckled with distant bands of bison. There are some stunning scenes in this film and the sparing narration and interviews do justice to the complexities behind grassland conservation on the northern plains.

Two of the grassland conservation people featured in the film will be on hand at Wednesday's premiere--Wes Olson, the man who brought bison to Grasslands National Park, and myself.

As well, the filmmaker, Ian Toews, is flying in from Victoria to introduce the film and answer questions afterward. Ian's company, 291 Films, was formerly based in Saskatchewan but had to move after the film industry dried up thanks to Brad Wall cutting the film tax credit program.

Ian says Grasslands is the last film to be made under the old tax credit program.

To lead the evening off, we are also showing a twelve minute short called Soil Carbon Cowboys. Made by Peter Byck of Arizona, the filmmaker behind Carbon Nation, this documentary takes a brief look at one particular slice of cattle ranching that is gaining a lot of attention lately.

I talked with Peter on the phone last week and he offered to let us screen his film. He is working on a long-term project considering the ecological benefits of grassland management.

Soil Carbon Cowboys shows us three cattlemen who are applying some of Allan Savoury's holistic range management concepts. These men have seeded cultivated land to a mix of mostly non-native grasses and legumes. Then they cross-fenced with electric fencing so they could rotate their herd from one tiny half-acre or one acre paddock to another, resting any given patch long enough to recover. Using this "mob-grazing method" they say they can build up the health of the soil and increase soil carbon while maximizing weight gain on their animals.

This is a lovely little film and, with a great prairie sound track and some splendid slo-mo shots of bugs hopping and flying through the grass. It features Saskatchewan's most charming advocate of mob-grazing, the inimitable Neil Dennis, along with other producers from North Dakota and Mississippi who use similar systems.

screen capture from Soil Carbon Cowboys
While we may not want to see a lot of mob grazing used on native rangeland, it has its place as a way to improve cultivated lands while raising cattle. I like what the Prairie Ecologist, Chris Helzer, says on this topic.

Though this kind of extreme rotation is not a cure-all, there is a net gain for biodiversity if you take land that was seeded entirely to wheat, canola, or crested wheat grass and plant a good mix of non-natives with legumes.

The insect life will be richer, some birds may survive the mobbing, and the soil may recover from the years of mono-cropping and pesticide use.

Soil Carbon Cowboys will make a perfect warm-up for the main event paying homage to the original carbon sequestration model of native grass and bison.

Please come on out and help us spread the word so we can fill the Museum Auditorium and celebrate our precious grasslands together.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"One Hundred Miles of Hawks"

Sub-adult Swainson's flying over Panama. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama
The Swainson's hawks were late leaving the northern Plains this fall but a few weeks ago the last ones departed, eventually to be replaced by small numbers of rough-legged hawks arriving from the arctic.

The Swainson's is I think my favourite buteo, perhaps because it is still common enough that most days out in open country I can find one circling in the sky. But I am particularly in awe of its long migration, one of the lengthiest of any hawk. Each year the Swainson's hawks that nest here on the mixed-grass and moist mixed grass prairie travel 11,000 kms twice as they migrate between northern nesting grounds and the Pampas of Argentina.

What route do they take to get from northern to southern pastures? The people of Panama can tell you. In early November the narrowest parts of the isthmus of Central America witnesses one of the world's greatest avian spectacles. In the skies above Panama City, when clear migrating weather returns after several poor days, a river of hawks will pass by. Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged and Swainson's hawks numbering in the hundreds of thousands boil overhead in great kettles swirling their way southward.

On November 2nd this year, Panama City set a new record for counting hawks: two million hawks in a single day, which more than doubled the highest  previous count at Panama. From a press release put out by the Smithsonian:

"The official count from Sunday's massive raptor migration is 2,105,060 birds, most of them turkey vultures and Swainson's hawks," said George Angehr, a Smithsonian ornithologist.

