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This article was published 18/4/2018 (603 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When it comes to halting the decline of Manitoba’s grassland bird populations, beef is the word that must be heard.
In fact, the words "keep grazing" should be music to the ears of any friend of the Sprague’s pipit, ferruginous hawk, chestnut-collared longspur, loggerhead shrike, burrowing owl and Baird’s sparrow. All are bird species native to Manitoba; all these birds are facing declining populations attributed to the loss of grassland habitat and all are listed as species at risk by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).
A World Wildlife Fund report last fall stated that 55 per cent of all grasslands bird populations have declined since 1970s, and grassland birds such as burrowing owls are struggling more than any other group on the Prairies.
According to Christian Artuso of Bird Studies Canada, one of Manitoba’s most highly respected bird experts, "Some of our grassland birds now teeter on the brink of extirpation in Manitoba and are considered vulnerable to global extinction due to habitat loss."
Prairie native grassland in Manitoba is typically used to pasture cattle. Other livestock are also raised on these habitats and wildlife such as deer, ducks and pollinators utilize healthy grasslands for their life cycle. However, native prairie grasslands continue to be among the most threatened ecosystems in the world. And once these grasslands are lost, it is nearly impossible to replicate them.
As such, there is an increasing focus by conservation interests and governments to work with beef and grass producers to keep cattle grazing, thereby keeping these lands available as critical habitats as well as the providers of multitudes of ecological societal services. A recent report commissioned by the Association of Manitoba Community Pastures pegged the annual value of their pastures to society at $13 million per year, through forage production and carbon sequestration, soil biodiversity, recreation and hunting, community development and timber.
While the continued loss of grasslands and decline of the species that rely upon them is a conundrum needing attention in many circles, perhaps the most optimistic story here is the opening of the individual producer’s farm gate to become part of the solution. Specifically, that the urgency of the current scenario has inspired a fundamental shift from the rationale of past efforts, where the goal was to adjust agriculture practices to achieve conservation outcomes, to a much more embracing approach of agriculture — in this case, beef production and grass retention are necessary and invaluable tools for agriculture producers and conservation interests simultaneously.
One such project underway is in southwestern Manitoba, where the Manitoba Beef Producers and the West Souris River and Turtle Mountain Conservation Districts have received funding from ECCC through the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) program. The three-year program runs until March 2019 and is designed to deliver improvements and incentives to cattle producers to enhance their pastures, improve grass quality and keep the habitat healthy in areas around Poverty Plains, Lyleton, Blind Souris River Valley, Belleview and the Maple Lake region of southwestern Manitoba.
Manitoba Beef Producers, working with Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation and the two conservation districts, is delivering the program, and the projects are also supported by grassland bird surveying and monitoring carried out by Bird Studies Canada and the Important Bird Areas (Manitoba) Program.
In the March 2017 to April 2018 program year, 11 landowner-SARPAL agreements were signed in targeted areas, impacting nearly8,280 acres of habitat. Artuso says the SARPAL shift is long overdue, and cattle and grass are the vehicles to drive it.
"In terms of Manitoba’s responsibility to conserve our natural heritage, our native prairie mixed grass and tall grass, and the Great Plains endemic species that depend on it, is in most urgent need of solutions that incorporate conservation and agricultural interests," Artuso says. "The vast majority of native prairie left in Manitoba is on private land, and we urgently need to find socio-economic mechanisms to maintain the grassland and grazing.
"The birds need the grass, and grazing is the process that has been used for millennia to maintain the grasslands. We no longer have roaming herds of bison, so we need the beef cattle, or we will lose these birds forever."
What makes the SARPAL project additionally unique is while the bird species it seeks to help are collectively impacted by the continued purge of grasslands, the birds don’t all land on the same grass or pasture conditions. The targeted SARPAL species tend to prefer different vegetation, nesting sites and conditions, and various grasses for their own cover, differing diets and abundance of food sources.
Basically, there’s not a one-stop grassland solution brush to paint this picture. Cattle producers are a key part of the solution equation, and that conservation conversation starts right at the farm gate.
Brian Lemon is general manager of Manitoba Beef Producers.
Updated on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 at 6:35 AM CDT: Fixes headline