Updated June 1, 2021
In the sweeping, ancient prairie of southern Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park, local ranchers are helping to ensure at-risk species continue to call this land home.
In 2018, the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) partnered with Parks Canada to establish a grass bank pilot project in the park’s East Block, which hadn’t seen grazing in more than two decades. By managing grazing on parts of the park and their own adjacent pastures, the ranchers involved are working to protect 40,000 acres of habitat for the chestnut-collared longspur, greater sage-grouse and Sprague’s pipit.
“For the Stock Growers and the ranching community, it was a significant accomplishment to reintroduce grazing on a larger scale and to have Grasslands National Park recognize the relationship between grazing and healthy grasslands,” says Chad MacPherson, SSGA’s general manager.
The Species at Risk Partnership on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) program funded the pilot. When participating ranchers meet the habitat targets for the three species, they receive financial compensation and their grazing fee on the park is reduced.
“It’s been well-received by the producers and by the park,” says MacPherson, who calls the first years of this project “a really beneficial partnership.”
While the early success of this program illustrates the value of grazing in conserving native prairie ecosystems, it also highlights what’s possible when cattle producers drive individual conservation projects.
SSGA’s partnership with Parks Canada is just one of its producer-centred initiatives for grassland and species-at-risk habitat conservation. After receiving $2.58 million in funding from Environment and Climate Change Canada through SARPAL in 2015, the association launched several rancher-driven programs to help protect wildlife habitat in the southern part of the province.
SSGA’s goal was to create options that fit the needs of individual ranchers and the landscapes they work on. Initiatives identified at the start of the project include term conservation easements, habitat management agreements, results-based agreements and habitat restoration.
“Over the first five years of the SARPAL contract, we entered into conservation agreements with approximately 40 different landowners or grazing corporations on about 250,000 acres of native prairie in primarily southwest Saskatchewan,” says MacPherson.
This producer-guided focus on conservation is what sets SSGA’s programming apart from other options. “We’ve described our programming as ‘designed for ranchers by ranchers,’” he says, adding that they were developed based on the results of surveys SSGA conducted with producers.
“Most ranchers are already doing the right thing, or they want to be doing the right thing, and often just small modifications to the timing or intensity of their grazing can make a significant difference to species at risk.”
By conducting a cost analysis, working with producers to find answers that benefit everyone and financially rewarding their efforts, this approach is winning fans among participants.
“Our style of programming is not prescriptive, so we just sit down with them and offer them technical support and position different options for them to consider on how they could adjust what they’re doing to benefit the species at risk,” he says.
A second round of funding from Environment Canada came this March, which will allow SSGA to continue its partnership with Grasslands National Park for the next three years. This will also be used to develop term conservation easements, which producers have indicated they would prefer to conservation easements in perpetuity.
Term easements have been of interest to the association since the original SARPAL funding. “To be able to do that you need to be recognized by the provincial government of Saskatchewan to hold easements,” MacPherson says.
“None of the existing agencies that are recognized were interested in partnering on term easements, so we decided to create our own arms-length entity to be able to do that for us.”
SSGA established the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation (SSGF) in January 2020. This charitable foundation and land trust is the first of its kind in Saskatchewan, and it also fits with the association’s existing activities to fund scholarships, help wildfire victims and feed hungry families in its communities.
An exciting investment in this new foundation came in March, when the SSGF was chosen to receive $3.4 million from the Weston Family Foundation Prairie Grasslands Initiative. This five-year collaborative effort in Canadian grassland conservation will be one of the largest in the country’s history, covering almost four million acres.
Grasslands National Park, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Nature Conservancy of Canada and Meewasin Valley Authority will also receive funding for their efforts in native prairie conservation.
“The focus of the project is to sign conservation agreements or term easements with livestock producers who own or manage native grasslands, including critical habitat for species at risk in southwest Saskatchewan,” says MacPherson. “The goal is to have 350,000 acres of native grasslands under agreement over the next five years.”
This roughly breaks down to 220,000 acres under habitat management agreements, 75,000 acres under results-based agreements, 50,000 acres managed through the grass bank project, 4,000 acres under term conservation easements and 2,000 acres of grassland restoration.
