New guide helps farmers preserve grasslands

The Grassland Conservation Incentives Guide makes it easier for producers to find funding programs available to them

Producers and landowners now have a one-stop online shop to find financial incentives to help preserve, enhance or restore grasslands and other prairie habitats.

The 69-page Grassland Conservation Incentives Guide from Birds Canada is now available at birdscanada.org.

Ian Cook, grassland conservation manager at Birds Canada, said many producers understand the importance of keeping prairie habitat intact for birds and other organisms as well as preserving a healthy working landscape ecosystem.

However, producers sometimes have difficulty finding the various incentives and programs that are available.

“We thought if we could compile all of the different programs and incentives that did exist, it would make it a lot easier for producers to take advantage of those programs and be able to actually participate in them and be rewarded for their stewardship activities and be able to contribute to the health of our working landscaping ecosystems,” he said.

“Hopefully they’re able to see what is available to them and evaluate what fits their situation and then their operations so they can achieve their production goals, but also their ecological goals.”

The guide lists more than 45 incentives and funding sources across the Prairies, which help producers conserve, enhance and restore prairie habitat, including grasslands, wetlands and riparian areas.

It outlines national programs and provides more detailed information about provincial programs available to landowners in each prairie province.

While Ducks Unlimited is a national organization, its programs are listed under provincial sections because programs differ substantially among provinces.

There’s also information on best management practices that landowners and producers can use to help manage species at risk.

One section of the guide is specifically about prairie birds.

“Most of the programs and incentives that do exist are mostly aimed at producers. That’s because most of these lands are part of a working landscape. Ninety percent of the remaining grasslands are owned by producers,” Cook said.

Birds are essential to the health of grasslands and are also good indicators of ecological and environmental health because they fill a lot of different roles within the ecosystem and the food web, he added.

They serve as important indicators of ecosystem health, he said, a present day “canaries in the coal mine.”

Birds control pests such as rodents and insects and provide nutrient cycling through foraging and waste processing, seed distribution and pollination.

Cook said birds annually contribute billions of dollars to the global gross domestic product through these ecological services.

However, the conversion of grasslands to annual cropping systems is affecting life for these birds.

An acre of native prairie is converted to annual cropping every minute, according to the 2020 World Wildlife Fund’s Plowprint Report.

“We’ve lost 57 percent of our grassland birds on the Canadian Prairies since 1970. It causes some concern that maybe our ecosystem isn’t functioning and isn’t as healthy as it could be because we continue to lose these birds,” Cook said.

“The main driver to the population declines is the loss of habitat. Invasive species have a role to play in that, but the largest one is certainly the conversion of grasslands to annual cropping systems. That’s mostly born out of economic reasons. There’s tremendous market pressure for grasslands to be converted to handle cropping systems. So we’re trying to connect producers with ways that can help keep some of those habitats intact.”

Seventy-five to 90 percent of Canada’s native grassland has been lost, and more is lost every year. Alberta has 43 percent, Saskatchewan 17 percent and Manitoba has less than one percent of its original grasslands remaining. Canadian producers and landowners can help protect Canada’s remaining grasslands.

Cook said there’s no substitute for intact prairie, but restored prairie or tame forage mixes can also provide habitat for many birds.

Incentives that fund tame forage mixes can help program participants seek out mixes that will provide the best habitat for prairie birds.

“I encourage people to read through the guide and hopefully there are some programs in there that maybe they may not have heard of,” he said.

“Even if there are organizations that they’re familiar with, I encourage people to check those organizations out again because there are a lot of innovative things that are going on with being able to work with producers to achieve conservation and production goals on producers’ land.”

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