Thursday, June 25, 2015

Photo gallery: the birds and landscapes of spring, 2015

Here are some photos of things that have caught my attention in May and June this year:
At Point Pelee we had long looks at this very famous and reliable
Rufous-phased Eastern Screech Owl



The breeding Prothonotary Warblers of Pelee Island where I attended the
Springsong Bird Festival again as guest birder, helping Graeme Gibson and
Margaret Atwood celebrate Canada's birds of spring.


Scarlet Tanagers lit up the Carolinian Woods on the island and
at Point Pelee
back home I visited the Spy Hill-Ellice PFRA Pasture
straddling the Sask/Manitoba border, working on a new
book with photographer Branimir Gjetvaj

This pasture is a wonderful piece of Aspen Parkland prairie and had
great expanses of Three-flowered Avens in bloom

Tufts of spear grass at dawn on the Spy Hill-Ellice PFRA pasture

 Yellow Lady Slippers in mid-June when we find them in ditches and
 nowhere else.

A calm morning on Cherry Lake

On windy days we see this large floating island of
cattails venture out across the lake and back again before settling
against the shore again until the next big blow.

A Cliff Swallow decided to renovate and take over an old barn swallow nest under
the eave of our cabin. Odd to see this colonial species all alone.


A strange sight on my Tyvan Breeding Bird Survey last week--
Ed Rodger and I found six Pronghorns near the town of Francis,
on a cultivated field, far from any native grass. A buck and five does.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Making good on ecological goods: grassland carbon offsets?

Native prairie sequesters a lot of carbon so why can't landowners be paid for protecting it? (Image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

Today an article on carbon sequestration in grassland came my way thanks to rancher and biologist Sue Michalsky. The story was posted on the website for Alberta Farmer Express and it is worth a look.

The writer, a range manager and mixed-farmer named Jill Burkhardt, opens by mentioning the provincial carbon offset program out of which many of Alberta’s no-till farmers receive payments. Now, of course, native grassland does a much better job of sequestering atmospheric carbon than even the best conservation tillage system so Jill asks a natural question: “why aren’t landowners with pasture getting paid for their contribution?”

I have wondered the same thing so I posed the question once to a lawyer who has done some work on carbon offset or carbon credit programs. He said that carbon credit systems depend on a protocol that can measure and prove what he calls “additionality.”

Additionality asks the seller of the carbon credits the following question: is the activity providing the carbon sequestration or emission reduction something that would happen even if it were not being used as an offset project? I.e. would it have happened anyway? If the answer is yes, then there is no additionality and nothing that can be legitimately sold as a carbon credit.
Sagebrush prairie (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

This means that native grassland that has been well managed by a single family for generations would not really be seen as providing any additional carbon sequestration, yet someone who buys a piece of broken land might theoretically be eligible for some credits if he plants it to perennial cover, because suddenly that piece of land would be sequestering a measurable increase in carbon.

I realize that that just seems wrong in a whole lot of ways so it is tempting to think maybe we can just ignore this additionality thing and go ahead and establish a carbon credit payment system for people who hold title to native grassland.

Maybe, but not likely. Governments that signed the Kyoto accord have to follow something called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a strict mechanism that is under increasing pressure from scientists and environmentalists to ensure that carbon offset programs, among other instruments, are legitimate and provide an actual net benefit.

Many ecologists and scientists—including Pope Francis in his new Encyclical on the planet’s ecological crisis (see point 171 in this pdf of the encyclical)—have criticized carbon offsets, saying they do not reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions (see this article inThe Guardian).
If additionality is a deal-breaker—and I think it is—then we are going to need to find a protocol that somehow measures and demonstrates real additional benefit with enough rigor to satisfy the accountants of the carbon offset world.

I am not sure how we can do that, but let’s hope there are some agile economic minds out there working on this very question, because it is indeed a challenge that besets the overall effort to compensate and recognize ranchers for their good stewardship. Whether it is carbon offsets or biodiversity offsets, we need real accountability for real and measurable benefits—anything less could backfire on us all in more ways than one.
image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sheri Grant: A rancher’s photo album

at the Grant Ranch (all images copyrighted by and with
permission of Sherri Grant)
I spend a lot of time--some would say too much--talking about the forces that threaten the survival of Canada’s remaining native grassland, and a fair bit of my concern is based on a fear that those forces will make it harder for private ranching stewards to continue protecting the prairie.

