Update on the Pastures and Grasslands: Threats, Current Status, What’s Next

28 Nov

Thanks to everyone who came out to the sold-out Grasslands premiere last Wednesday! If you’d like to see another excellent short film on the topic, check out Megan Lacelle and Kaitlyn Van De Woestyne’s video featuring a former PFRA cowboy.

In the meantime, an update on Saskatchewan’s Crown Grasslands and the PFRA pastures from Trevor Herriot, who spoke at the Grasslands premiere:

The Priceless Value of our Crown Grasslands

• Saskatchewan has lost a lot of its native prairie, as we all know—we have less than 21% of the old-growth grassland that was here with the buffalo and plains people for thousands of years.

• But we still have roughly 5 M hectares left—the trouble is most of that is in small bits of ten to fifty hectares here or there in isolated parcels; and most is privately owned. The good news is that around 30% of our grassland receives some kind of conservation or public oversight—either because it is owned by government or private conservation agencies.

• The very best public management of our grassland was done by the federal PFRA community pastures system. 728,000 hectares in 62 parcels in Sask., representing a big piece of our remaining native prairie, and some of the largest contiguous blocks that are big enough to function ecologically as grassland.

• It is widely accepted that our forests in the north need to remain under the Crown so we can ensure that we have at least a chance to serve the public interest in maintaining healthy forests.

• It should be the same with our Crown-owned grasslands—they are not just pastures for cattle production any more than a forest is only standing lumber.

• PPPI believes that our publicly owned grasslands are much more than merely grazing lands, though they are vital to the wellbeing of Saskatchewan’s cattle industry and have helped farmers stay diversified and helped the next generation of cattle producers get started.

• These grasslands are our shared heritage, stewarded for millennia by Indigenous people who, along with our ranchers and the rest of the public, deserve to have a voice in how they will be managed and used into the future.

Threats

• But in recent years, there has been increasing economic pressure to privatize our grasslands and reduce public oversight and regulation of how they are managed.

• It started with the threat in 2010 to sell off Saskatchewan’s Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands, which have for decades been protected as important grassland and wetland habitat.

• Saskatchewan’s Lands Branch is now selling 738,000 hectares that were protected under the Act, retaining another 688,000 that they have determined to be of the highest ecological value.

• After that, in 2012, the Harper government announced that the Federal PFRA pastures would be transferred back to Saskatchewan. At first the Province said they would sell them.

PPPI’s formation

• The conservation community and many of the grazing patrons using the pastures objected strongly. And out of that concern, Public Pastures—Public Interest was formed–in fact it was this week, Agribition Week, two years ago when we were founded at a forum we held with conservationists, First Nations people and cattle producers.

• Since then, 46 organizations in Canada and the United States have endorsed our guiding principles of keeping our public grasslands in the public domain and advocating for ecologically sound management that will protect their natural and human heritage into the future.

• Our membership and the thousands of people who support our endorsing organizations believe that protection under the Crown will be placed at risk if we allow the land to be privatized OR if we allow the land to be managed in ways that do not serve the interest Saskatchewan people share in maintaining healthy grassland places.

Current status of PFRA grasslands

• So where are things at right now for those 62 pastures being transferred to the province?

• The good news is that the Province has listened to people’s concerns and shifted from selling the lands to leasing them out to the groups of grazing patrons. But they say that the pastures are still available for the patron groups to purchase. So far no takers and not a single acre has been sold.

• So we must remain vigilant to ensure that these ecologically critical grasslands are not removed from the Crown.

• The first ten pastures were transferred to the province this year and the responsibility for management was handed over to the grazing patron groups who will lease each pasture. After the initial difficulties of adjusting, most groups did well this year we are hearing.

• With lots of grass in a wet year like this and record prices for cattle, though, one season is not enough to measure the success of the transition. Only time will tell.

• For now, each pasture is using a paid manager, but with the financial arrangements they are working under that may be difficult to maintain over time.

• Experienced range managers and grassland conservationists are worried that in the long run the organizations of grazing patrons may for convenience sake or to cut costs just decide to cross-fence their pasture into smaller paddocks to let each patron graze according to his own plan. You get this piece and I get this piece, we all manage our own cattle.

