The birds and the beef: The facts of grasslands conservation

Grassland bird populations down dramatically, but farmers often don’t appreciate their value

Grassland bird species provide a lot of value to livestock producers, say grassland habitat experts Curtis Hullick (left) and Christian Artuso.
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Birds are struggling to survive on Prairie grasslands — but they’re not the only ones in trouble.

“The biggest species at risk in Manitoba is beef producers,” said Curtis Hullick, field manager for the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation.

“It’s important to have large blocks of habitat for the birds. But with the economic pressures of farming, we’re seeing these grasslands disappear at an enormous rate. This is why we’re working with landowners to try and protect these grasslands.

“For us, the most important piece is the beef producers.”

It’s a delicate balancing act though, said Hullick, who spoke at a recent Canadian Farm Writers Federation tour. Both the birds and the beef producers rely on the land in different ways — for the birds, as habitat; for the producers, as feed for their animals.

But historically, the scales have been tipped in favour of the farmers, to the detriment of the birds. Across Canada, grassland bird populations dropped by 69 per cent between 1970 and 2014, and in Manitoba, there are 24 bird species listed under the province’s endangered species act.

Farmers typically don’t realize how important birds are on the landscape, said biologist Christian Artuso with Bird Studies Canada.

“There is so much intertwined within an ecosystem,” said Artuso. “Plants rely on animals for seed dispersal, pollination, and pest control. So if you mess with the animal community, you’re going to mess with the plant community, too.

“If we didn’t have birds, the landscape would change drastically.”

On the flip side, well-managed grazing is good for the grasslands — and these bird species’ habitats — as it promotes plant biodiversity while controlling tall grasses and shrubs. That diversity is essential for both birds and cattle, said Hullick.

“It’s important that the structure of the grass is different,” he said. “There’s a little bit of shrubs, a little bit of short grass prairie, a little bit of tall grass prairie. We’re trying to create an inviting ecosystem for the birds.

“We believe that if we build it, they will come.”

Ecosystem services

And the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation has found a way to do that — by showing that the birds and the beef can coexist.

“We work with private landowners in Manitoba to preserve, protect, and manage this grassland for the species at risk,” said Hullick of the organization’s conservation programs.

“We’ve been able to come up with management strategies that help protect it but also manage it in a way that the cattle can coexist with the birds.”

The heritage corporation does that in two ways — through short-term or one-time pro­jects under the federal Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) program, and through long-term conservation easements on farmland.

“We’re in the process of building a stock of land and a block of prairie. Our goal is to work with as many producers as possible in a large block,” said Hullick.

“These folks can work with us to protect the grasslands and receive a financial incentive to put a conservation easement or SARPAL project on the property.

“Through the programs we offer, we can start recognizing these efforts and paying attention to them.”

Both programs help protect the grassland, but they do it a little differently, Hullick added. The SARPAL program is more project based and focused on improving management practices on the land. Producers can receive a maximum of $10,000 per quarter or $50,000 per landowner for conservation projects. For these one-time payments, the landowner agrees to keep the land in pasture for at least 10 years.

“We’re paying for infrastructure to make sure that the mixed grass prairie stays as mixed grass prairie,” said Hullick.

“We’re able to work with those folks on more of a handshake deal to work on their management. There is no strict management regime that we’re trying to impose.”

The conservation easement program is also a one-time payment (the per-acre amount varies from farm to farm), but a caveat is placed on the land title and the agreement lasts in perpetuity.

“Through the conservation easement program, the way it looks now is how we want it to stay,” said Hullick. “You can’t break it, drain it, cultivate it, or disrupt it. We want it to stay as mixed grass prairie.”

Both programs come with their benefits and their drawbacks, but the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation has found that by offering financial incentives for these ‘ecosystem services,’ producers are more likely to participate in a conservation program.

“People are really starting to see the value of these projects,” said Artuso. “When you attach an incentive to that, it just goes that much further in creating a positive attitude around wildlife.”

And the programs are already working, he added. During a recent survey of one project site, Artuso found seven species at risk — something that was unheard of before the project began.

“These grassland birds are in absolute dire straits. They’re almost gone from Manitoba,” he said. “So when you find seven of the rarest species on one section of land in Manitoba, you need to find a mechanism for that to stay the way it is.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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