Environment

The future of natural prairie pastures

The federal government’s decision to dismantle its prairie pasture reclamation program has left Saskatchewan selling off public land
  • Mar 31, 2013
  • 785 words
  • 4 minutes
Photo: Branimir Gjetvaj Expand Image
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Saskatchewan has 62 pastures currently under PRFA management (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

On a frosty January morning, 200 people crowd into a Saskatoon community hall for an urgent meeting. As they wait to begin, chatting about the weather and cattle prices — things that matter to livestock producers like them — a screen shows photos of wild prairie dotted with cattle and slung under magnificent skies (above). The images remind them of what really matters most today: vast areas of native grassland are about to be transferred from a 78-year-old tried-and-true system to one that could put rural communities and the prairie ecosystem at risk.

At issue is the stewardship of 9,300 square kilometres of mostly natural prairie — land untouched by the plow — that the federal government’s Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) has managed since 1935. The system extends across the agricultural zone of the Prairie provinces in 87 blocks and includes some of the largest surviving expanses of natural grassland in Canada. Initially established to reclaim fragile lands from erosion and local economies from the financial collapse caused by the decade-long prairie dust bowl drought, the PFRA has evolved into an internationally acclaimed model of sustainable development, delivering both quality grazing to livestock producers (on a feefor- service basis) and quality habitat for the prairie’s unique — and uniquely imperilled — plants and animals.

Last April, the federal government announced its decision to dismantle the pasture program over a five-year period, on the grounds that it has achieved its original goal, “having returned more than 145,000 hectares of poor-quality cultivated lands to grass cover, significantly improving the ecological value of these lands and helping to increase the productivity of the area.”

But according to Branimir Gjetvaj, a director with Nature Saskatchewan, the timing couldn’t be worse. “Prairie habitats continue to be degraded and lost,” he says. “That’s why there are more species at risk on the grasslands than in any other part of Canada. We should be doing more to protect prairie, not walking away from it.”

Most of the territory currently under PFRA management is public land that will revert to the provinces once federal oversight ends. This creates a particular challenge for Saskatchewan, which has most of the pastures (62) and most of the land (7,200 square kilometres).

“Many of you would like to see the federal government continue the program the way it’s been,” Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture Lyle Stewart told the meeting in January. “Frankly, so would I.”

Stewart is determined to get the pastures under private management and, where possible, into private ownership as quickly and seamlessly as he can — with the proviso that the door is open only to current grazing clients, or “patrons,” of the PFRA system. He has also agreed that pastures will be sold only as complete units and will be subject to legal prohibitions against cultivation or drainage. The transfer of the first 10 pastures, all of which are in Saskatchewan, is scheduled to take place in 2013, with terms currently under negotiation.

“There’s one bedrock principle that I believe we can all agree on,” Stewart told the crowd, “and that is that patrons are the priority.” Yet not everyone at the meeting, which included users of most of Saskatchewan’s PFRA pastures, was ready to accept Stewart’s plan. Joanne Brochu, a patron of the Hazel Dell pasture in eastcentral Saskatchewan, says that all she can see in the province’s terms is “more longterm debt” and the certain prospect of being “forced out of the cattle industry.”

“I used to think that all there was to the PFRA system was you load up your cattle in the spring and wait for the pasture manager to phone you to bring them home in the fall,” she told the gathering. But her research revealed there’s much more involved, including the management of land, livestock, species at risk and invasive species — an overwhelming prospect for numerous patrons, many of whom run small-scale operations.

By day’s end, the assembly had voted to establish the Community Pasture Patron’s Association of Saskatchewan, with the objective of slowing down the process and making sure that all alternatives are considered. They took their inspiration from patrons in Manitoba, where the government’s tentative plan is to keep the land in public ownership and maintain current operations as nearly as possible.

But that doesn’t seem to be an option in Saskatchewan. “If this selling off of public land were happening in the United States, they’d be screaming bloody murder,” says Mert Taylor, a PFRA rider and managers union representative. “But here, we just don’t care enough. We let it happen.”

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