A wider vision for grassland conservation

A new collaborative effort across North America is focusing efforts to protect the fast-disappearing Prairie ecosystem

For many who call the Canadian Prairies home, it would be impossible to imagine springtime without the cheerful song of the western meadowlark. That distinct, flute-like call, along with the other songs of grassland birds returning north, is a defining part of this landscape.

[AUDIO CLIP: Tammy VerCauteren, executive director of the U.S.-based Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, explains how the seasonal ranges of birds illustrates the shared responsibility of the three countries in protecting the grasslands.]

But as grasslands across North America continue to disappear, the meadowlark’s song may vanish along with them.

“In the last 50 years we’ve lost three billion birds,” says Tammy VerCauteren, executive director of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. “One in four of those are grassland birds.”

Population decline of birds is an early indicator of habitat loss, and in North America’s grasslands, this signals the possibility of a devastating snowball effect.

“If they’re not there, we don’t have healthy, sustainable grasslands, and if we don’t have healthy, sustainable grasslands we don’t have healthy range communities. We don’t have healthy human communities. We don’t have sustainable water.”

VerCauteren’s work with grassland birds has illustrated the necessity of preventing further loss of this endangered ecosystem. It has also prompted her involvement in a large-scale initiative encompassing the entire continent.

The Central Grasslands Roadmap was created to focus the conservation efforts of those who live and work on North America’s Central Grasslands. As a convenor of the Central Grasslands Roadmap, VerCauteren began speaking with stakeholders a few years ago about a more collaborative approach to grassland conservation.

“There are a lot of folks working out there, but it’s not adding up,” she says.

“I’ve been working in grasslands for over 20 years. It’s near and dear to my heart — the people, the communities, the wildlife — and I’m concerned about what things are going to look like in another 20 or 30 years if we don’t start changing these significant negative trajectories.”

Investment from the Knobloch Family Foundation and Conoco Phillips helped set this project into motion, allowing the convenors to bring in the Rocky Mountain Innovation Lab as professional co-ordinators. In early conversations with stakeholders, they identified eight different sectors to engage with: landowners and producers, Indigenous communities, industry, non-governmental organizations, academia, foundations, provincial and state-level agencies and the federal governments of the three countries.

After assembling a planning team to represent these eight sectors, this team created a survey to explore priorities and needs, then invited stakeholders to the 2020 Roadmap Summit. The event was held online throughout the summer, with about 300 delegates from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in attendance. Delegates from industry groups such as the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association, Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association and Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association took part, as well as Canadian non-profits and various government agencies.

[AUDIO CLIP: VerCauteren on the necessity for greater public awareness and connection to the grasslands.]

The summit allowed delegates to hear from a wide range of stakeholders, including landowners from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Those landowners shared what’s worked for them in terms of conservation partnerships. Representatives from each country and sector spoke about their needs and the challenges they face in conservation efforts, the economic realities of maintaining native grassland and other topics.

“We also talked about some other big ideas, like the North American Grassland Conservation Act and how that could benefit all three countries, and modeling that after the very successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act,” says VerCauteren.

From there, delegates chose their top priorities from three categories: policy and funding, partnerships and engagement or research and evaluation. They were then split into groups to discuss priorities with the professional facilitators, who recorded this information to be discussed in later group conversations.

In August, delegates at the leadership level were brought in to see what had been developed and provide direction. “We wanted to make sure that… we didn’t get all this energy at the local level or the mid-level and then the leaders weren’t hearing the challenges and opportunities,” VerCauteren explains.

At that point, the delegates came together again to review the priorities and provide final feedback. “The facilitators, working with the planning team, took 150 pages of notes that developed from this process and really refined it, whittled it down throughout the six-week course of engagement, and then the planning team helped get it to a four-page summary,” she says.

As highlighted in the four-page summary, this process identified three strategy areas: create and enrich strong partnerships, refine effective policy and funding initiatives, and focus on research to improve conservation. Overarching objectives and collaborative priorities were developed for each strategy area.

The summary was shared with delegates for feedback in the fall. “Overall people were happy with the process. They definitely wanted to stay involved but they wanted another level of detail,” she says.

