• The North American grasslands at sunset

    The temperate grasslands that once covered much of western North America are one of the most imperilled ecosystems in the world. (Photo: Jeremy Pittman)

I grew up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan. We grew mostly wheat and lentils and raised some pigs. There were always small pieces of grassland nearby – I remember my grandfather pointing them out and telling us how they used to call them ‘prairie wool.’ But by the time I was born, much of the grasslands – aside from those found in marginal agricultural areas or “out in the hills,” as we used to say – had been converted into croplands. I don’t think any of us realized the extent to which we had modified the temperate grassland ecosystem.

When I was in Grade 4, my class raised money to protect a small piece of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil as part of a school project on environmental sustainability. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized Saskatchewan’s own temperate grasslands also needed protection.

The temperate grasslands that once covered much of western North America – in the United States and Canada – are one of the most imperilled ecosystems in the world. A 2017 report by the World Wildlife Fund found that we are actually losing more temperate grasslands annually than we are the Amazon Rainforest. These grasslands are key to the survival of many species of mammals, plants, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. A few have weathered the changes and adapted, but there are some that have proven more vulnerable to the onslaught of land use change. These are the ‘species at risk’ – a legal term in Canada referring to species that we must protect or risk losing forever.

The list of species at risk for the grasslands is quite long, but includes the swift fox (Vulpes velox), greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), and Mormon metalmark butterflies (Apodemia mormo). These species require grasslands for food and shelter, and the advance of the plough has literally turned their homes upside down. Imagine moving from a mansion in the suburbs to a cramped downtown apartment; that’s what cropland agriculture has done to these species, and if we don’t act soon, even the “downtown apartments” may disappear. To save these species, we must save their homes, which are the scattered patches of temperate grasslands that remain.

However, we’re in luck, because many of these grass patches are already protected, in their own way, by the hardworking ranching families who have managed these lands for more than a century.

The ecological role of ranching

On the Prairies, a farmer is someone who grows crops such as wheat, lentils, canola, flax, chickpeas, oats, barley, and rye. Ranchers, on the other hand, raise cattle. They rely on large pieces of intact grass to feed their animals. These tracts of pasture are often the same places where we currently find species at risk, which is no accident. Pastures can provide excellent habitat for species at risk, if managed properly – and many of them are.

Many of the same practices adopted by ranchers to deal with drought – the worst nemesis of people living in the Prairie provinces – also provide co-benefits for species at risk. These practices include things like leaving enough grass behind for future years and resting pastures of native prairie for years at a time. Taking it a step further, ranchers can also manage their lands in such a way as to intentionally produce habitat for species at risk. These practices include things like deferring grazing to times when species are less vulnerable, herding cattle with range-riders to improve control of grazing, or luring cattle with water or salt licks to areas needing grazing pressure. These practices produce a mix of vegetation types and heights on pastures, which mimics the kind of heterogeneous grassland habitats in which many species thrive.

Cattle, in a sense, can take on the ecological role of the bison, which once roamed the temperate grasslands throughout North America. The vast herds of bison essentially disturbed the grasslands for centuries, and the temperate grassland ecosystem evolved in light of the bison’s disturbance. Bison grazed and trampled the prairie here and there, leaving behind a tapestry of vegetation that wasn’t too short or too tall for many of the other species found there. Ranchers can achieve comparable results by managing their cattle in ways that produce similar landscapes to those left by the bison.

Cattle ranching and species at risk can go hand-in-hand, and there are a number of exciting new programs emerging to bring the two together. For example, Parks Canada and the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association recently announced the creation of a grass bank project. Grass banking, in this case, involves allowing ranchers to graze public lands in Grasslands National Park for a reduced fee, provided they can produce habitat on their own lands as well. The project essentially provides two benefits for species at risk: cattle grazing on Grasslands National Park helps produce habitat, and existing habitat outside the Park on privately managed lands is preserved and monitored. The South of the Divide Conservation Action Program Inc., a collaborative partnership of ranchers, government, environmental non-government organizations, and industry, is charged with setting and monitoring the habitat targets for different species at risk. If habitat targets are reached, the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) program, which is funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada, provides results-based incentives to the ranchers.

If done properly, cattle ranching can play an important role in the future of species at risk conservation and biodiversity protection on the Prairies.

This project demonstrates the type of collaboration necessary to conserve species at risk, protect temperate grasslands, and support local livelihoods – key components to ensure that future generations of species at risk, and future generations of ranchers, can enjoy the prairies.

These projects also demonstrate the environmental benefits of cattle production, which receive little attention outside of the Prairies conservation community. It’s true that we need to be mindful of the environmental impacts of beef, specifically the carbon footprint of beef production, but – if done properly – cattle ranching can play an important role in the future of species at risk conservation and biodiversity protection on the Prairies.

Finally, these projects also demonstrate a policy paradigm shift in Canada. The shift centres on recognizing the role of agriculture in biodiversity conservation and finding synergies between the two. I believe these synergies are important to find and highlight because they help us ensure that both food production and wildlife thrive on certain parts of Canada’s vast landscape and that wildlife conservation is not just something that occurs in protected areas, but everywhere.