(Not everyone would agree on what those forces are but here are the ones I would list: 1. the oil and gas industry, 2. agricultural policy that does not recognize the heritage and ecological values of native grassland, 3. economic pressures driving increased stocking rates; 4. ranchette development; 5. Privatization of public grasslands, 6. Miscommunication and division between rancher-stewards and scientists and conservationists, 7. the development of new crops that can be grown on marginal and sub-marginal lands, and 8. Lack of government funding for retaining range management specialists.)

The best cure for that worry is to talk to a rancher who pays attention to the birds and the plants on his ranch. These folks, and their culture of protecting the grass, form the linchpin of prairie conservation. If we expect the grass and its rare creatures to remain, the first job of our public policy on native grassland conservation should be to find ways to protect and support the kind of private management our best stewards provide. Government agencies and conservation groups simply do not have and will never have the resources to replace the stewardship role played by the many private cattle producers who know their land intimately and when and where and how much to graze.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Sherri Grant, who, with her husband Lynn and brother-in-law Dean, raises 1,600 head of cattle on more than 11,000 hectares of land near Val Marie, Saskatchewan. She had taken a couple of bird photos and wanted to confirm the identifications she had made. I replied and mentioned that I had interviewed Lynn many years ago for a CBC Ideas radio documentary I wrote on grassland birds.

Then, a week later this lovely shot of a grasshopper sparrow landed in my in-basket.
one of my favourite grassland birds--Sheri managed to catch the bit of green at the bend of its wing

This photo was clearly of a different order so I checked on Google and found her website . Turns out Sherri is a serious photographer and has a gallery of impressive images of flowers, landscapes and wildlife, all available for purchase online. That was when I wrote her again and asked if she would let me show some of her photos here on Grass Notes.

“First and foremost I am a rancher,” Sherri wrote in an email she sent, along with permission to borrow a few photos from her gallery, after returning from the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Meeting in Swift Current earlier this week.

She says her passion for agriculture led her to become involved in agricultural education. She created a website of beef industry resources for teachers as well as the photographs and design for a children’s book, “Where Beef Comes From”.

Sherri took up photography when she heard complaints about the lack of beauty in her part of the province. She started by photographing local flowers on the native pastures where she lives and soon had a photographic collection of more than 70 species.

Here is a sampling of the photos she takes (click on any of them to see a larger version), but please pay a visit to Sherri’s website where she shares her images:

Calving time: Lynn out in the winter dawn light to help a calf in trouble

A bull snake, one of the reptiles found on native prairie

Gumbo evening-primrose (Oenothera caespitosa Nutt.), a flower that transforms
 from pink to white as it blooms by day

Smooth blue beardtongue (Pentstemon nitidus) one of the showiest of blooms
in the Frenchman River Valley

the future of prairie stewardship, heading for the buttes

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Stockgrowers' Resolutions against Land Trusts, Conservation easements, and SAR legislation

image from South of the Divide Conservation Action Program
Reading through the latest issue of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association (SSGA) magazine, I came across a list of new resolutions that they will be considering at their annual convention and AGM in Swift Current on June 7th to 9th .

Several of the resolutions to be debated surprised me because they seem to run counter to the conservation ethic that the SSGA and most cattle producers generally support. Now, of course, these resolutions may well not be passed, but here are two of them that are going to leave SSGA’s partners in conservation scratching their heads:
Resolution #5 WHEREAS public funds are being forwarded to the Nature Conservancy of Canada from the federal and provincial governments. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to cease financial support to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other ENGO’s for the purpose of purchasing agricultural lands.

Resolution #6 WHEREAS conservation easements held in perpetuity devalue property and do not recognize future considerations. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to revise The Conservation Easements Act to make conservation easements no longer than twenty five years.

Another resolution calls for changes to the Species at Risk Act.

Regardless of whether these resolutions get any traction at the AGM, it seems fair to say that they are a sign that an undetermined number of cattle producers do not like some of the primary tools we commonly use to protect native grassland and its species for the public good they represent. Conservation easements, species at risk legislation, and land trusts that purchase habitat are three legs of a four-legged platform that conservation NGOs and government agencies use to protect at least a few pieces of our remaining native grasslands (only 17 to 21% is left in Saskatchewan) into the future.

Before describing the fourth leg, it needs to be recognized that private cattle producers themselves have always applied their own platform of protection based on a culture and tradition of stewardship passed down from one generation to the next. This important platform of native grassland protection, practiced primarily in the southwest of the province, is what carried much of our remaining large pieces of mixed grass and moist mixed-grass prairie into the twenty-first century.

meadowlark nest

However—and this is where some people, conservationists and ranchers, for different reasons, may part ways with me—there was another factor that helped keep a few large tracts of native grass intact. What I am referring to here is the bargain struck between public and private interest on Crown native grassland.