The next draft of the roadmap will include this extra layer of detail, and she expects it to be 15 to 20 pages in total.

Making meaningful efforts

Currently, there are more than 200 organizations involved in the Central Grasslands Roadmap. The second summit is tentatively scheduled for fall 2021. Delegates will develop strategies to put the roadmap into action over a 10-year period. Prior to this, the planning team is continuing its conversations with stakeholders to go deeper into the process of co-ordinating and collaborating their efforts.

“As a convening organization, we’re trying to help herd efforts and make sure momentum’s happening, and a lot of sub-groups have developed,” says VerCauteren. Groups in each of the three countries are examining the roadmap’s priorities within their own context. Christian Artuso, wildlife biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, is leading the Canadian team.

[AUDIO CLIP: The Central Grasslands Roadmap is looking for more partners in each of the eight identified sectors.]

In their discussions with landowners, the aim is to better understand how the roadmap’s priorities can be used to make meaningful efforts at the local level, as well as receive their recommendations on how to meet their needs. They want to learn about the economic context for producers and what barriers they face in avoiding grassland conversion. They also want to know what would make conservation efforts more sustainable and what incentives work for landowners, among other questions.

They’re working on a new survey that’s relevant to the people who work on the land in each of the three countries, including Indigenous communities. “At the end of the day, it’s the people who live, work and make a living off of that land that this needs to be relevant for and elevates what works and address what doesn’t work.”

In determining how to measure the success of this initiative, VerCauteren notes that each sector will likely have different metrics that matter to them. “We’re trying to find that 10 to 20 metrics that we can measure, that have value and that people will help make sure that we get data on to inform. And some of those might be the more socio-economic-type factors, and some of them might be biological and some more land based,” she says.

The roadmap itself, with its 10-year focus, is intended to be a living document, she adds. At this stage the planning team wants to maintain its focus and momentum to help drive investment and strategic efforts.

“We’re losing about two million acres a year of grasslands… Can we stem that decline? Can we reduce it by 90 per cent? Can we get it to a point that we aren’t losing any more grasslands and we’re restoring areas and we’re making crop fields more sustainable? Those are areas that we’re talking about,” she says.

“Are our ranchers able to stay in ranching and pass it on to the next generation? Are there more innovative ways to keep grass in grass and use different landowner models and partner models that deal with some of those big barriers to access?”

VerCauteren recognizes the scale of this project and the topics they’re tackling aren’t simple by any means.

“It’s complicated,” she admits. “But if we don’t have some complicated, hard discussions and be innovative, we’re not going to change it.”

A western meadowlark in rural Saskatchewan. Population loss of birds is an early indication of habitat loss. photo: hartmanc10/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Birds Canada Incentive Guide 

In the last 50 years, Canada’s grassland bird populations have decreased by almost 60 per cent. 

As one of the Canadian organizations involved in the Central Grasslands Roadmap, Birds Canada wants to see ranchers stay on the country’s grasslands to help ensure this endangered ecosystem and the biodiversity it supports — including birds — doesn’t disappear. 

“Conservation of grassland birds depends almost entirely on stewardship from private landowners, especially farmers and ranchers, on breeding and wintering grounds,” the Birds Canada website states. 

To help cattle producers stewarding native grasslands, Birds Canada has created the Grasslands Conservation Incentives Guide, geared towards ranchers and farmers in the Prairie provinces. 

The guide, available for download on the Birds Canada website, compiles more than 45 financial incentives related to grassland conservation, habitat protection and other ecological goods and services, divided by provincial and national programs. 

“We hope to remove some of the time commitment barriers of finding incentives by compiling them all into one easy- to-use guide, so that you know what’s available to you and have the information to decide what programs best fit with your situation,” says Ian Cook, Birds Canada’s grasslands conservation manager, speaking at the 2020 Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association conference. 

“Rather than just provide links to the different organizations’ websites and so on, we wanted to provide enough information on how the program worked, what the payment structure was and the eligibility requirements.” 

The guide also includes a section on prairie birds. It outlines identification information, links to recordings of their sounds and information on their habitats and range, behaviour and conservation status in Canada.

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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