If you care about the special beauty of the prairie-if you want to know that there will be wild, wide open spaces of natural grassland for your children's children to enjoy - there is something you can do. It will only take a few minutes, but it could affect the health of the prairie ecosystem for generations.
What's at stake are some of the largest unfragmented expanses of grasslands anywhere in the world. For the last 70 years, these lands, which comprise an astonishing 929,000 ha, or 2.3 million acres, across the Canadian prairies, have been managed by the federal government as PFRA (now AESB) Community Pastures. Of the 85 pastures in the system, 60 are located in Saskatchewan, with a total expanse of 729,000 ha, or 1.8 million acres. Together, they constitute almost 16 per cent of the natural prairie that survives in this province.
Initially instituted to protect fragile, erosion-prone soils during the Thirties' drought, the federal Community Pasture program has ended up delivering a bonanza of economic and environmental benefits. Thanks to decades of conscientious management, the pastures currently provide both quality grazing to livestock producers (on a fee-for-service basis) and quality habitat for the prairie's unique and uniquely imperiled plants and animals.
Did you know that, in recent decades, prairie birds have suffered the most severe and widespread declines of any habitat group on the continent? In the face of these kinds of losses, the Community Pastures have become a landscape of hope for many of the grassland's beleaguered species.
The buffalo ecosystem was shaped by grazing, and on the Community Pastures, grazing by cattle is managed to meet the needs of a diverse array of living things, from burrowing owls to yellow-bellied racers and from swift foxes to ferruginous hawks. In Saskatchewan alone, 31 endangered and threatened species are known to occur on the grasslands of the federal Community Pastures.
But the government of Canada giveth and the government taketh away, and these days, the Community Pastures are themselves in serious jeopardy. According to a press release issued last month by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the entire Community Pasture program is on a fast track to extinction. Apparently oblivious to the wisdom of a previous generation, who saw with their own eyes the toll a severe drought could take on these sensitive lands, Mr. Ritz has decided that the pastures no longer require co-ordinated oversight or long-term protection. Instead, the land is to be off-loaded piecemeal onto the provinces (since it is mostly provincial Crown land), with the first 10 properties to be transferred by the 2013-14 grazing season. Five of the first orphaned pastures will be in Saskatchewan.
The Community Pastures are public land, and their resources of life and beauty are part of our heritage. The hard-won knowledge gained over decades by Community Pasture staff, as they have grappled with the successive challenges of grazing management, endangered-species conservation, and oil-and-gas development, is a collective accomplishment. Yet to Mr. Ritz, poof, it is just so much dust in the wind. Assets that took decades to acquire could be gone in an instant.
And this is where you and I come into the picture. The land and its creatures can't speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them. Sadly, I don't have much faith in our ability to communicate with Mr. Ritz or his colleagues in the House of Commons. (If the courts couldn't stop them from dismantling the Wheat Board, what chance do mere citizens have?) But I am guardedly hopeful that our provincial representatives will listen to our concerns about how these important lands should be managed in the future.
The big, bold prairie landscapes of the Community Pastures are perfectly adapted for use as grazing lands. Whatever else happens, they must be protected from cultivation and carefully managed for livestock production. So please take a few minutes to write to your MLA (you'll find contact information at http://www.legassembly.sk.ca/mlas/) and tell him or her that you care about the livestock producers and Community Pasture staff who rely on these lands for their livelihood. More than that, tell him or her that you care about the prairie's wild inhabitants, which rely on the wide open spaces of cattle country for their very existence.
A prudent rancher always reserves grass as "carryover" for the following year. The Community Pastures are our carryover for the future.
Saskatoon and Eastend, Sask.
(Note: Savage is the author of Prairie: a Natural History)