Monday, October 16, 2017

Colonial Mindset Prevails on the Prairie: Tallying up the Sale of Crown Lands



“Sold a record number of lands that have no significant public, ecological or economic benefit through the strategically-focused 2015 Agricultural Crown Land Sale Program and The Wildlife Habitat Protection Act Moderate Ecological Value Land Sale Program. To some extent, this success was made possible by the new public online auction sales platform.”From Saskatchewan Agriculture’s 2016-2017 Annual Report

On Friday I received an email that included a link to a graph on the Ministry of Agriculture’s web page showing the dollar value of all the Crown lands that the Ministry has sold in recent years. I was going to post that revealing little graph here today but it mysteriously disappeared over the weekend and is no longer available online.

But I found the data anyway by digging through a bunch of old annual reports for the Ministry of Agriculture.

Let’s start with the baseline. How much Crown land did we have in the southern half of the province when the Sask Party took office and starting selling it off?

Well, according to the 2006 annual report for the Ministry of Agriculture (the year before the Sask Party came to power) the ministry was at the time administering “approximately 7.3 million acres of Crown land that is leased to farmers and ranchers or operated as community pastures.”

The annual report goes on to say that 3.4 M acres of that Crown land, “representing one-third of all wildlife habitat in the agricultural region, is reserved from sale and has specialized development restrictions under The Wildlife Habitat Protection Act. These natural areas make a significant contribution to maintaining existing wildlife populations and biodiversity across the agricultural region of Saskatchewan.”

Within a year of taking office, the Brad Wall/Bill Boyd government began selling Crown land at a discount, offering financing alternatives to cash sale. They stated their intention to sell approximately 1.6 million acres of Crown land. By 2014 they were eyeing up the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands to see how they might justify selling some of them off.

Here are the dollar figures and acreages from all Ministry of Agriculture Crown land sales from 2008 to today. (All data come from Ministry of Agriculture Annual Reports, but after 2012 they stopped reporting acres. However, I have estimated the acreages sold by extrapolating from the reported acreages for the earlier years, which work out to an average price of $300 per acre.)

From 2008-2009 annual report: $7 M in Crown land sales, selling approximately 23,000 acres

From 2009-10 annual report: “More than 161,000 acres of Crown Land, valued at $48 million were sold in 2009-10.”

2010-2011: 83,631 acres of Crown Land, valued at $25.4 million were sold.

2011-2012: $30.2 M (67,294 acres were sold); and the report says that since 2008, the ministry had sold 304,885 acres worth more than $91,000,000.

2012-2013: $28 M (93,000 acres sold)

2013-2014: $26 M (87,000 acres sold)

2014-2015-- $15.4 M, (50,000 acres sold)

2015-2016: $29.2 M, (100,000 acres sold).

2016-2017: $145.9 M, (nearly 500,000 acres sold).

That adds up to approximately 1.1 million acres of Crown lands in the south of the province that they have sold since taking office in 2007--15% of the Crown lands in the prairie ecoregion, one of the most endangered and least protected landscapes on the continent.

How much of that 1.1 M acres contained native grassland, wetlands, aspen parkland is anyone’s guess because no one inside or outside of government is keeping track, but much of it was formerly protected under WHPA and, as we have seen recently, there are Crown lands with native grassland and bush that were never in WHPA but are now being auctioned off in the next few weeks.

Our Crown lands—already so scarce in the south because 85% of the land has been privatized—are the last shadows of the prairies we were entrusted to share and protect together under treaty, the closest thing we have to land held in common for the benefit of all treaty people.

If we stand by and let this government sell them off, we will be abandoning any possible renewal of the spirit in which the treaties were signed, and inviting a new form of colonization taking us even further from any legitimate social contract with the land and its first peoples.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Conservation community silent as Wall govt auctions off more native prairie

Brad Wall continues to auction off Saskatchewan's prairie heritage parcel by parcel, and the provincial conservation organizations are standing by in silence.

This fall Ritchie Bros auction has listed 75 parcels of Crown land--much of it native grassland, aspen parkland, wetlands and forested areas. Almost none of these lands for sale are receiving conservation easements to stop future owners from plowing and draining the natural landscape--not that a government conservation easement provides much in the way of real protection anyway.

In a quick scan through their very helpful website (oddly named ironplanet.com/realestate-skgov), I found several parcels with hundreds of acres of native grassland up for sale--most with no easement.

One chunk of more than 2,240 acres of native grassland near Bengough is being advertised as a single lot of land to be sold without a conservation easement. The Province promised when it began selling off Crown land that any land of high ecological value would not be for sale and that land with moderate ecological value would be sold with conservation easements. If 2,200 acres of native prairie in an area surrounded by many more blocks of native grassland is not of the highest ecological value then nothing is.

this is a screen capture from the auction website--go there and take a look
at the satellite images yourself
This evening I called up the current leaseholder of that land near Bengough, a rancher named Gary Shaver. I told him I was writing a story about the Province auctioning off native grassland.

Leaseholders are often reluctant to speak on the record but Gary was willing to talk. He was quiet but clear in his concerns about the auction.