The beauty of keeping grassland in the public domain and leasing it out to private cattle producers is that it leaves room for public policy to help with the handoff of land stewardship from one producer’s lifetime to his successor while ensuring that over time the land will not be significantly altered.

We all are drawn to the romantic ideal of the lone cattleman taking care of his native range far from the eyes of regulation and government. It has a strong emotional appeal and we all know examples to prove the theory. But the chink in the armour of entrusting grassland conservation entirely to the culture of private rancher stewardship is that even the best steward will die some day and he or she may not have an apprenticing child to takeover the legacy. Crown ownership or ownership by an NGO such as NCC allows us to retain an element of public involvement that allows the native grass to stay right side up regardless of how heavily or lightly the next leaseholder chooses to graze.

In my mind, the public plays a vital role in ensuring that our last remnants of native grass do not become ranchettes or cultivated fields, by providing a fourth leg shared by the two platforms of conservation maintained by NGOs and government agencies on the one side and private ranchers on the other. The individual cattle producer needs affordable lease rates and programs that help them sustain the ecological goods and services produced on rangeland, while the public and conservation groups need grazing animals and their managers to provide the kind of disturbance essential to healthy grassland diversity. This is the basis for grassland conservation that is working in various forms and to varying degrees of success all over the prairie landscapes of North America—on community pastures, National Grasslands, provincial and national parks, leased public lands, and public grazing reserves: our remaining grassland commons.

Somehow, somewhere along the way many of Canada’s cattle producers have lost faith in that leg of their conservation platform connecting them to the public interest. They no longer see Crown land or land owned by conservation NGOs as the ground where private and public interests can converge to do the best job of protecting our native grass and its many rare creatures.

This is why we hear that the leadership of the SSGA and the Saskatchewan Cattleman’s Association both would like to see community pastures and other Crown grasslands up for sale. It may also be the reason why the SSGA is entertaining resolutions that oppose conservation easements, the Species at Risk Act, and NCC’s purchase of native grassland.

All of which is fine, if they have a better idea, if they have a plan for protecting our dwindling native grasslands for future generations. Relying entirely on the goodwill and stewardship of the rancher tradition is not a plan. While we can say that the ethos of the private rancher protected the grass we still have in hand, there is the matter of the other 80 per cent of the native prairie in this province that disappeared when we placed it entirely in the hands of private landowners.

So, if we are to abandon Crown ownership of land and public involvement in the stewardship of native prairie, then what is the plan? How would those who drew up the SSGA resolutions propose that we replace Species at Risk legislation, land trust purchase of land, and conservation easements?

I would love to hear some thoughts from cattle producers on how we could make those changes and somehow do a better job of protecting our precious native prairie.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

More on prairie trails: unregulated ATVs and unmanaged access

The posters promised “22 miles of scenic trails.” That sounds nice. Where? In Saskatchewan’s beautiful Pipestone Valley, a long and winding oasis of native grass in the southeast of the province where almost all of the surrounding land is cultivated.

But this is not public land and it might be a little noisy for a quiet prairie walk anyway. The twenty-two miles of trails have been made for quads, motocross bikes and all manner of recreational vehicles. Every April five to seven hundred quads (or all terrain vehicles) gather at this stretch of the Pipestone Valley near the town of Wawota to hold a “quad rally.”

Five to seven hundred. Five quads can make a mess of a riparian area along a stream--we see it on our land every summer. If you want to see what hundreds of quads can do, take a look at this Youtube video of the Wawota Lions Quad Derby (yes, the local Lions club sponsors it as a fundraiser) held on April 25th this year.

Slide forward to 0:52 in the video and you will see a 30 second shot of the Pipestone Creek, perhaps a quarter-mile length of its vegetation and banks turned into black mud. Then take a look at the aerial shot in this second video, at the 3:48 mark after the ad is finished running (clearly these videos are getting their share of clicks).

Images like these are appalling to those who see our last small remnants of native prairie as representing some of the rarest old growth ecologies on the continent and deserving of our care and respect, but, of course, this is privately-owned land and that means here in the wild west you can do what you like with an ecosystem if the Land Titles office says you own it.

However, the Pipestone Creek itself is not private property. It is a bona fide stream with several species of fish, birds, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates, draining almost 4,000 square kilometres of Aspen Parkland prairie (most of it cultivated) into the Souris River. Our Provincial Environment Ministry and perhaps the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans have a responsibility to protect it as part of the waters we share and steward as public commons. How is that working out? Is there any regulation or policing of this kind of activity in a riparian area and the stream bed itself?

