Manitoba municipality calling for change after endangered orchid interrupts farming

A Manitoba rural municipality is calling on the province to change endangered species protection rules it says are hurting farmers, thanks to a rare, vanilla-scented orchid growing wild in their fields.

Farmers told they can't plow fields with western-prairie fringed orchids, found nowhere else in Canada

Western-prairie fringed orchids grow wild in the Rural Municipality of Stuartburn, Man., and nowhere else in Canada. (Submitted by the Nature Conservancy of Canada)

A Manitoba rural municipality is calling on the province to change endangered species protection rules it says are hurting farmers, thanks to a rare, vanilla-scented orchid growing wild in their fields.

Four farmers in the Rural Municipality of Stuartburn received stop work orders from the province last fall due to the presence of western-prairie fringed orchids on their land, said Lucie Maynard, the RM's CAO.

The endangered, cream-coloured flowers aren't found anywhere else in Canada, and the ones growing wild in Stuartburn, about 95 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, account for about half of all the species in the world.

As an endangered species, the orchids are protected under Manitoba's Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act, which says the flowers and the land they grow on can't be destroyed or disturbed.

The flowers have grown wild in ditches and along roadsides west of Vita, Man., for years, Maynard said. She said local government has been co-operative in planning municipal works like mowing, drainage and ditch maintenance to accommodate the flower.

But it wasn't until the flowers appeared on some farmland last year that local leadership realized the law would impact privately owned land, too, preventing farmers from a range of activities including soil preparation like plowing or disking.

The rural municipality has sent a letter to the province asking for amendments to the law to allow farmers' work to continue.

"We don't have a lot of good farmland to begin with. So the land that we do have, we're trying to do our best to keep it for agricultural purposes," Maynard said. "On lands that the farmers need to make a living on, let them be."

Fear of livelihood 'being taken away'

So far, one farmer has been charged for continuing farming work on the land, Maynard said, adding the work was done as the result of miscommunication.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Sustainable Development confirmed the province received the RM's letter, adding some agricultural activities, like grazing, are still allowed in this case.

"The RM of Stuartburn supports Canada's only, and the world's largest, population of western-prairie fringed orchids. Thus, Manitoba has a significant responsibility for its conservation," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

"The province is committed to working with owners of land that support this or other rare species to determine compatible land management practices for their particular sites."

Western-prairie fringed orchids grow up to 88 centimetres tall, with clusters of spiky, fringed flowers. They typically bloom for two or three weeks at the start of July, and emit a vanilla-like smell at night to attract pollinators.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Sustainable Development said some agricultural activities, like light grazing, are still permitted on land with western-prairie fringed orchids. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Kevin Stott, a board member at Keystone Agricultural Producers, a group that represents Manitoba farmers, said the plants became an issue last year, after a few new farm owners purchased land where they grew with plans to plant crops. 

He said it's not unheard of for conservation concerns to intersect with or butt up against agriculture. But he said he's never seen a debacle of this magnitude over a plant.

He attended a meeting of farmers in the area last year to talk about the impact of the laws protecting the flowers and heard anxieties from local landowners.

"By the time the meeting was over, nobody was willing to express whether they'd seen the wild orchid on their land for fear … of their livelihood being taken away," Stott said.

'Take all the measures we can'

Maynard said the rural municipality has already received letters of support from some other Manitoba municipalities.

The RM is also considering seeking an emergency resolution at the Association of Manitoba Municipalities conference in November, asking the association to help lobby the government for an amendment to the act.

Stott said the province should consider whether there are enough orchids on protected areas in the rural municipality to allow farmers to proceed on their private lands, or work to support farmers being told not to disturb the flowers on their land.

In 2016, the Nature Conservancy of Canada bought land in the rural municipality to protect the orchid — about half of the land where the orchid grows in the area, CBC reported at the time.

Cary Hamel, director of conservation for the NCC, said the organization has had success making compromises with farmers in the past, including in the Stuartburn area, by bringing conservation and farming experts to the table.

"It's not the easiest thing to do. … We really have to think of ways to develop farming systems and conservation systems that work together," he said. "But we have found some ways to make it work."

Laura Reeves, a botanist based in Stuartburn near Gardenton, said she'd like to see some innovation on creative ways to farm or make money in the area, to find a compromise that works for farmers and flowers alike.

"To put things into perspective, the [orchid] population that we have here in the RM is the largest population in the world, and that 'largest population' spans 40 square miles [roughly 104 square kilometres]," she said.

"I'm not anti-farmer, and I'm not anti-people, either. But when it comes to endangered species, the way things are going these days, I think we need to take all the measures we can to protect them."

With files from Ramraajh Sharvendiran and CBC's Radio Noon


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