Farmers and ranchers in southwestern Saskatchewan already provide habitat for species at risk, and a new voluntary program aims to help them do even more.
The Species at Risk Partnership on Agricultural Lands, which was announced last week, will be administered by the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association. It is a five-year, $2.58 million fund provided by the federal environment department.
As well, the South of the Divide Conservation Action Program will deliver six programs to help producers undertake improvement projects.
SODCAP executive director Tom Harrison said the organizations developed a proposal last year for new innovative programs to en-courage producers to protect species at risk habitat.
“This is producer driven,” he said.
“These are the people that own and manage critical habitat.”
He said species at risk can still be found in the area because producers do the right things, and the new programs take that a step further.
“In all cases, we’re asking them to go over and above the existing operations,” Harrison said.
“These guys make decisions to produce livestock. What we’re asking them to do is start making decisions based on habitat requirements for species at risk.”
SSGA president Doug Gillespie said the program is designed to encourage continuous stewardship.
“It’s always been a theme of livestock people. You look after the grass and places, and they look after you,” he said.
One species that has drawn considerable attention recently is the greater sage grouse. Gillespie said the programs will, for example, offer assistance to producers to change fencing or take other measures that would in turn help the birds.
“This will help shoulder the burden, compensate them for extra things they do to make it even better for the species at risk,” he said.
Harrison said some of the landowners in the program area have six or seven species at risk on their land, and the needs of all have to be balanced.
“This is like a last refuge for species at risk in this part of the province,” he said.
“This is all that’s left, so we need to work to make sure that it provides the best habitat possible, and we need the producers on side to do that.”
The six options include:
- Habitat management agreements: Producers who own or manage identified critical or im-portant habitat are eligible for funding to implement agreements based on an evaluation and goals for both the operation and habitat conservation.
- Habitat restoration: Producers can submit bids for restoration projects that meet certain terms on areas up to 200 acres, land that is cultivated or in tame grass and is located near existing critical habitat.
- Results-based conservation agreements: Producers would sign agreements identifying specific results or habitat characteristics they want to obtain. Payments are triggered when goals are met.
- Term conservation easements: Producers could sign easements to protect land for a specific term rather than in perpetuity, as is currently the case.
- Grass banking: Producers and conservation agencies work to-gether to allow ranchers to graze on agency land at a reduced fee in exchange for tangible conservation benefits on the private ranch.
- Niche product branding: Producers could market beef raised in environments that support species at risk habitat.
Harrison said program targets include four to six results-based agreements, 16 habitat management agreements and at least one or two grass banks.
The projects will be evaluated for both environmental and economic benefits. For example, does a producer who uses the niche marketing program actually make more money?
Harrison said the program is not meant to compensate for the transfer of federal pastures to patron management.
Gillespie said most of Saskatchewan’s remaining native grass is on privately managed ranchland, and stewardship is a core value of those managers.
“Regulations and fines don’t make sense when the ranching industry has voluntarily protected this habitat all along,” he said.
“Given the right tools, we’ll be able to do what’s best to support biodiversity on the land.”