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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Video: why prairie dogs matter

Here's a new video from Montana's American Prairie Reserve, explaining how Black-tailed Prairie Dogs benefit other prairie species from birds to bison.

Friday, October 24, 2014

"A good way to see the country"--Renee and Solomon Carriere of the South Sask. Delta

Saskatchewan River Delta from the air (image from Boreal Songbird Initiative website)

I've been dreaming lately about water, thinking especially about people who have found ways to live well by the ebb and flow of rivers, lakes, and sloughs.

Solomon Carriere is a paddler, hunter, outfitter, and dog-sledder who lives on the Saskatchewan River Delta straddling the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border--10,000 square kilometres of wet wilderness. The largest inland delta in North America and one of Canada's great ecological treasures, the Delta has little protection, other than people like Solomon and his wife Renee who live there and keep an eye on things. For them, the river is everything--food, transportation, livelihood, and sustenance for the soul.

Unfortunately, SaskPower's hydroelectric dams upstream are wreaking havoc with the natural flow of the river, causing siltation and harming aquatic plant and animal populations.

In last December's issue of Canadian Geographic, Allan Casey published an excellent article on the Delta. In it he speaks to Solomon and Renee about their lives and how the river has changed. (Here is a taste: "Twice [Renee] has led school students on 32-day paddling trips from the river’s glacier source in the Rockies to Cumberland House. The kids, none of whom had ever spent a night outdoors, started out fearful, some overweight. By the time they reached home, their bodies had hardened up, their fears of the wild softened.")

But I first heard about the Carriere family in a documentary on the delta created by Ian Toews a few years back: Saskatchewan River Delta.

This week, out of the blue, I received an email from Solomon, which surprised me because I know he lives along the river in a pretty remote spot far from internet access. The message was about an egret he had seen twice this past summer on one of the channels of the delta.

I told him that Great Egrets are pretty uncommon anywhere in the province but are increasing year by year, breeding farther north all the time. He sent along some photos and this video, showing the egret flying ahead of him as he travels along the Stone River toward Cumberland House.


As a competitive long-distance paddler, Solomon is regularly in his canoe up and down the streams that make up the Delta, keeping his paddling muscles in shape. He sent along a photo of the boat he and his adult son, Riel, rowed and paddled from their home on the Delta downstream to Lake Manitoba, which they then crossed (!). I think this is Riel in the rowing position.

Solomon has a Youtube channel, kingsolvidio, which shows some of the things he does in travelling all seasons in the Delta (I think he sneaks into Cumberland House, fifty-one Kms away to go online now and then).

Here is a video about their Lake Manitoba adventure:

When I asked if they actually paddled and rowed the whole way, he replied, "Yeah we paddle. It's a good way to see the country."

Carriere's ancestors lived along the river, as many Metis did from along the waterways of Canada's NorthWest from the 1700s into the Twentieth Century.

As long as there are still people like Renee and Solomon along the waters there is someone keeping an eye on the birds, the moose, the muskrat and the fish; someone who just by watching and speaking on behalf of the more-than-human world around them, show the rest of us what it is to lead a rich and gracious life, congruent with the river and its life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October passing

While I fill my hours at other tasks
beneath the flicker of stolen days,
a thought strays to a light-footed bird,
tweed brown and grey . . .

It chances the open for a seed,
until a bolder one floats in
with its colour to chase clouds away . . .

Then a finch who will leave soon,
and a titmouse who will stay . . .

And over them on strands of cumulus
a tumult of white wings . . .

Theirs is the sound of October passing.
It rings within the round hills and
meets the lake . . .

where small fishing birds pause to listen . . .

And eagles, weary of the wind and its promises,
settle into their night roost
among the naked poplars.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Grazing the wild

Waldron Ranch property, now under NCC conservation easement (image courtesy of NCC)
Last week the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced that they had secured a huge conservation easement on 12,000 hectares of fescue grassland in Alberta's foothills, where a co-op of 72 ranchers have been stewarding the land for decades. Pressure to develop the land is immense in southern Alberta so this initiative should prevent it from being subdivided, developed or cultivated into perpetuity. Grazing will continue on the land, as it must. Fescue prairie, like all grassland, needs the disturbance that grazing provides. Bison provided that from the retreat of the glaciers until the 1880s but cattle now provide something of an ecological substitution.

I still run into well-meaning folks who do not believe cattle belong on our native grasslands. Here is one of North America's great defenders of wilderness, Wallace Stegner, outlining his thoughts on why cattle grazing has a role to play in some "wilderness" areas. This passage comes from his famous "Wilderness Letter" which he wrote in 1960 and which ultimately led to the passing of the Wilderness Act fifty years ago in September:

I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be "harvested". For mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren't absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a man's feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.
Here are two more grand images of the Waldron property--courtesy of NCC and, as anyone can see, a cause for celebration:

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