Rangelands threatened, says expert

VAL MARIE, Sask. — Despite sharing the prairie for more than 100 years, there is still much that its disparate users have to learn about their impact on it, says Alberta range specialist Barry Adams.


He told a recent Society for Range Management tour in southwestern Saskatchewan that the first thing everyone should do is acknowledge what the stewards of the grasslands — ranchers — have achieved.


“This is beyond the capacity of any government organization to deliver the same kinds of outcomes,” Adams said.


He said leaseholders in Alberta’s forest districts begin with a rulebook on how they will operate on the land. The opposite approach was taken on agricultural land, which he said has benefitted ranchers and society.


The long-term leases held by many families have resulted in a generational knowledge transfer that has kept the land in good condition.


“I see a lot of change taking place that troubles me right now,” Adams said. “I don’t see the normal rolling over and succession taking place.”


In some cases, land is being turned over to people without any knowledge of its history. 


“I think this is the critical moment to implement a framework that can measure and reward the contribution of our prairie stewards to ecological services,” he said.


It’s also time to examine the cumulative effects of land use. Adams said there are multiple overlapping im-pacts on land used for grazing, energy development, and environmental initiatives.


There is only so much that land can handle.


For example, he said the assumptions of 20 years ago that energy companies would come and go from the landscape have been proven wrong.


“The assumption was that as we reclaim these well sites, it just returns to being prairie,” he said. “That assumption has not been correct.


“Even with effective reclamation, the restoration practices that have developed may result in fragmentation of the native grassland landscape.”


Acreage is lost or the land is cut into pieces by roads and other structures. Weeds invade and habitat is reduced.


Adams said carrying on with business as usual is not good enough. 


He said learning to measure and manage the land is the best way forward, and some of that has begun.


“Our ranchers have done a great job. Our public rangelands are predominantly healthy. We know that because we’ve measured them.”