I asked him if he was planning to bid on the land. "Well I guess I haven't got much choice." Would you rather keep leasing it for your cattle, I asked.

"Sure if that was an option, but they've made their minds up to sell it."

I told him that some of us fear that Crown grasslands that are sold off could eventually end up in the hands of someone who would plow the land under.

2,240 acres of Crown native prairie  near Bengough on the auction block


"Well," Gary said, "what some of us are afraid of is the land getting into the wrong hands and then we'll end up being a bunch of peasants working for someone else." He said he has seen the price of land driven up by out of province interests bidding on land.

"I'm not too happy with that Wall anymore," Gary said. "He's been letting people come in here and buy up land, driving up the prices."

He agreed that most ranchers will treat the land well but eventually everyone has to sell--whether you retire or your heirs decide to sell--and when that happens there is nothing to stop future owners from turning the native prairie into canola or lentil crops.

I spoke to another Crown grassland leaseholder this evening, Jason Mapleloft of Lethbridge who has likewise seen his lease of native pasture put up for sale. His reaction paralleled Gary's. 

"We are losing too much native grassland these days," he said. "It should be left as is." He said that if the land he leases falls into the wrong hands it could easily be converted to cropland.

Jason Maplecroft's leased Crown land near Lloydminster


Most confusing and frustrating of all, there has been no public outcry whatsoever from the conservation community. Nothing from Ducks Unlimited, Nature Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

I am at a loss to account for their silence.






Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Great White Birds stay on the Prairie this summer

Whooping crane image courtesy of James Villeneuve
Among the most positive bird news this summer was the record nesting success for the whooping cranes at Wood Buffalo National Park. The community brought forth 63 new birds, beating the previous record of 49 set in 2006.

Biologists counted 98 nests this spring and there were four pairs of twins. The wild population at the park is now over 400 birds. While they winter on the Texas Gulf coast at Aransas where Hurricane Harvey struck recently, the cranes are just beginning their southward migration and will not arrive until much later. News from Aransas indicates that the habitat should recover from the surge of salt water.

With that many cranes now breeding at Wood Buffalo, we may begin to see more young cranes stop short and spend the summer at prairie wetlands--within their historic range. (See this story.)

This summer, a pair of young adult Whooping Cranes got to know one another at a wetland near the town of Minton, an hour and a half south of Regina on Highway 6. Photographer James Villeneuve spent several days with them, photographing them from a safe distance. Here is what he had to say when I asked him to describe the experience:

"I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours a day with them for a little more than a week. It was especially great to see that one of the birds was a second year bird (there is still some brown on the coverts). At sunset each night they would perform a dance together, it was special to watch. One night they chased a coyote that was approaching the edge of the water, I believe it was after one of the shorebirds sharing the water. After a series of cold fronts pushed through on consecutive days they left in high winds for what I believe to be the last time on July 30th."
Take a close look at the bird on the left in this photo by James and you will see those brown feathers he mentions on the wings near the black feathers.

This whooping crane pair summered on the prairie near Minton, Sask.
Image courtesy of James Villeneuve


Monday, August 21, 2017

Warblers passing through

Wood warbler migration is underway on the northern Plains, flushing birds from the forests to the north down to our urban forest here in Regina. August 20st was a good day for wood warblers in the back yard. They were ignoring me so I went in again and got my camera. I sat in a lawn chair and took these images with a Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XSi, with a 400 mm f/5.6  lens. In an hour and a half I had photos of six species. Here they are strung together in a short video (to get a larger view of the video be sure to click the Youtube button on the bottom right corner):


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Summers are for hummers



A few weeks ago, Jared Clarke, naturalist, bird bander, teacher, and host of CJTR Radio's "The Prairie Naturalist" asked me a question: "How many hummingbirds are you seeing at your feeders?"

"Six or seven," I said.

"So you've got 21."

I thought he hadn't heard me so I said it again--six or seven.

Then he explained. When it looks like you have three hummingbirds you likely have ten or more coming to  your feeders. Trouble is, you can't be sure until you start banding them.

Over the past month, Jared has been banding ruby-throated hummingbirds at acreages, farms, and cottages in the Qu'Appelle Lakes and surrounding area. He has come to our weekend farm south of Indian Head three times now and I finally had a chance to join him one morning earlier this week. So far he has banded 23 of them at our place and more than a hundred in general this summer. Here are some photos from the morning we spent together fishing for hummingbirds together.

Here is the rig he uses.



A simple and entirely safe trap that he suspends above a feeder, dropping the rolled up cylinder of soft mesh with a kite string from twenty feet away when a hummer comes into to drink.

Here we are holding the string and waiting (click on any image for a larger view).



In a minute we had our first bird. I can't recall if this was an adult female or a juvenile born this summer.


Jared has designed the project so that he will return to the same feeders over several years, which will help him learn about the hummingbirds' rate of survival and loyalty to breeding areas.

The bands are so small I would need a magnifier to read the numbers.

Here is an adult male. It is smaller than the females so Jared has to trim about a half millimetre off of the band or it might slip right off its foot.

And here is a young male born this year. You can see he has grown the first feather of his gorget, already glowing metallic red.

