Grassland conservation gets significant funding injection

Weston Family Foundation donates $25 million to five organizations to help protect four million acres across the Prairies

Five organizations last week received funding to participate in one of the largest ever projects to conserve prairie grasslands.

The $25-million project announced by the Weston Family Foundation is expected to accelerate stewardship efforts on four million acres in all three prairie provinces over the next five years.

Each of the organizations submitted proposals to the Weston Family Prairie Grasslands Initiative. The recipients include Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, Parks Canada and Meewasin Valley Authority.

Jennifer McKillop, regional vice-president for NCC in Saskatchewan, said the project will help the most endangered ecosystem on the planet.

“It’s a pretty exciting program. They’re saying it’s the largest single investment in prairie conservation in Canada,” she said.

NCC is receiving most of the money at more than $11 million. McKillop said they will use it to work with partners on stewardship incentive programs rather than the typical practice of buying land or receiving donated lands that are then covered by conservation easements in perpetuity.

“This will be a bit of a pivot for us,” she said. “We really know that working with partners on the land is the best way to achieve conservation at scale.”

NCC and its partners have about 6,000 easements on 800,000 acres of grassland. Their project is designed to develop ways to increase and support biodiversity on these investments while helping ranchers.

They have hired Tamara Carter, a Saskatchewan rancher, who is also chair of the Saskatchewan Forage Council, as grasslands conservation director to lead this program and expect it will include about 800 projects across the three provinces.

It will include ways to reduce impacts on wildlife movement, range utilization and managing invasive species through grants to producers.

“It can be as simple as an off-site watering system,” McKillop said. “It’s all the little things that add up.”

A smaller portion of the NCC project will look at how to overcome the barriers that prevent grassland carbon credit programs on the Prairies.

The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation and its partners are getting about $3.4 million for its projects, which will include a variety of conservation measures building on the first five years of the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands.

Chair Ray McDougald said rancher-directed conservation efforts help protect species at risk while providing forage resources.

He said developing term conservation easements of perhaps 15 to 25 years is one thing the foundation wants to work on to ensure grassland stays in grass. Young ranchers can’t always compete against others who drive land prices up.

“Perhaps if a conservation agreement was signed on some land that would funnel some money into that rancher’s hand and he could pass that on at a lesser cost and make it more viable,” McDougald said. “The time of a transition is one of the most vulnerable times for a lot of this native prairies that is in private hands and there is an option to farm it. If we can get that next generation of ranchers taking over that land and taking care of it, I’d say that’s a win.”

Tom Harrison will lead the SSGF program that will focus on southwestern Saskatchewan and includes partners such as watershed associations. He said results-based agreements, restoration, management and expanding its grassbank project with Grasslands National Park are other aspects of that program. Parks Canada has received $1.6 million from the Weston foundation to work with producers on that initiative.

Grassbanking is a tool that encourages ranchers to adopt conservation practices on their land while gaining grazing access on another property.

Adriana Bacheschi, field unit superintendent for Parks Canada, said Grasslands National Park will use its money to expand the grassbank project and work with ranchers mainly in the east block of the park, which is still mostly privately-owned and grazed.

The park wants to leverage grazing access for conservation within and outside park boundaries by developing good practices.

“When we started the park many, many years ago the tendency was to move all of the cattle outside the park, which later they learned wasn’t a good plan,” she said. “We do need grazing to maintain that ecosystem in a healthy way.”

Saskatoon-based Meewasin Valley Authority will lead a project to develop best practices for prescribed burns. Renny Grilz, resource management officer, said the $915,000 project has already started and is known as the Canadian Prairies Prescribed Fire Exchange.

Based on similar initiatives in the United States, it is working with partners in the three provinces, including First Nations, to deliver a training course that focuses on standards and practices, and safety when using fire for grass management.

“We’re not looking at having fire replacing grazing,” Grilz said. “It will be complementary.”

For example, in the aspen parkland part of Saskatchewan, tree and shrub encroachment can make it difficult for grazers to access, and that leads to a lack of disturbance. Fire can help with that.

The project will also look at ways to reduce fuel load in some areas.

Ducks Unlimited Canada is getting $5 million to work with its partners on grassland and wetland stewardship.

Scott Stephens, regional operations director for the Prairies, said the organization will focus on the conservation easements it already has with landowners. He said DUC expects to leverage another $10 million for the project while protecting nearly 25,000 acres of habitat.

“Their funding really allows us to address increasing demand from landowners to participate in our projects like conservation easements,” he said. “This really provides us with more funding to put in their pockets to reward them for the stewardship that they’ve done on their land up to this point.”

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