One might not think that groups looking to save natural ecosystems would make good bedfellows with producers who work land for profit, but one such environmental organization says they could not do what they do, if it were not for Manitoba farmers.
Cary Hamel is the director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy of Canadas: Manitoba Region. (NCC)
Hamel said the group works to conserve natural grasslands here on the Manitoba prairies and, in doing so, hopes to preserve species that can only survive in these natural grasslands and, in some cases, are in danger of becoming extinct.
The group has more than 20,000 acres of land that they have either purchased in Manitoba or that has been donated to them, including land in the Stuartburn area of Southeastern Manitoba.
As they look to retain natural prairie ecosystems on this land, Hamel said they need to partner with producers to make that happen.
"Sometimes people are maybe a bit surprised to hear that an environmental group is working with farmers, but the reasons for that partnership are tied to ecology," Hamel said.
Hamel said that to preserve natural ecosystems, lands need "disturbances" and those disturbances often used to come from Bison grazing in fields, or by acts of nature.
"Many of Manitoba’s lands have evolved with a lot of regular disturbances including things like bison herds as well as grassfires or wildfires," Hamel said.
Long gone are the days of wild bison grazing fields in Manitoba so the NCC works with producers by leasing out land to them and having them either graze cattle on their fields or hay those fields.
Hamel said that act of grazing or haying is crucial in retaining those natural ecosystems, or otherwise the lands would simply grow over with shrubs, trees, and eventually forests.
"The grasslands are there, and they thrive from regular disturbances, but in the absence of disturbances such as herds of Bison the lands change as bushes and shrubs and trees take over," Hamel said.
"Forests are great, and they have their place and their importance in the ecosystem, but they don’t have any of those prairie species, so we are really focused on saving those grasslands," he said.
One of the species that NCC is trying extremely hard to keep from extinction is a small species of butterfly called the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly.
The Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in Stuartburn is the only Canadian home of the critically endangered Poweshiek butterfly, and one of only two places they live in the world, as a small number of the species also live in a section of Michigan in the U.S.
The Poweshiek skipperling does not look like a typical butterfly. Smaller than a loonie, it has white stripes under its wings, sending flashes of silver as it flies.
"This species used to thrive in prairie patches in North America, but in the last 25 years they just started disappearing," Hamel said.
"So, it’s a focus to retain and save the Poweshiek, as there are currently less than 500 left in the world. We have lands in Stuartburn, and that ecosystem really needs regular disturbances with grazing or hay as a way to keep them alive."
And although the partnership between NCC and producers continues and has become a crucial part of NCC’s strategy to preserve grasslands, Hamel said many in Manitoba are simply not aware of it.
He added it is a partnership that can engrain NCC into local economies and communities, including Stuartburn.
"There can be a presumption that an ecological group won’t be one that could work with farmers and visa versa, and that they can’t get along really well," he said.
"But as conservation areas are established, we are more likely to be embraced and accepted if we can find ways to be a part of the local economy, and not be a barrier to that economy.
"Allowing expansion of economic activities goes hand-in-hand with nature conservancy and agriculture producers."
It is a partnership that Hamel and NCC hope will continue for many years to come.
"The good news is grasslands conservation and agriculture get along and work really well together. It’s a mutually beneficial situation where everyone gets something out of it."
-with files from Greg Vandermeulen