Well, apparently, the RCMP are usually on hand for the rally--not to protect the land or its non-human residents, mind you, but to protect the seven hundred people from one another.

But this year, the tenth anniversary of the Wawota event, something happened. A Saskatchewan Conservation Officer spoke to the organizers of the event and told them that they are violating conservation regulations. He let them know that he could charge them. He chose not to in the end, but now the Lions’ Club is considering its options and may cancel the rally for next year. When some of the faithful heard this, though, they launched a twitter campaign and a petition on, which has 1200 signatures. They are appealing to the Premier and the Province to save the Wawota Quad Rally.

While there is a fringe of extreme quad owners who will argue they should have a right to muck up a creek bed or native grassland because they are just having good clean fun, there are many more pragmatists even in conservation circles who will say that to minimize this kind of activity you have to keep it to a few pieces of land where the owners give their permission. Then, presumably, other places both private and public, can be protected, because all or most of the quad activity is restricted to a few sacrifice zones.

That sounds plausible, but in the real world, it is not working that way. Some of the people who go to these rallies--and there are many of them—return home to pursue their hobby on provincial Crown lands and on private farmland and pastures, spreading the ecological destruction onto new trails beyond the sacrifice zones.

unauthorized ATV users on our neighbour's land resting after they destroyed a beaver dam

This is a big unregulated problem that is only going to get worse. In Saskatchewan, somewhere between seven and eight thousand of these all-terrain vehicles are sold each year. It goes without saying that not everyone who owns a quad behaves badly, and some of the folks at the Wawota rally would no doubt be responsible ATV operators, but all it takes is a small number of yahoos to make a mess of hiking trails in our Provincial Parks, to destroy a stretch of creek bed or a hillside of native grassland on our private and Crown lands.

the garbage we collect regularly from ATV users

Farmers and hunters use quads responsibly for the most part, but they too are getting tired of seeing the damaged habitat. They will tell you their stories of disrespectful quad drivers cutting fences, chewing up trails, tearing apart beaver dams to play in the gush of water. On our pasture south of Indian Head we have had all of that. At times I have had to stand on the trail to put a halt to a local ATV poker derby with dozens of quads coming across our property.

water running out of the beaver dam after the ATVs left

Earlier this spring I heard a second hand story that came from a rancher I know from the Val Marie area. He is a member of the group of community pasture patrons who were more or less coerced into forming a grazing corporation to take over management of the Lone Tree community pasture on the Montana border.

Now this fellow is not one to complain or kick up a fuss, but he is worried. During the last seventy-some years of federal management of Lone Tree, access was controlled and no one could just drive onto the land with quads and trucks. There were clear regulations and a department to back them up, including a full time manager in residence with keen eyes for anything out of place.

As of last year, that system of oversight is gone. In early April, the rancher happened to be at Lone Tree and caught a group of men on quads who were driving over the pasture collecting antler sheds left behind by the elk and mule deer that winter there. Fire is a constant threat on grassland this far south and ranchers live in fear of a truck or quad muffler causing a big spring conflagration and eating up thousands of acres of grass.

He explained his concerns and asked them politely to not enter the pasture without permission. Their response? “We were told this isn’t a community pasture any more so those rules don’t apply.”

Unfortunately, there is some truth in that statement. The old rules protecting the pasture don’t apply. What is needed now are some new rules and government support, both for access to these lands and for ATV use in general.

Respectful and managed public access is important for all of our public lands, but if Saskatchewan’s provincial government does not wake up to see that they have responsibility for the ecological wellbeing of the 1.6 million acres of grassland being handed over to the province, we will see more unmanaged access at its worst, and the former PFRA pastures could become the latest ATV sacrifice zones.

ATVs are not going away any time soon, but we need to start licensing and regulating their use. From what I hear, the people who run the Saskatchewan ATV Association are reasonable folks who also want the Province to step in and work with stakeholders to develop a full set of guidelines, including licensing--an important first step that almost every other province in Canada took long ago.

Children and adults die on ATVs every year in this province and yet we have no rules on how these vehicles are used; streams and rivers and native prairie on Crown land and First Nations’ property (take a look at the Little Arm/Kinookimaw area by Regina Beach) are being destroyed every day and there are no serious penalties enforced, no licenses to trace when someone violates a law.

There is an opportunity here to do something good. The Conservation Officer who took a stand at the Wawota rally needs someone to back him up. And that doesn’t just have to be his department or ministry; it doesn’t just have to be conservationists and hunters. It should be all reasonable people, including all quad owners who want to see responsible and sustainable, regulated ATV use come to this Province.

