The beautiful and endangered sage grouse are going about their business these days in southeastern Alberta, southwestern Saskatchewan and several midwestern states, eating sagebrush and hiding within it.
They are unaware that they have become the most powerful birds on the Prairies and arguably all of North America.
Sage grouse are subjects of the first federal emergency protection order issued in Canada, which came into effect earlier this year.
The Canadian order has sparked a firestorm with ranchers and the oil and gas industry. The few sage grouse in this country live on crown and private grazing land that stands above lucrative oil and gas deposits. The order and prohibits new development and restricts most changes to existing structures, be they fences, roads or pump jacks.
Ranchers worry about grazing limits and their ability to operate, particularly as an amended protective strategy evolves.
The situation has raised questions about whether the emergency order is just the first of many, and whether conservation groups, widely credited with forcing the government’s hand on sage grouse protection, have ac-quired too much influence.
Two speakers at a meeting in Medicine Hat, Alta., last month about the issue — Elizabeth Nickson, author of Eco-Fascists: How Radical Conservationists Are Destroying Our Natural Heritage, and Bruce Vincent, a former Montana business owner and logger — say environmental groups have gone too far, halting development and causing economic and social hardship in their quests to protect certain lands, water bodies, cultural practices or species.
At their core, conservation and environmental groups have admirable goals. They want to protect the environment and the planet.
The difficulty, as Vincent expresses it, is that they present issues in a simplistic “this or that” way to get support and funding.
Sage grouse preservation or ranching? Free range chickens or factory farms? Organic production or genetically modified food? Oilsands development or global climate change?
As an ever-larger portion of the population becomes urbanized and distanced from nature and food production, small wonder they choose the option they think will best protect the planet. Government policies are then devised to reflect the apparent wishes of this largest voting block.
However, reality and common sense reside between the extremes. The choices are not simple ones, nor is the situation hopeless.
Look how far agriculture has come in terms of environmental protection. Consider today’s tillage practices, chemical use and water conservation compared to 50 years ago. Things are getting better, not worse.
Boiled down to its essence, Vincent’s view is that the well-intentioned initial goals of many environmental groups have devolved into one statement: stop doing that.
“We need a new environmental vision, built on hope instead of fear, science instead of emotion, education instead of litigation, resolution instead of conflict, and employing rather than destroying human resources.
“And the new movement is going to be led by rural people because we live too close to the ground to pretend.”
Amen to that, Mr. Vincent.
Ranchers support sage grouse preservation. What they can’t abide is being thought of as an enemy of the natural world, when in fact they are agriculture’s original conservationists.
The government and environmental groups need to realize that.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.