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Home on the range

Alberta’s government is updating its licence plate – a step I figured might come after the results of the last election. After all, the bottom of the plate says, “wild rose country”. There’s a survey to see which licence plate design the public wants. Only one of the three designs depicts our native grasslands – the other two feature grain. You can place your vote at www.alberta.ca/licence-plate-survey.cfm.

Sure, it’s just a licence plate, but our native prairie needs all the help it can get – our precious grasslands are still under pressure. Deeded land can still be broken, and restoring grasslands is incredibly expensive and not always successful. But it’s not just economics threatening our grasslands – there are other pressures too.

Recreational land use and government policy are two big ones. With the realization that we’ve lost much of our true prairie, NGOs and government feel moved to step in and “save” what remains. We’ve seen what happened with Grasslands National Park, as one example. Some may be familiar with the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s purchase of the Old Man on His Back land in Saskatchewan, and the reintroduction of “wild” bison there.

Meanwhile in southeast Alberta, we have concerns over the emergency protection order for the Greater Sage-Grouse, which has limited industrial development in the affected area. Ranching has been left largely unscathed, despite concerns to the contrary. There’s also the Writing on Stone Provincial Park in that corner that draws many to enjoy the natural beauty of the region, as well as the recreational fun that the Milk River offers. Alberta’s new approach to land use policy has made some uncomfortable, and some Alberta citizens are concerned the entire southeast corner of Alberta is going to be depopulated and turned into a large protected area – again, in order to “save” the land.

I don’t believe there’s been an overt strategy to depopulate southwest Saskatchewan and southeast Alberta, but flawed policy has produced the same effect. We’ve seen schools closed, healthcare centralized and services discontinued. When you remove the schools, you remove children. When you remove hospitals, you remove the retired community. That doesn’t leave much for the income-earners and the caregivers in the middle. Federally, the decision was made by the Harper regime to disband the PFRA, which will effectively castrate the future of rural southwest Saskatchewan. But as long as the Conservatives can carve another notch in their ideological belt, all is well in Ottawa.

I’m nearly done writing a book about this issue for the Western Stock Growers’ Association, and while I was passionate about our grasslands before I started the project, I’m even more so now. It wasn’t until I researched the history of how this land was settled that I realized how merciless government policy has been with regard to conservation of these precious lands. The carbon storage capacity of the native prairie is immense. Large grazing animals are critical in generating more landmass in the form of soil. The prairie reduces flooding risk from run-off events, which are increasing thanks to climate change and current land management issues. Our grasslands help filter our water, and retain moisture to feed our waterways. They provide habitat for pollinators, which crop farmers rely upon. The realization of this is dawning on conservation groups and government alike, but their solutions are patchwork and inconsistent.

There’s one reason why we have the grasslands that remain today – cattle ranching. The people that live on that land love it. It’s in their blood, and in the sweat and tears of generations of families who have devoted their whole lives to making it work. And that love has kept many bonded to that land who otherwise would have abandoned it during the BSE crisis. But make no mistake – if folks can’t make a living from that land, they’ll be forced off it.

Maybe on paper, that looks good to government researchers and wildlife conservation groups. Maybe they truly believe that if we just throw a bunch of bison in the driest part of Palliser’s Triangle that the Sage-Grouse will return, and the biodiversity will be maintained. Maybe they believe that weekend warriors with their quads and their camp stoves will work the ground the same way our herds of cattle do. But it doesn’t matter what they believe if it’s morally and scientifically wrong.

The best way to conserve our grasslands is to ensure the people who know how to keep them healthy remain on the land. And the best way to do that is by keeping it profitable. Our governments need to seriously consider compensation for the ecological goods and services provided by the stewards of native prairie, and a cohesive strategy for deeded and leased land needs to be developed. The rural bleeding needs to stop, and governments need to start paying more than lip service to rural revitalization. Acknowledging the need to decentralize the services in our rural communities would be a good start. Dealing with the PFRA in a fair and honest way by providing a reasonable timeline and adequate funding for the transition is a minimal step. Issuing an immediate tax credit for all deeded native grassland to stall any immediate land-breaking would be wise. And a diversified, third party evaluation of the value of the ecological goods and services currently provided needs to begin immediately.

If conservation is truly the goal, any associated costs quickly become return-offering investments. How much do you think the Grasslands National Park has cost over the years? There won’t be enough visitors in the next 300 years to pay for it all – but that wasn’t the goal of establishing that park. It’s time that the public and the policy makers truly learn the benefits that are being provided by those who manage the native grasslands. But if that’s going to happen, we need to turn up the heat. We have to let our governments know we mean business, and there’s a political price to pay for flawed policy – even in staunchly conservative strongholds.

Sure, all of these measures have a price tag attached… but what’s the cost if we do nothing? 

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