Cattle play role in bird habitat

Bird populations have declined on the Canadian Prairies as grassland areas have shrunk rapidly

As a rancher, Kristine Tapley’s passions are split between the large ruminants she raises and the land that sustains them — sort of.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m less interested in the cattle and more interested in using cattle as a tool to protect and maintain grasslands, because I think there are so many benefits,” she explained. “Grasslands help with biodiversity and habitat, with water management and quality, they prevent erosion and they sequester carbon.”

A newly released study by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative titled the State of North America’s Birds agrees there are massive benefits to having healthy grasslands and areas of forage available to bird species, but rings alarm bells about declining acres and the impact shrinking habitat has on Prairie bird species.

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The multilateral study points to livestock grazing as a key method of preserving grasslands and bird habitat, noting that “one-third of all grassland bird species are on the watch list due to steeply declining populations and threats to habitat.”

It goes on to state birds that breed on the Great Plains of Canada and the United States before overwintering in Mexico have seen a remarkably steep decline since 1970 as a result, with populations plunging nearly 70 per cent.

“This report confirms that MFGA’s interest in keeping Manitoba’s grasslands intact is on the right track, however, it also very much signals a sense of urgency for these threatened ecosystems and the decline of our grassland birds is a definite alarm bell in that regard,” says Henry Nelson, vice-chair of the Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association and co-chair of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s environment committee.

“Things are definitely changing for our agricultural lands. We know that from a climate change perspective and now from this NABCI report, on our declining grassland bird populations. We also know that maintaining intact grasslands offers a solution to both situations in the form of carbon sinks and wildlife habitat, as well as the vast benefits to clean air and water, flood and drought mitigation and soil health.”

Tim Sopuck, chief executive officer for Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, agrees that the relationship between range health and biodiversity is an important one.

“The big challenge is conserving and enhancing native range. The good news is that many approaches that improve range health also improve the bottom line for cattle producers, as well as biodiversity,” said Sopuck.

But maintaining grasslands isn’t without cost and Nelson would like to see producers compensated for conservation efforts. However, he acknowledges that making a compensation system work requires political will and public understanding of why healthy grassland and forge is important.

“I think our job is to find the background information so that governments can justify doing that,” he said. “It should really not be looked on as a subsidy when you are providing a benefit to society. So I think we have to create a political system with market incentives and fiscal policies that reward us for doing the right thing on the landscape.”

Studies like that released by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative help provide the type of third-party validation needed to convince both the public and politicians that grasslands are important, Nelson added, noting MFGA is currently in discussions with the International Institute for Sustainable Development about ways to quantify the importance of grasslands, while also examining how public policy can protect them.

Tapley, who also works as a research technician at the University of Manitoba, knows the value of concrete evidence as well.

“We need to back it up, we can’t just romanticize,” she said. “And as an industry we need to keep looking for other parties and other stakeholders who have an interest in the same thing we do.”

She is also keenly aware of the role that government can play in helping to preserve and restore habitat. Four years ago Tapley and her husband purchased an abandoned gravel pit. With the help of the province’s Orphaned/Abandoned Mine Site Rehabilitation Program they have turned it into a prairie grassland.

“It is a fabulous program,” she said, adding more birds are flocking to the area now that it’s been returned to a natural state. However, it is the symbiosis between the cattle and the land that really makes it work.

“Just because you can get something to grow there once, it doesn’t mean that it’s a healthy grassland, you need grazers to come in and put all those nutrients back down on the ground and then have them cycle over and over again,” she said. “Sustainability really has to be at the forefront.”

The natural symbiosis between grasslands and large grazing animals like cattle provides excellent bird habitat among other benefits.

The natural symbiosis between grasslands and large grazing animals like cattle provides excellent bird habitat among other benefits.
photo: Gord Gilmour

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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