We talked the morning away as I retrieved birds from the trap and brought them to Jared for processing. If there is a more relaxing way to catch and band birds I haven't seen it.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

200 cattle die at Shamrock Pasture


PFRA pasture managers working with cattle at Wolverine Community Pasture
 (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
When a couple of cows die suddenly, the people who own them want to know why. When a couple hundred die, the animal cruelty officers want to know too.

Last week, as we heard in the media, 200 cows and calves died of dehydration and drinking toxic water in the former Shamrock PFRA Community Pasture. The shareholders of the new Shamrock Grazing Corporation are understandably shaken by the event--for the hundreds of thousands of dollars represented in the loss, but also for the suffering their animals went through.

Shareholder representatives (many of whom would be former PFRA patrons) have been quick to defend the contract staff who were responsible for checking on the livestock, and that perspective is to be admired. However, animal cruelty officers are on site interviewing people to see if they can determine if neglect may have led to the tragedy.

What I know about cattle and water management would not eclipse the period at the end of this sentence, but if the only available water evaporated enough to concentrate down to a toxic level of salts during the heat of the last week, then it might be fair to ask if an experienced manager with training and resources at his disposal would have provided the livestock in that field with a safer alternative source of water to avoid such a risk.

I asked a former manager of another PF pasture what he thought of the events at Shamrock. Not wanting to be seen as criticizing current managers, the former manager requested anonymity but said the following:

"This is exactly what I predicted would happen. The new lessees would not pay the pasture manager the salary he expected as they could find someone who would do the job for less. . . . This might be a lesson and a costly one for the producers, that maybe the former managers did have some value in the operation of the pastures. I had some dugouts that were potentially toxic and took measures to ensure that the cattle had other options for potable water. . . . .My experience is if it is bad in the spring it will only get worse, and if it is borderline for toxicity in the spring you had better have an alternative or back up plan, there will be more of this type of nightmares, I am guessing."

Some transitioned federal pastures were able to convince their PFRA manager to make the move and work for the new grazing corporation--often by allowing them to graze their own livestock on the pasture. Shamrock, however, seems to have gone elsewhere to secure a manager. They put the position out for contract tender. Here is the SaskJobs posting they ran just last January. The list of "credentials (certificates, licences, memberships, courses, etc.)" has but one entry: "driver's licence;" however, the job description does mention water management.

None of which incriminates the grazing corporation in the least. If there is anyone to be blamed here, it is the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, for rushing the pastures through a privatization process without providing the kind of support and oversight that would ensure that under new governance the land and cattle will be managed at the same standard the PFRA always provided. 

Instead of leaving the grazing patrons with the financial headroom and the incentives they needed to hire quality managers, the Province is taking as much revenue as they can from the transitioned pastures. It is only from the shareholders own ingenuity and effort that many of the transitioned pastures have been able to find good managers.

However, it is worth recalling that the federal PF managers were recruited, trained, and promoted in a system that not only reduced the incidence of such mishaps; the system included built-in public accountability through a chain of command ending at a minister's office when mistakes did occur or when private or public interests in the use of the land were at stake.

And if the Province is now neglecting to provide that accountability and internal oversight of local management on the private grazing and livestock side of pasture use, what should we expect in the way of accountability and oversight for the management of public interest, such as carbon sequestration, species at risk conservation, and access for Indigenous people's customary use? 

In the new pasture dispensation, instead of the buck stops here, we have the bucks going into the provincial treasury and no one accountable for the proper management of these rare and important public lands. 

healthy wetlands water livestock but provide important habitat on
 public grasslands including community pastures

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Grassland loss in Saskatchewan by the numbers

freshly broken prairie in Southwest Sask. where I often hear that no-one
breaks native grassland anymore

“Grassland being broken in substantial acreages is just not an issue.” 
Hon. Lyle Stewart, Minister of Saskatchewan Agriculture, Western Producer, September 26, 2013.

According to Stats Canada (Table 004-0203 - Census of Agriculture, land use, every 5 years), Saskatchewan lost 2,068,246 acres of “natural land for pasture” in the province between 1991 and 2016.

This means that more than 2 million acres of native grassland, aspen parkland and other forms of natural pasture land in the province were plowed under in the last 25 years.

How much is 2 million acres? It is nearly ten times the size of Grasslands National Park, one of our last remaining protected grassland areas of any size in the province.
native grassland next to broken land--image taken in late May this year

That 2 million acres amounts to one-sixth of the prairie area in Canada being destroyed in a single generation.

At that rate Saskatchewan is losing 80,000 acres on average every year, or more than 200 acres a day, or 9 acres every hour.

That is a 15.5% decrease over 25 years. How does that compare to rainforest loss? Well, Brazil lost 9.5% of its rainforest over the same period(To be perfectly clear--in absolute acres lost per year the rainforest loss is much higher than our loss of native prairie, but the yearly percentage loss of prairie in SK is greater than the yearly percentage loss of rainforest in Brazil.)


Long-Billed Curlew, one of many species in rapid decline because of
grassland loss

Oh--almost forgot. It is Native Prairie Appreciation Week next week, so get out there and appreciate what we have left of our native prairie.



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