Prairie Nature Legacy: A Land Exchange for Conservation
The federal Community Pasture Program was created in the 1930s to reclaim land that was badly eroded during the Prairie drought. The Program reached its goal to return more than 145,000 hectares of poor-quality cultivated lands to grass cover. It has also made the area much more agriculturally productive. Because the program was successful, in 2012, the Government decided to end the program and allow to revert back the control and administration of these pastures to original owners. In most cases, the original owners are the Prairie provinces.
This assessment reviewed the potential impacts on the environment of transferring ownership of 3 pastures, Govenlock, Nashlyn and Battle Creek, from the Province of Saskatchewan to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). This land transfer was an opportunity to acquire important habitat for wildlife. The Department is most interested in managing lands of high conservation value for the recovery of species at risk and the conservation of migratory birds. ECCC intends to manage these former community pastures as a conservation area, and in consultation with stakeholders and Indigenous peoples will develop a management plan to guide actions and decision-making for the area. Well-managed grazing is an essential activity to conserve species at risk and migratory birds that live on the prairie grasslands. The species on the grasslands have evolved under the pressure of grazing bison and research has shown that without this disturbance, the health of prairie grasslands will decline over time, which in turn will decrease habitat quality. Cattle grazing will be an important habitat management activity and local ranchers will gain access to the area through grazing agreements with ECCC. The Department will develop an annual cattle grazing plan to guide habitat management of the area once acquired. In the long term, ECCC would like to designate these lands as a National Wildlife Area under the Canada Wildlife Act. ECCC will consult with stakeholders and others on this proposal following acquisition.
As a science-based practical conservation organization, ECCC is well placed to partner with the local ranching community, academia, Indigenous peoples, and government to maintain habitat quality and to oversee the protection of this conservation area established from the former community pastures.
The expected outcomes of this land exchange include:
- Expand the ECCC protected areas network and contribute towards Canada’s commitment to protect 25% land and inland water areas by 2025
- Mitigate loss and boost potential recovery of species at risk, as well as maintain critical habitat and conserve important migratory bird habitat. Keep species at risk and their critical habitat on federal property, thereby protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA)
- Maintain and manage critical habitat through grazing which is ideal for the species that rely on it. This would be accomplished through agreements with local ranchers who will continue to use the pastures for grazing cattle
This initiative will contribute positively to the following Federal Sustainable Development Strategy goals and targets and the environmentally-related 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- Sustainably managed lands and forests: The initiative will establish a conservation area that will contribute to sustainably managed forests and lands. Specifically, it will help to meet the area-based targets. Conserving these areas will also contribute to the 2030 Agenda, particularly its Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 Life on Land.
- Sustainable food: The initiative includes working with ranching partners to ensure that ecosystems which require grazing are effectively maintained for biodiversity. This will contribute to the long-term sustainability of human food (cattle) production. Promoting sustainable agriculture will also contribute SDG 3 Zero Hunger.
- Healthy wildlife populations: The initiative will provide long-term protection of species at risk critical habitat identified on these community pastures. It will also protect habitat for over 100 migratory bird species. This protection will contribute to the recovery of a variety of species at risk and help maintain healthy wildlife populations. Protecting critical habitats for species at risk will also contribute to SDG 15 Life on Land.
- Effective action on climate change: The initiative will expand and strengthen the protected areas network. Protected areas play a critical role in addressing climate change by enhancing the ability of nearby areas to recover from disturbances, providing safe refuge for species and helping maintain genetic diversity. Expanding and strengthening the protected areas network will also contribute to SDG 13 Climate Action.
The conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable use are critical for human health as good human health relies on a healthy environment. Protecting healthy ecosystems helps ensure that they will continue to function and provide the services that our economy and well-being depend on, such as filtering our air and water.
Overall, making a conservation area out of these former community pastures provides a chance to acquire, conserve and manage nearly 80,000 hectares of native prairie, which is not only the most endangered ecosystem in the world, but is also rich in critical habitat for species at risk. This initiative would enable ECCC to demonstrate a strong, long term, and meaningful collaboration with local ranchers to manage grasslands for the benefit of species at risk while also helping the agricultural sector and local communities in rural Saskatchewan.
It should be noted that any possible social and economic impacts of the creation of protected areas are carefully evaluated during the protected areas establishment process.
ECCC will develop a long term management plan for the new conservation area, and will have staff in place to monitor activities in line with conservation objectives. Activities included in the management plan will be tracked on an annual basis.
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