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Species at risk adds new emphasis to managing grasslands

New project looks at satellite mapping Canada’s range and forage lands

The management of species at risk on pasture, rangelands and wild lands is an issue of considerable interest to most cattle producers. As a result it was highlighted at a workshop jointly sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada during the International Rangeland Congress in Saskatoon last summer.

Several provincial environmental farm plans and producer-run projects under the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) initiative were looked at to see how ranchers are protecting species habitat and themselves with conservation/management agreements and incentive payments for ecological services.

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Ecosystem ranch consultant Peggy Strankman co-ordinated the workshop.

“Producers generally want to do the right thing but not at the cost of putting their business and family in jeopardy,” she says. “Voluntary approaches are more acceptable than regulatory and often the management changes come at a minimal cost.”

“Producers need some level of compensation and recognition for what they are doing to enhance the ecosystems on their ranch. Producers say small ranches and farms need to be recognized, not just the big ones. They also say it is refreshing to hear about incentives for good land stewardship and not just more legislation.”

“Good stewardship has retained habitat for species and they are still here.”

The Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s SARPAL project develops beneficial management practices (BMPs) for some 60 Prairie species. BMPs in turn can be included in environmental farm plans, or verification programs to demonstrate proper land stewardship to gain incentive payments or reduce the risk of losing access to the land or legal liability under the federal Species at Risk Act (www.canadianfga.ca).

The Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, a non-profit Crown corporation, has been funding provincial conservation programs for more than 30 years. Since 2000 it has been signing long-term conservation agreements with producers to maintain native grassland habitat for nine species that are at risk in Manitoba. The corporation’s partners include provincial and federal government departments, agriculture industry organizations, conservation districts and universities in Canada and the U.S. The goal is to help save native range while enhancing the producer’s bottom line. The majority of native grasslands in Manitoba would qualify for conservation under this program, which is focused on multi-species outcomes (www.mhhc.mb.ca).

In March Manitoba Beef Producers asked the corporation to deliver a new SARPAL program for producers.

Simply Ag Solutions Inc. in Saskatchewan is conducting workshops on best management practices for approximately 16 species at risk. They help producers conduct a self-assessment of their land and develop a detailed stewardship action plan based on the species living on the ranch, their location, the type of habitat and the producer’s grazing plan to protect these areas. Once an action plan is approved, producers can recover the full cost of labour and materials needed to implement it. The overall goal is to protect species at risk, their habitat, and maintain biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem on the ranch. Simply Ag promotes the view that species at risk are a benefit to agriculture and recognizes producers who sign onto its program as true environmental stewards (simplyag.ca).

The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) promotes habitat conservation through the South of the Divide Conservation Action Program Inc., another SARPAL initiative. Producers are encouraged to manage habitat for species at risk through results-based conservation agreements, habitat management agreements, habitat restoration, grass banking, niche product branding and term conservation easements. The focus is on implementing best management practices for multiple species. An economic component measures costs in excess of what is normally spent on normal agricultural operations. The province offers some environmental stewardship funding to implement BMPs to protect wildlife habitat and the SSGA is looking into setting up a foundation to cover some of these extra costs (www.sodcap.com).

The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan Agency encourages producers to fill out an EFP to prepare for the day when stores and restaurants start asking for verification of stewardship practices that address the needs of species at risk (www.albertaefp.com).

The Alberta Conservation Association, Government of Alberta, and the Prairie Conservation Forum operate the MULTISAR habitat stewardship program promoting land management decisions that improve habitat. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, Alberta Beef Producers, and Alberta’s Cows and Fish have partnered with MULTISAR on a SARPAL multi-species project that supports rangeland sustainability, wild species conservation and recovery of species at risk in ways that also benefit farmers and ranchers. The project calls on producers to manage species at risk on a whole farm or ranch basis (www.ab-conservation.com).

In British Columbia, Farmland Advantage is a producer-driven organization promoting payment for ecological services when producers implement best management practices to enhance habitat management. The organization helps farmers identify the natural areas on their farms or ranch that can be protected and develop recommendations and plans to preserve them. Farmland Advantage pools funds from multiple sources, to cover a portion of the costs involved. Currently the group has developed various demonstration sites on 60 ranches and farms in the three regions. Environmental farm plan advisers are heavily involved with the program.

Grass mapping

Mapping of Canada’s range and forage lands by satellite has always been a goal of mine but it’s extremely difficult. Unlike crops, which show up as different colours in near infra-red spectrum, forages don’t, at least not yet. Emily Lindsay, an MSc student in the department of geography and environmental studies at Carleton University, is working with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to find a methodology for distinguishing between rangeland and forage land cover classes in the Prairie provinces using satellite data.

If successful, this process will complement Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s annual crop inventory and hopefully monitor changes in ecologically important areas across the Prairies. These results would be useful when developing regional policies by identifying areas in need of ecological services.

Getting more information into the hands of the grass farmers and ranchers was a theme running through all the presentations at this workshop. Many organizations have effective websites highlighting their projects and best management practices. Www.Foragebeef.ca contains numerous scientific papers and fact sheets outlining best management practices that enhance wildlife habitat. This includes a new publication from Ontario: Farming with grassland birds… A guide to making your hay and pasture bird friendly by Jack Kyle, former Ontario pasture extension specialist, and Ronald Reid.

The obvious conclusion from this workshop is that Canadian grass farmers and ranchers are making every effort to be good stewards of the range and pasturelands entrusted to them.

Duane McCartney is a retired forage beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.

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Duane McCartney is a retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.

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