Ranching for beef and species at risk

The expansiveness of the native prairie landscape in southern Saskatchewan is in reality an illusion because at tops it’s only 21 per cent of the original grassland area at the time of settlement. Generations of ranching families have conserved vast tracts of native grasslands that may have otherwise been turned over to crops or lost to industrial development in this resource-rich region of the province. To this day, the ranches provide a safe haven for wildlife, some of which in recent years have been designated by Environment Canada as threatened, endangered or at-risk species.

A relatively small area in the Milk River watershed of the far southwest, known as South of the Divide (SOD), is unique in that more than 50 per cent is native grassland and more than 75 per cent is perennial cover. The divide runs in an arc from east of Cypress Hills Provincial Park over to Grasslands National Park at the U.S. border, taking in communities such as Val Marie, Eastend and Consul. Water south of the divide runs into tributaries joining the Milk River in Montana that flows into other river systems eventually emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

The SOD region is considered by many to be the last area of refuge for some species at risk because of the amount of habitat remaining. Several of the area’s ranch families have been co-operating with government agencies on test runs to evaluate the potential of results-based conservation agreements. This type of agreement rewards producers for taking steps beyond their normal good-stewardship practices to maintain or create habitat for threatened, endangered and at-risk species, 13 of which are identified in the draft SOD multi-species action plan, initiated in 2007 by Environment Canada, Parks Canada and Saskatchewan Environment.

Four ranching families are embarking on a new two-year results-based pilot administered by South of the Divide Conservation Action Plan Inc. (SODCAP Inc.). These projects focus on Greater sage-grouse (GSG) habitat located in an area south of Fir Mountain and just east of Grasslands National Park where the majority of GSG sightings occurred last year.

This area is also affected by the federal GSG emergency protection order issued in December 2013. The restrictions don’t apply to private land, but ranchers, biologists and governments realize that working ranches play a very important role in habitat preservation.

SODCAP Inc. was established in fall 2014 to promote and carry out projects related to the draft SOD action plan, a collaborative approach across a working landscape. The board includes representatives from the beef industry (Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Inc.), the energy sector (SaskPower, Crescent Point Energy), the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities as well as a provincial-federal ministry of environment appointee without voting rights.

Rancher Miles Anderson wants to determine why Greater sage-grouse always return to his ranch.

Rancher Miles Anderson wants to determine why Greater sage-grouse always return to his ranch.
photo: Supplied

Results-based conservation agreements

“What’s really important is that results-based agreements leave the decision-making in the hands of producers because each producer is unique and every operation is different,” says SODCAP executive director Tom Harrison. “The agreements recognize that management is over and above taking care of livestock needs, such as good grass and good range health, that the producer is working toward something more than livestock, and that there is more cost to meet the objective.”

Price discovery is another aspect of this pilot. In essence, Harrison says, producers are learning to market their ability to produce habitat for species at risk.

Fencing, water development or hiring riders to move cattle for grazing management are some of the strategies producers might use to meet their goal, but there’s nothing in the contract that dictates when, where or how a rancher must manage for habitat. If habitat targets fall short of the expected target, no payment is issued for that year, but the rancher is free to make whatever adjustments are needed to meet the targets by the time the next inspection rolls around. SODCAP’s rangeland agrologists are always available to discuss alternate strategies and offer advice.

“The habitat targets are based on the best science-based information reflective of southern Saskatchewan,” says SODCAP agrologist and rancher Kelly Williamson of Pambrun, Sask., who negotiated the contracts for the current project.

The background studies on results-based conservation programming and establishing habitat requirements and recovery action plans for each species has been led by Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Inc. (Canadian Cattlemen, Fee-for-Service Conservation, August 2014).

Biologists from Parks Canada, Environment Canada and the Saskatchewan Ministry of the Environment are also drawn into the process, along with pertinent range and grassland information collected by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, and the Saskatchewan Research Council. Then workshops are held to discuss the feasibility of the targets. So far, habitat targets have been established for GSG, Loggerhead shrike, Sprague’s pipit and Swift fox. Others are still in development.

Williamson says the agreements allow for adjustments to habitat targets as new research identifies the need for a change. For instance, most U.S. research was carried out on big sagebrush pastures whereas, less is known about how species react to silver sagebrush which is most common in Canadian grasslands. Anecdotal information, such as a producer observing species in habitat that is different from what the science says it likes, can also be taken into consideration.

“The beauty of (result-based agreements) is that it’s not prescriptive. There are lots of opportunities for producers to achieve the target, whereas past programs paid for specific activities, such as seeding native grass or fencing cattle out of areas,” he says. “Maybe it’s not the best fit for everything, but if you want to produce certain habitats, it really strives to achieve that. Our hope is that this style of agreement will be recognized by the federal government as providing ‘effective protection’ under the Species-at-Risk Act.”

At the ranch

Balas says his interest in conserving habitat for Sprague’s pipit started by chance quite a few years ago when someone pointed to the birds flying high overhead filling up on insects. There didn’t seem to be much information about the pipit at the time and habitat requirements certainly weren’t cut and dried, but local specialists were able to help him with a plan.

This robin-sized songbird is fairly common on open native prairie. It rarely nests in tame forage stands, so conserving contiguous tracts of native prairie is the first step. These birds require litter and standing residue for nesting as well as medium grass height during the growing season to the end of July for protection from predators.

