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Fee-for-service conservation

Ranchers engineered it now they are testing it out to see how it works in the real world

"We want to see a program that works for ranchers and species at risk." – Sue Michalsky, Eastend, Sask.

It’s been 80 years since respected American professor, ecologist and author, Aldo Leopold, recognized that conservation would ultimately boil down to rewarding private landowners who preserve the public interest. The southwestern Saskatchewan ranchers who formed the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Inc. (RSAI) in 2010 believe that day has arrived.

As to how it can be done, they hope to demonstrate that this summer when they run a pilot program using their Prairie Beef and Biodiversity (PBAB) model.

What sets this apart from traditional conservation schemes is it’s a results-based model that pays participating ranchers, says RSAI director and rancher Sue Michalsky of Eastend, Sask.

Landowners and managers would offer clearly defined ecosystem services with specified outcomes and get paid when they deliver the desired results.

The buyers of these services may be government, environmental groups, businesses, industries, individuals, or foundations — anyone who values these services for environmental or marketing reasons.

PBAB targets any natural grasslands area shared by grazing livestock and species at risk. The aim is to stem the decline in grassland biodiversity as measured by the preservation of habitat for species at risk.

The presence of at-risk species is an accepted indicator of biodiversity because maintaining habitat for one species generally benefits others and the grassland ecosystem as a whole.

For the pilot, the ranchers selected the Sprague’s pipit and Swift fox as their target species. Both are listed as indicator species and species of special concern under the legislation.

The hope is a PBAB model could eventually complement the usual conservation programs such as conservation easements, permanent cover programs and cost-shared beneficial management practices (BMPs) for grazing grasslands that are used today.

“As it is, ranchers are doing all of the work,” says Michalsky. “Cost-share programs might occasionally work for species at risk, but there’s little in it for producers except paying half the cost of the project plus all the ongoing maintenance. It’s bothersome, too, that some BMPs don’t have a benefit to species at risk.

“We want to see a program that works for ranchers and species at risk.”

The grasslands of the Northern Great Plains in the adjoining corners of Saskatchewan and Alberta contain the highest density of Prairie species at risk in Canada. The alliance contends these creatures survive here because their habitat has been maintained by ranchers right back to the homesteaders’ era when vast areas of native prairie were turned over.

In other words the decline in species on native prairie can be traced to the decline in ranching when it wasn’t profitable enough to curb the conversion of grassland to grain production, supported by government through the years, and other industrial and residential uses.

As a consequence relatively few people have been left holding the species-at-risk bag. Many who still ranch in this area feel it’s unrealistic to expect such a tiny percentage of the population to bear the cost of protecting native prairie and species at risk, especially as their families were not the ones who broke up the grasslands in the first place.

Michalsky says the alliance initially envisioned a program that would provide reliable, long-term financial incentives for the ranchers’ good stewardship right up to the present day. Programs built on the business-as-usual model, she says, can actually be a disincentive if they tempt producers to undo BMPs already implemented to qualify for a new program.

Ranchers who participate in PBAB will need assurance that they are complying with the species-at-risk legislation and won’t be left with the cost of removing expensive infrastructure, such as fencing, if science turns up a better way to get these beneficial results in the future.

Given that most grassland ranchers already support the habitat of many species at risk, the PBAB’s guiding document makes recommendations, but stops short of prescribing management practices.

“If you have species at risk on your land, you’re probably most of the way there and may only need to tweak things a bit,” says Michalsky. “The program leaves it up to ranchers to decide how to produce the desired results and in this way rewards people already providing the service.”

Taking the lead

In late 2011 the RSAI contracted three studies to flesh out their ideas with a grant from the Commission for Environmental Co-operation, an international body headed up by the three ministers or secretaries of the environment from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The CEC then commissioned RSAI to design a results-based program, which led to the creation of the PBAB.

One two-part study, Grassland Stewardship Conservation Programming on Natural Grasslands Used for Livestock Production, by the Miistakis Institute at the University of Calgary, reviewed market-based programs from around the globe to find those that best met RSAI’s criteria, promote conservation of grasslands and species at risk while improving ranch profitability.

One option was certification-style programs. Of the handful that have been tried, only three remain. This report uncovered significant hurdles in marketing certified “conservation beef” to consumers. Primarily, there’s no solid evidence that consumers will pay a premium for it.

Payment-for-ecosystem (PES) programming showed more promise. The study found several that promoted biodiversity or endangered species and RSAI incorporated some of their concepts into the PBAB. (Both reports are on the Miistakis Institute’s website.)

The next question was how to value an ecosystem service. For this, RSAI turned to former Agriculture Canada range management specialist Chris Nykoluk of Lumsden, Sask. In consultation with Dr. Ken Belcher, an agricultural economist at the University of Saskatchewan, Nykoluk looked at five options in her report, What are Native Prairie Grasslands Worth and Why it Pays to Conserve this Endangered Ecosystem. Best estimates range from $5.40 to $13.88 per acre per year beyond the costs associated with grazing livestock. She suggests a rancher’s actual cost of providing the service would be the most appropriate pricing mechanism. (This report is posted at

The model was then refined by stakeholders during two intense workshops on the target species involving representatives of RSAI, South of the Divide Ecosystem Stewards, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Western Stock Growers’ Association, Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, government and non-government organizations.

Saskatchewan Environment has also funded more research into the habitat needs of Spraque’s pipit and Swift fox and the development of another module that accommodates the habitat needs of the greater sage grouse without harming other species.

Environment Canada’s emergency order in December to protect the greater sage grouse angered many ranchers who felt they’ve already co-operated fully with voluntary stewardship programs and done as much as they can reasonably be expected to do to protect this particular species.

Not set in stone

RSAI is essentially breaking new ground in Canada so this pilot run will be monitored carefully to identify the model’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the outcomes for payment purposes. There is a concern that the monitoring could easily cost more than the amounts paid to the ranchers so that too will have to be evaluated. The ideal would be for the ranchers to feel they are being adequately compensated and the buyers to feel they are getting their money’s worth.

For more information contact Sue Michalsky at 306-295-3696.

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