Park works with Sask. ranchers on species at risk

Grasslands National Park and producers will graze 40,000 acres 
of public and private land to conserve habitat for endangered birds

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. — The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, Parks Canada and local ranchers are collaborating on a grass bank pilot project to help protect species at risk in the East Block of Grasslands National Park.

The project in southern Saskatchewan includes about 40,000 acres of public and private land that will be grazed to conserve habitat for three species: the greater sage grouse, Sprague’s pipit and the chestnut-collared longspur.

The pilot project runs until 2020.

Using cattle in areas of the park that haven’t been grazed for about 20 years will improve habitat for other species as well, said Adrian Bacheschi, acting superintendent for the South Saskatchewan field unit of Parks Canada.

Different grazing management principles will be applied to achieve habitat targets.

She said this will produce the types of grass the species require. Some species need tall grass and others need almost bare ground. The greater sage grouse, for example, needs a patchy landscape.

Local rancher Miles Anderson has been recognized for his efforts in sage grouse conservation and is one of those participating in the program. He found success by dropping fences at certain times to help the birds survive.

That is one of the management techniques that will be used.

“Because we are dealing with large remote landscapes and difficult terrain, fencing is not as practical,” said SSGA past-president Shane Jahnke.

Instead, riders on horses, salt and lick tub placement, topography and time of use will be used to help create habitat.

The ranchers will use the same methods on their own land located within the future park boundaries.

Only about 75 percent of the land identified for park status has been purchased under a willing buyer-willing seller arrangement.

“The idea is that we are collaborating with some of those large landowners and we are working with them so they can graze lands that are Parks Canada lands at the same time that they graze their lands. And we give them preferential grazing rights to our lands because they are within the boundary,” Bacheschi said.

The ranchers are grazing a smaller number than they normally would, so they are eligible for funds from Environment Canada once they achieve target habitats. That money is available from the SSGA through the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agriculture Land (SARPAL) program.

The South of the Divide Conservation Action Program will set and measure the targets.

Jahnke said the project brings together producer knowledge of effective practices and applied science and research. It also highlights the benefits of cattle grazing.

“You’re not just achieving conservation environment goals but you’re also showing the rest of the world how cattle can protect species at risk and have a positive impact on the health and sustainability of our ecosystem,” he said.

Bacheschi acknowledged that conservationists and cattle producers haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on the park lands. For years, the grass wasn’t grazed as it traditionally was by bison and then ranchers, and it suffered. The importance of large grazers is now recognized.

In the West Block, the park maintains a bison herd of about 400 and leases out grazing blocks to local ranchers.

“We’ve learned lessons and grazing is an important part of the world we live in,” Bacheschi said. “We have really worked on that part of the relationship.”

She added that sage grouse numbers have increased a bit the last couple years but this year’s numbers aren’t yet available.

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