There have been a lot of grasslands conservation efforts, but none as large as the Weston Family Prairie Grasslands Initiative.
Five organizations are being given nearly $25 million by the Weston Family Foundation for what may be the largest grasslands conservation effort ever in Canada. And each of the five groups will be committing additional funding and in-kind donations for a total of $70 million.
“When you get more groups together, there is power in partnerships and often more matching funds can be leveraged — co-ordinated and collaborative efforts can be very effective,” said Tamara Carter, a Saskatchewan cattle and grain farmer who was recently named director of prairie grassland conservation at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
The new $70-million initiative will build on work that the Nature Conservancy and other groups have being doing for decades, added Carter, who is also chair of the Saskatchewan Forage Council and farms near the hamlet of Lacadena, northwest of Swift Current.
But while the number of dollars is large, the initiative isn’t about big, sweeping projects but rather smaller ones focusing on ranchers and the things they do on their operations to make them both more resilient and more profitable, she said.
“There’s a lot of research now that is supporting how small changes in forage management can provide more diversity in terms of forage,” she said. “Feed is our biggest cost. So if we can keep our animals out on healthy forages for longer in the winter and the fall — or perhaps even all winter (by) swath grazing or stockpile grazing — that reduces our cost.”
The five organizations partnering in the initiative are a diverse lot. Along with Carter’s organization, they are Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation, the Meewasin Valley Authority and Grasslands National Park.
Ducks Unlimited, which has a long history of prairie wetlands and grasslands, said it will use its funding to preserve “more than 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of vital habitat.” The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation, on the other hand, is relatively new on the scene. It was set up just over a year ago with a mission to “fill a growing need in the ranching community for voluntary, private sector options for agricultural land conservation.”
The Meewasin Valley Authority (meewasin means ‘beautiful’ in Cree) is a joint effort by the City of Saskatoon, University of Saskatchewan and the provincial government to conserve the South Saskatchewan River Valley. The federal Grasslands National Park is in south Saskatchewan and home to a free-ranging herd of bison transplanted from Elk Island National Park.
“What’s really cool is it is encompassing all three regions. There are many differences in the plant species and the wildlife through the various regions, from the grasslands in the (Alberta) foothills to the tall grass prairie in Manitoba,” said Carter.
“It’s going to be interesting accommodating and acknowledging all those different grassland terrains. I’ve never seen a commitment of this size and this scope to really address the importance of grasslands.”
About 70 per cent of grasslands have been lost nationwide and only about 17 per cent of Alberta’s original fescue grassland remains, according to the Nature Conservancy.
The initiative will improve species-at-risk habitat, enable wildlife movement, expand the amount of land protection in the Prairies, and increase long-term ecological and economic stability.
Ranchers who already have pre-existing relationships with the Nature Conservancy and other groups will be able to apply for grants to do projects on their land. The Nature Conservancy and its partners have about 6,000 conservation easements on 800,000 acres of grasslands, and the focus will be on high-priority areas within those easements and grasslands.
“We are targeting up to 800 stewardship projects being administered over the next four years,” said Carter. “Each partner is identifying areas of high ecological value within their network to implement stewardship projects that could include riparian or wildlife-friendly fencing, solar water systems, and range health assessments.
“These areas may provide habitat for species at risk, or plant communities that support many pollinators, birds and other wildlife.”
There may eventually be opportunities for more ranchers to get involved, she said.
Interest in grasslands conservation has risen in recent years as people start to realize how important these endangered ecosystems really are, Carter added.
“More people are understanding how they support a diverse range of animals — certainly a lot of species at risk, and how grasslands provide habitat for so many different birds, insects and rare butterflies. The research is getting more attention, and with that, some understanding that we need to commit some resources to try and protect them.”
Carter will also be co-ordinating and getting input from other project partners including the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society, which is headquartered in High River, and the Western Sky Land Trust in Calgary.
Ranchers will be an integral part of the process, she said.
“Producers who are already conservation minded are already aware of how important it is to manage their forages carefully and not overgraze,” said Carter. “If they are able to get some extra support in terms of some grants to develop water systems to keep their cattle out of riparian areas, there’s more benefit there.
“To me, I think that’s what’s different. This goes beyond land securement. It’s empowering the ranchers and giving them more tools to improve their native pastures.”
She said this is even more important when crop prices are high, since some farmers may give in to the temptation to disk their pasture for cropping, but the grasslands can never be restored.
“Avoiding that conversion to cropland is so important,” she said.