Write or talk to your MLA, challenge our Provincial Cabinet members, ask them what they are going to do to licence ATVs and stop irresponsible ATV use from damaging our natural landscapes.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A conscious threshold: how to walk alone in grassland

When we walk in grassland, or in any place where the natural order of things holds a rich array of life together, the quality of our encounter can easily default to a collection of views from hilltop to valley, experiences that may linger on the skin and on the retina but go no deeper. You talk to the friends you came with, and the bubble of ordinariness that surrounds you every day follows you out onto the prairie, protecting you from the persuasions of birdsong and wind.
But then there are those other, too rare times when a walk draws you in and the world takes you down to another kind of awareness. Your friends cannot come so you go alone. The light seems different, the grass, but you too seem more and less than yourself, a hand's span, a breath's free and passing gift away from who you were when you left home.
To get there, Franciscan Richard Rohr suggests that we might try consciousness. He offers the following set of instructions, beginning by "finding or creating a conscious threshold":
Wilderness Wandering
Go to a place in nature where you can walk freely and alone, ideally some place where human impact is minimal—a forest, canyon, prairie, bog, mountain. Tell someone where you will be and how long you expect to be there. Take adequate water and clothing for the conditions.

Begin your wandering by finding or creating a conscious threshold (perhaps an arched branch overhead or a narrow passage between rocks). Here offer a voiced prayer of your intention and desire for this time. Step across the threshold quite deliberately and, on this side of your sacred boundary, speak no words, but only expect!

Let the land, plants, and creatures lead your feet and eyes. Let yourself be drawn, rather than walking with a destination or purpose in mind. If you are called to a particular place or thing, stop and be still, letting yourself be known and know, through silent communion with the Other. Before you leave, offer some gesture or token of gratitude for the gift the wild has given you.

When it is time to return to the human world, find again your threshold and cross over. But now you have learned to expect God in all things.
Richard Rohr

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Best grassland hikes for this summer

an ephemeral wetland (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
From Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” submitted to California’s “Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission” in 1960.

Summer is a good time to head out and find an expansive piece of native grassland where you can go for a long walk. If you live in places like Alberta or Montana or North Dakota (look at this web page) it is fairly easy. There are established trails on state and federal grasslands where you are welcome to hike and in some cases camp overnight.

In Saskatchewan, however, there are very few places where you are allowed to hike and camp on our publicly-owned native grassland.

On leased Crown grassland or community pastures in the province, you have to track down the manager or leaseholder to ask for permission. In most cases, they will grant the permission and let you know where you can go and where you cannot go, and how to behave while you are there.

In the case of the federal PFRA community pastures still run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, you are supposed to apply for a permit with the head office in Regina and then get the pasture manager’s signature approving your plan to enter the pasture. Once you have that, then your permit will be processed. This can take some time, but it is worth doing to get a chance to walk through these remote and often breath-taking landscapes.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

As for the former-PFRA pastures now passing into the hands of private groups of cattle producers who are leasing the land for grazing, there is no formal process for gaining access and it remains to be seen how each pasture corporation and their managers handle public requests for recreation access or research or traditional medicine gathering.

Fortunately, and thanks to the foresight of Nature Saskatchewan and the great and wise George Ledingham, Saskatchewan does have one big and beautiful piece of publicly-owned grassland where you don’t need to ask permission to go for a walk--Grasslands National Park (GNP).

Most GNP visitors restrict themselves to the shorter trails in the West Block, which have their appeal but cannot compare to the grandeur of the landscapes you will encounter in the East Block. One of the longer and most rewarding East Block hikes is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail," which departs from the Rock Creek Campground and day use area. Here is a pdf of a pamphlet showing the campground and the start of the trail, the red trail marked "4".

(click on the image to see a larger version) the red trail marked "4" heading off in the top right corner of this image is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail"
The total distance of the hike from Rock Creek Campground is 16 km round trip. As you move through a mixture of habitats, from native grasslands to creek valleys to badlands there will be birds and a mix of native grasses and wildflowers all the way. You could well see a long billed curlew, or a prairie falcon pass overhead; ferruginous hawks and golden eagles nest in the area. If you go in June or July the characteristic prairie songbirds will sing all around you and overhead: in open grasslands you will hear Sprague's pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, Baird's sparrows, and grasshopper sparrows. As you move through the badlands, you may hear the rock wren’s improvised song echoing from butte to butte.

And when the day is over, you may know something of what Stegner was talking about: that we need such wild country, need to know it is there, and that we can travel to its edges and restore ourselves with the reassurance that comes from a “geography of hope.”

Buttes in the mist, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

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