“It’s nice to have both levels of government and now the private sector recognizing the importance of the ranching community in conserving grasslands and species at risk,” he says. “I take it as a vote of confidence that we are doing things right.”
The power of individual change
Finding the approach that works best for producers is also at the heart of the programming delivered by ALUS, named for a pilot project — alternative land use services — that launched program.* This not-for-profit organization, which helps farmers and ranchers implement projects to create ecosystem services, is based on the principles of a 2004 document called A Farmer’s Conservation Plan.
“Farmers and ranchers were declaring through that document that we were willing to participate in conservation, but it had to fit the way we farm and ranch,” says Bryan Gilvesy, CEO of ALUS.
“We’re trying to signal that a lot of good comes from farm and ranch country, and some of that is also in the form of the services that nature can provide that makes life better for all Canadians on top of the food and fibre that we produce.”
This voluntary program puts farmers and ranchers first by inviting them to work on conservation projects that matter to them. This may include riparian area improvements, wetland restoration, planting windbreaks, sustainable water projects or creating habitat for pollinators.
“ALUS seeks their input and their energy into what ultimately happens on those project sites,” says Gilvesy. “It’s not top-down; it’s as grassroots as it can possibly be because the farmer or rancher is intimately involved in deciding what happens.”
Currently, ALUS delivers programming in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I. ALUS rewards producers with annual payments throughout the contract term, and helps with planning and the establishment costs.
Producers sign a five-year contract for their project, and contracts are renewable, allowing for producers to continue the relationship if they are happy with the results. “We’ve got participants across Canada that are entering into their fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth year of being with the program,” he says.
The focus on ecosystem improvements made by individual producers is key to the ALUS program. “The most misunderstood thing, I think, when we are talking about how do we solve the world’s problems…is that there are people on the ground — farmers and ranchers with their hands in the dirt — that have the answers,” says Gilvesy.
“We believe that, generally speaking, we have to bring that to the forefront and make sure that they are valued and that their value is understood. So the power of one is really important.”
Providing input on ecosystem improvements on their land is what ALUS finds producers are looking for in these partnerships. “We discovered long ago that they did not want to be disconnected from those projects,” he says.
Rewarding producers for their contributions through these projects appeals to participating producers. The voluntary nature of the program is another advantage, as well as the local focus and delivery, Gilvesy says.
“ALUS runs through a community group that administers the program in every area that we’re in. That means that it’s community-led, and there are governance decisions about the program made locally, and they are locally appropriate,” he says.
When measuring the success of a project, the producer’s perspective is of utmost importance. “We need to make sure the producer is happy with the outcomes,” says Gilvesy.
As part of this, they work to ensure projects perform as well as possible. That means providing ongoing support and maintaining the relationship.
“Sometimes we’ll do projects and a drought will occur, and the project is not as successful as it normally might be. We have to be willing to go and help mitigate that and make sure that that project is performing at its peak,” he says.
As of April 2020, ALUS programming was delivered in 27 communities across Canada, with around 900 producers participating in more than 15,500 projects. This encompasses upwards of 27,000 acres. While there are no immediate plans for expansion to other provinces, Gilvesy notes the organization wants to see this in the future.
For producers who are interested in working with ALUS but aren’t sure where to begin, Gilvesy advises starting small. “We’ve discovered that 76 per cent of the producers that come into the program come back in the second year and do a bigger project,” he says.
“They do a small project to see if they like the relationships and see if it works for them, and they can always come back and do more later on.”
As a cattle producer himself, Gilvesy enjoys sharing the value of farmers and ranchers in creating ecosystem services.
“I think it’s really exciting that this program is helping Canadians understand that ranchers have a whole host of solutions to provide for the rest of Canada, solutions that have value, and solutions that these people can provide through their hard work and energy.”
* The article originally stated ALUS stood for Alternative Land Use Services, but the organization is simply known as ALUS. Thank you to the reader who brought the error to our attention.
As well, since this article was written, ALUS has updated project numbers. As of April 2021, ALUS programming was delivered in 31 communities across Canada, with over 1,000 producers who have enrolled more than 32,000 acres of land in projects. For more info, visit ALUS' website.