Beef producers are conservationists

Manitoba’s beef producers are the single largest collection of conservationists in the province. That may sound like a radical statement to some, but it is in fact a reflection of reality.

It is also a fact that is increasingly becoming recognized by legislators and policy-makers. When announcing the new legislation to protect ecosystems, Hon. Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba minister of conservation and water stewardship stated: “Grazing is an important management practice to maintain healthy grassland ecosystems and populations of species at risk.”

At an event on June 14, 2013 which announced federal funding for wetland and grassland protection, the chair of the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, John Whitaker, noted, “We like cattle producers.”

The view of the general public on beef and the environment is often tainted by commentary on flatulent cows contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. When I hear these stories, I often wonder if these commentators have ever stopped to consider the collective gas production of the millions of bison that roamed the Prairies. It has been noted that the research which led to this point of view is flawed and incomplete. At best, these comments are simply not reflective of cattle production in Manitoba’s northern climate. Nevertheless, the view of beef production as an environmental problem has been stuck in the public mindset. It is time to change that misperception.

Why should our province’s ranchers be acknowledged as being at the front line in habitat and species protection? Because maintaining land in pasture production helps protect biodiversity for a broad range of species — from plants, animals and birds to insects and amphibians.

Species listed under Manitoba’s Endangered Species Act and the federal Species at Risk Act make their homes on both privately and publicly owned pasture land in the province. This is demonstrated by work done on the 409,000 acres of grasslands that are preserved in the community pasture program in Manitoba. Research has shown that these pastures alone provide a home to 33 different species at risk. This does not consider the millions of other private pastures and Crown land leased for grazing.

I have heard it said that if you want to preserve habitat and endangered species you should try to preserve beef producers.

Protecting Lake Winnipeg and moderating flooding should be added to the list. In addition to species and habitat protection, many pastures are home to wetlands and Prairie potholes, helping to both store and filter water. These are two key functions that should be highlighted whenever the perennial Manitoba topics of flood prevention and the health of Lake Winnipeg are raised. It is time that this truth is better understood by Manitobans.

What is the alternative to grazing this land? Clearing and extensive drainage.

Some people may say, “Just leave the land alone for nature.”

But removing grazing and simply setting grassland aside is as bad a conservation practice as clearing and draining. Why? Because nature is not static. Without cattle and grazing, the habitat we see today will be lost as the ecosystems change and evolve. This erosion of habitat is as damaging as any other loss.

I am pleased to see the beginning of recognition of the environmental services provided by Manitoba’s beef producers. Governments are searching for ways to increase protection for vulnerable habitat and species at risk. I believe there are straightforward, market-based solutions that will help society accomplish its conservation goals and give producers the opportunity to continue and expand the practices that generate environmental benefits.

To date, producers have not been compensated for the external environmental benefits that they provide to society. If governments were to amend this shortcoming and provide market-based compensation for the ecosystem services already provided, producers would have adequate economic incentives to increase conservation management practices.

Ecological goods and services pilot projects have been run in Manitoba. One example is the joint Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada/Ducks Unlimited Canada research project at South Tobacco Creek near Miami. Manitoba has also played a leadership role in the investigation of agri-environmental incentive initiatives, such as the development of the Agri-Extension Environment Program and other Best Management Practices (BMP) programs.

Enough work has been done to unequivocally state that programs designed to compensate producers for the delivery of ecological goods and services will increase conservation management practices and accomplish many of society’s environmental objectives. Additional research is not required prior to launching such initiatives.

These societal benefits can be accomplished without rigid legislation and regulation. Market-based environmental incentives are flexible and can be easily adjusted to changing circumstances and new knowledge.

I strongly hold that the most effective stewardship programs are those which are developed in co-operation with the producers who manage the land and water. Programs designed to be voluntary are the most cost-effective ones for Manitoba taxpayers, they will be most successful in delivering long-term environmental results and they will encourage the growth and development of Manitoba’s economy.

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