And here is a news report from Panama

What caused the high count this year though? No doubt weather played a role, but the previous high of 900,000 was from 2013. Are the overall numbers of these species increasing? Certainly turkey vultures are increasing. And I have heard birders, naturalists and ranchers say that they are seeing more Swainson's hawks than they were a decade ago.

That could be good news and makes sense considering that their numbers were down to a record low after the mass die-off in the mid-90s caused by Argentinian farmers using Monochrotrophos and Dimethoate to kill grasshoppers. Six thousand Swainson's were killed directly by the poisons; many more were severely weakened. Monochrotrophos has been banned for almost twenty years, but Dimethoate is still in use in South America. However, it does seem that Swainson's hawks may have regained some of their numbers, at least here in Saskatchewan.

Birdlife International estimates that the total population of Swainson's hawks is around 580,000 and Canada may have a little more than 100,000 of those coming to spend each summer. Having departed from prairie farms and rangelands mere weeks ago to ride the river of hawks across the bottleneck of Panama, the northernmost Swainson's hawks on the planet are now gliding and soaring their way to the grasslands of Argentina where they will pass the winter eating crickets, grasshoppers, mice and voles.

Those of us who admire these elegant-winged hawks and want to keep seeing them in our summer skies need to do what we can to protect the wellbeing of their habitat at both ends of their yearly journeys. If the winter brings them plenty of prey free of pesticides, most of them will come back again in fine shape next April.
Swainson's Hawk, just north of Grasslands National Park

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sage grouse: the view from the saddle, Part 1


Last night my wife Karen and I went to hear the Sadies play at the Exchange, but we really were just as excited about the lead act, Kacy and Clayton, a folk duo from Saskatchewan's Wood Mountain ranch country.

Kacy & Clayton (and friends), image from

Kacy Anderson and Clayton Linthicum are cousins who, in the words of one bio I found online, "grew up immersed in ranching in the Wood Mountain Uplands of Southern Saskatchewan, and were educated by Kacy’s Grandpa/Clayton’s Great Uncle Carl in the ways of rural music. Ranching and music are family traditions that can be traced back 5 generations."

At least two of those generations were well represented in the room last night. I sat down next to two proud fathers who had come to town to catch the show.

Both family names run deep in the ranching culture of this province, but I have long wanted to meet Miles Anderson, Kacy's dad, and even better known as one of our most respected grassland stewards.

A few years ago, he was given the prestigious Prairie Conservation Award for Saskatchewan, from the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference. From what I have heard, no rancher deserves it more.

Right up against one flank of the East Block of Grasslands National Park, the grass and sagebrush the Anderson family looks after is an island of biodiversity and abundance that would make anyone question the need for prairie conservation.

Waiting for the show to begin, Miles told me stories about the great numbers of Long-Billed Curlews and Sage Grouse he has seen from the saddle of his horse this year.

"People don't realize it, but where there are sage hens you often see them right in with the cattle. I think they feel safer there. I never see the northern harriers fly over a herd."

Then he told me a story about a sheep rancher he knows near Glasgow, Montana, who says they come right into the corral with his sheep at night.

Later I found this video Miles shot and posted on the Sage Grouse Initiative Facebook page. It shows what he sees all the time from the back of his saddle horse--Sage Grouse in close proximity to cattle.


Before we settled in to listen to Kacy and Clayton play, Miles tells me he is heading to Salt Lake City Utah next week to speak at the International Sage-Grouse Forum.

"They want me to speak on a panel about working on sage grouse conservation as a private rancher."

I asked if he'd mind me calling him after he is back home to see what the forum was like and maybe get some more of his thoughts on Sage Grouse conservation. He agreed, and so with luck I will have more on Miles Anderson and Sage Grouse in a post in the near future.

Kacy and Clayton were a delight as always--Clayton's sharp and snappy guitar playing the perfect accompaniment to Kacy's soulful voice on some fine old ballads. Do check them out if you get the chance.

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