“For me, it meant leaving litter a little more abundant than what many might manage for and trying to exclude cattle from certain areas until late fall and winter,” Balas says. “On the ranching side, it gives me some late-season grazing. Maybe part of the reason for wanting to extend the grazing season is because we pushed back calving from March/April to May/June.”

Instead of fencing cattle out of an important area for pipit habitat, he fences off the water supply to discourage cattle from grazing there in summer. It’s quite a hike up the hills to get to the area so once they go down for water they’re not likely to head back up that fast.

“This is effective for me, but somebody else might do something different, depending on the operation. With results-based programs you can manage habitat around what you normally do,” Balas explains.

Managing grass for pipit habitat also steered him toward year-round grazing. The bonus is that he hasn’t fed a bale for three years. The calves are sold in late fall and the cows winter on stockpiled grass and protein-mineral tubs, supplemented with grain if the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Anderson hasn’t had to change much because GSG happen to like the way his family has managed the native range through the generations. It’s so agreeable that birds radio-collared in 2009 for a U.S. research project returned to the ranch year after year. Sometimes, when winters are mild, they don’t leave.

He has co-operated on many GSG studies with agencies on both sides of the border, not only because of the ranch’s location, but because of his interest in conserving habitat for this chicken that has been running on the range for as long as the family has been there.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Anderson says. “Scientists know the details, but ranchers and farmers are big-picture players. They know the land and if they know what’s needed they can make it happen. We can work well together because the result everyone wants is to make the habitat right and hopefully the grouse will find it right, too.”

GSG are docile birds that can tip the scale at seven pounds as adults. You’d think they’d be easy to spot, but not so, Anderson says. They come by their name honestly because they look like sagebrush and smell like sagebrush from eating it. They rely on forbs and insects for food because they don’t have gizzards to digest seeds. Oftentimes, the only way to find them is to follow their sounds to the breeding grounds (leks) at nighttime or early morning during mating season.

“What they are good at is raising little ones, so the goal is to give them places to raise as many chicks as they can. We want the habitat as good as we can get it for nesting and brood rearing,” he explains.

Anderson figures as good as it gets for this grouse is a patchwork of grazed and ungrazed areas created by using slow rotations across the range. This provides a balance of the two habitat types the birds need in summer: patches of lightly grazed cover for nesting and nearby patches of heavier-grazed areas where the young chicks can find the wildflowers and insects they feed on. He’s noticed chick food is more abundant in heavier-grazed patches and actively manages his cattle to maintain this patchwork environment.

Once the cattle have created a suitable patchwork pattern, he moves them on. Natural features rather than fences separate his pastures and he spends three or four days riding with the herd after each move until they settle in. Environment Canada provides funding to offset some of Anderson’s costs to create this patchwork habitat and hire people to monitor the benefits.

“We are trying to find out what makes the birds want to be here. If they are in certain areas, then we can assume the habitat is right. If they’re not there, we look for what could be different. We know they need sage and grass, but could it be something else, like not enough insects, forbs or too many predators in other places? Other ranches that don’t have the birds now have the right things going on, so maybe it’s just a matter of waiting for the birds to repopulate.”

Aside from the usual predators, West Nile virus and prairie wildfires that destroyed vast expanses of habitat in the U.S. have become major threats to the bird’s survival in recent years.

On Anderson’s ranch, the birds are largely concentrated in a six-mile strip of sagebrush flats that is part of the traditional cow breeding pasture, which is only grazed from July through August. This seems to suit the GSG cycle of nesting and rearing chicks — leaving for the summer and returning later to teach the juveniles how to survive before dispersing for winter.

“My goal isn’t just to grow lots of grass for cows. I want to have biodiversity and part of the reason the chickens are there is because of biodiversity,” Anderson says. “The cows are a tool to create habitat and by tweaking management I can make it better for something other than cows.”

He is encouraged by the co-operation that has led to a contract with the neighbouring Grasslands National Park for fall grazing to try to encourage greater biodiversity. The biggest issue in the two years so far has been keeping the cows on the park side of the fence because they don’t like the old, stale grass. Second to that, the grass is so powerful that it comes back as strong as ever after grazing, so he can say the grass has improved, but creating biodiversity will take time.

The question is always whether providing for one species will take away from another. In his experience, it might on a small patch, but not across the range, the reason being that the grassland isn’t a single ecosystem. It’s a patchwork of small ecosystems because of varying conditions of soil type, moisture, and slopes.

“Everything has a spot it likes. If you do something drastic to a spot, it will affect what likes to live there, plant or animal,” he explains. “The birds are here, so it’s just little steps as we learn what’s right and wrong because we don’t want to do something drastic that would take them out.”

Anderson and Balas agree that results-based conservation programming could be applied to other ecological goods and services elsewhere, and that it may be more successful at engaging producers and achieving results faster than some of the original programming.

“Every ranch is unique in how things are done, finances and time to make a commitment,” Balas says. “This is about what a rancher thinks he can do, not what somebody says has to be done. There’s no stress because you’re not penalized if you don’t meet the requirements. If you try something and it doesn’t work, then you add something else. Take little steps, one thing at a time and eventually you will get there.”

For more information, visit sodcap.com.

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