Ecological Benefits of management for the public interest

• There are ecological benefits and long term range management values served by keeping the whole pasture managed together in a coherent system where all the patrons’ animals are co-mingled. That was the strength of the PFRA system and it ensured that the conservation values were maintained over the long run.

• Grassland ecologists will tell you that a wider array of native grassland dependent birds, for example, tend to do better on larger pastures that are not over-stocked or cross-fenced. When fenced pastures are small and the stocking levels high, some bird species will decline and the few that like short, heavily grazed land will survive.

Public access issue

• As well, the whole issue of public access remains to be seen. The patrons are being told they only lease the land during the grazing months. In fall and winter their lease does not apply. That provides access for hunters, but not for other uses.

• But they feel this is unfair because they are paying the same lease rates that individual leaseholders pay for Crown grassland that they control access to year round. So, understandably, the former PFRA patrons are saying “if we don’t get to control year-round access like private leaseholders do then why should we have to pay the same lease rates?”

• But for now at least, as I said, these wonderful expanses of native grass will remain in the public domain.

• But that also means that the public interest in the wellbeing of these lands and in having access to them—for research, for indigenous peoples’ hunting and medicine gathering, for recreation, birding and hunting—is still there and if anything stronger than ever.

• Which is also good news—the conservation community, our First Nations and Metis organizations, and heritage groups remain committed to ensuring that these lands are managed as well as they have been for the past 75 years under the PFRA.

• Managing land for these interests—and all the others such as the hundreds of archaeological sites, the 31 species at risk that use these lands, the soil and water conservation—is a responsibility that must be shared.

Manitoba approach is better

• By contrast, in Manitoba, where they also are putting their PFRA pastures through a transition, an entirely different approach is being used.

• The pastures are being handled together as a unitary system and they must follow rangeland management prescriptions (for invasive species, species at risk, grass management, aspen encroachment, etc.).

• A “Range Management Implementation Group” has been established with representation from provincial govt Ag and water and conservation agencies, the new Manitoba Association of Community Pastures, as well as from Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), and Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation has been established.

• This Range Mgt Group is currently designing the criteria, monitoring and reporting procedures that will be used for pasture management prescriptions in the future. When complete, these protocols will be applied by Manitoba Agriculture to prepare and administer the rangeland prescriptions for each pasture to ensure the ecological integrity of lands in the system is sustained.

• This is the direction we believe Saskatchewan should go, with the addition of bringing Aboriginal people to the table as well.

Public investment

• The public—you and I and all Canadians—invested our tax dollars into the good public stewardship of these lands for 75 years, so that the soil would be protected, the creeks and wetlands managed well, and the rare prairie plants, birds and other animals would have some refuge in habitat where the grazing would be applied in a unitary system of range management for long term ecological values.

• Of course, as we are regularly reminded, private leaseholders and landowners are often just as good at stewarding grassland. True, and public ownership is no guarantee of good stewardship. But good stewards get old and die. The cattle industry is, like much of modern agriculture, struggling to maintain its traditional stewardship values and to help younger producers get started—and of course community pastures, if they are run right, could help with that generational hand off.

• Public ownership can be a buffer against market forces and changes in land use that can threaten our native grasslands and the stewardship traditions of cow-calf ranching culture.

What’s next for PPPI?

• We must continue to monitor what happens to our community pastures to prevent any sales from taking place.

• As well, PPPI is looking for ways to connect the public interest in healthy well-managed grasslands with the ranchers desire to steward the land well—and to work government, with agricultural organizations and conservation groups to make that happen without undue levels of regulation and oversight.

• The public interest in supporting good stewardship practices may ebb and flow over time but, as long as land remains in the public domain, we have recourse as citizens to participate in the public process of how that land and its ecological values and heritage will be sustained and accessed.

• With your support PPPI intends to continue participating in that process to work on your behalf and on the behalf of those who do not have any representation or way to voice their interest in the health of our remaining grasslands.

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