'The future looks bleak': Experts give Sask. failing grade on conservation

A recent United Nations report warns of a mass extinction of up to one million animal species, and experts say Saskatchewan is a big part of the problem.

Sask. draining wetlands, destroying grasslands at alarming rates, say experts

A bison calf rests while its mother watches in Banff National Park in a handout photo from Parks Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada-Karsten Heuer
Herds of bison continue to roam Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, but grasslands around the world are shrinking due to human activity, says a UN report. (Karsten Heuer/Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

A great short-horned lizard sits mostly camouflaged on a rock while a family of prairie dogs scamper and bark in the dirt. In the distance, a herd of bison rumbles across the prairie grass.

Andrea Olive saw these and other endangered species on a recent visit to Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan.

"It was very emotional for me," Olive said. "It's an incredible place, but there was a lot of sadness."

Olive, who's completing a book on the history of conservation efforts in Saskatchewan, said grasslands ecosystems are global treasures but they're being destroyed at alarming rates.

Andrea Olive spent time recently in Grasslands National Park while writing a book on Saskatchewan's conservation efforts. (submitted by Andrea Olive)

A United Nations report issued this week warns of a mass extinction of up to one million animal species. Olive and other experts say Saskatchewan is a big part of the problem.

"I give Saskatchewan an 'F,'" said Olive, a Regina-born University of Toronto associate professor, whose research interest includes conservation policy.

The UN report notes the damage done by over-fishing or poaching of lions and elephants, whales and polar bears. But Olive and other experts noted the earth is populated by millions of other smaller or less cute animals that are just as important.

They said the big culprit is loss of habitat due to climate change, industrial agriculture, resource extraction and urban sprawl.

Prairie dogs are one of the species that thrive in Saskatchewan's once-vast grasslands. Experts say Saskatchewan must do more to protect wildlife habitat. (Courtesy Darlene Stack)

"We are increasingly converting, degrading and destroying the homes of these species for our own human use," said James Snider, vice-president of science and research for the World Wildlife Fund-Canada.

Olive and Snider said Saskatchewan could play a big part in preserving the world's animal and plant species.

With an area of 652,000 square kilometres, it's larger than nearly half the countries in the world. But Grasslands National Park is one of a shrinking number of isolated natural spaces across the province.

They noted Canada recently committed to the UN goal of protecting 17 per cent of its land base. Saskatchewan has chosen to set its own goal of 12 per cent.

Snider said Saskatchewan is nowhere close to even that 12 per cent target and is actually getting worse.

"There's been a massive change in these ecosystems, just catastrophic losses," he said. "These imperilled species need urgent support."

Regina native and University of Toronto professor Andrea Olive recently visited Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan. She said the provincial government must do more to preserve grasslands and other vital ecosystems. (submitted by Andrea Olive)

17% goal not realistic: government official

Yeen Ten Hwang, assistant executive director with the provincial government's Fish, Wildlife and Lands Branch said the government realizes the "critical importance" of conservation.

But Hwang called the UN targets a "numbers game." She said it's just not realistic to expect all provinces to hit 17 per cent.

Hwang said they're working with industry, with private landowners and other governments. She said they're working on plans for both habitat management and a "species at risk recovery plan."

"If you ask me, I'd say we are doing well," Hwang said.

Nature Saskatchewan executive director Jordan Ignatiuk disagrees. He and others say the numbers don't lie.

He recited a list of species at risk across the province — burrowing owls, swift foxes, song birds, and the lizards, bison and prairie dogs populating Grasslands National Park.

"It's hard to be optimistic. The future looks bleak," Ignatiuk said. "It's pretty discouraging."

Great short-horned lizards are some of the species at risk in Saskatchewan. Conservationists want the provincial government to do more to protect grasslands and other habitat for these animals. (Parks Canada/Lynch W.)

He's said it is not only up to the government. Everyone must get involved: the agriculture and resource industry, developers, and the public.

Ignatiuk, Olive and Snider said things don't look good and it's easy to feel helpless but say things can change and offered a few suggestions:

  • Plant a garden to decrease your environmental footprint.
  • Email your government representative and pressure them to make conservation a bigger priority.
  • Take your kids or grandchildren hiking, biking or canoeing to give them an appreciation of the grasslands, rivers and natural spaces across the province.

"I think that there is an opportunity in the province of Saskatchewan," Snider said. "But I think it's going to require a sustained effort."


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.