Tuesday February 21, 2017

Canada's grasslands: 'most endangered, least protected ecosystems'

In 1935, the federal government employed pasture managers — essentially cowboys — to protect native grasses, monitor grazing, address erosion, track down invasive species and manage water.

In 1935, the federal government employed pasture managers — essentially cowboys — to protect native grasses, monitor grazing, address erosion, track down invasive species and manage water. (B.Gjetvaj / branimirphoto.ca)

Listen 24:28

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For 80 years large swaths of the prairie grasslands — stretching across the southern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — have been managed by the federal government.

It all started in the dirty '30s, in the midst of the Dust Bowl years when the government stepped in to reclaim land that had been badly eroded by drought.

In 1935, Parliament created the Prairies Farm Rehabilitation Administration to build up the fragile grasslands through something called the Community Pastures Program.

But in 2012, the ruling Conservative government decided to phase out the program and today most of the grasslands are no longer federally protected.

Mert Taylor is a retired pasture manager with the Community Pasture Program, essentially a federally employed cowboy.

"I was there in total 43 years — 12 years as a rider and 31 years as a manager," Taylor tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"So I've seen quite a few changes from start you know to the divestiture."

Grasslands 1

Canada's grassland conservation program was established during the Dust Bowl years. According to the federal government, 145,000 hectares of poor-quality lands have been reclaimed. (B.Gjetvaj / branimirphoto.ca)

Taylor shares what his days were like on the range looking after the cattle, checking for erosion and how species are at risk.

He says that cattle ranchers taking on the workload of assessing the issues involved in what the program was in charge of is not realistic.

"The government really can't expect the leasees to take over the responsibilities as pasture managers to maintain it."

So what makes the grasslands so important to preserve?

"Temperate grasslands are the most endangered, least protected ecosystems on the planet right now," says Trevor Herriot, co-chair of an organization dedicated to protecting the grasslands called Public Pastures-Public Interest.

"They've been here for 8,000 years on the Canadian plains and you know there's 30 species at risk."

Herriot tells Tremonti why it's so vital to protect the grasslands now before it's too late.

"In Saskatchewan we used to have 190,000 square km of native grassland, 150 years ago. Today we have roughly 33,000 square km — so 80 per cent of it's gone."

Herriot emphasizes protection of the grasslands includes cattle ranchers.

"Cattle ranching is an important ecological substitution and our traditional ranching families are really the first line of defence," Herriot explains.

"But they're going to need some help in the modern economy that is, you know, pushing everything towards the sort of highest profitable use of any kind of land."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and Willow Smith.