The Manitoba Beef Producers (MBP) wants more of its members to get worried about birds.
About 27 producers, and 17,000 acres, have signed on so far with MBP’s SARPAL pilot in its first year of implementation. SARPAL (Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands), an initiative by Environment and Climate Change Canada to tie farmers with conservation projects protecting species at risk, got another foothold in Manitoba in 2017 with the MBP program. SARPAL promised $750,000 over three years for producers in southwest Manitoba to protect grassland birds.
The province’s other SARPAL programs have also added to those numbers, according to Carol Graham, habitat conservation specialist with the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation. The organization was contracted to deliver the MBP program. Graham estimates that just over 30 farmers have signed on with some type of SARPAL program in the province thus far.
Nationwide, SARPAL has targeted a wide range of species at risk, but grassland birds have got the bulk of the effort in Manitoba. The Turtle Mountain Conservation District’s burrowing owl recovery program and West Souris River Conservation District’s grassland bird program have both gleaned SARPAL support, on top of MBP’s efforts.
As far as Brian Lemon, MBP general manager, is concerned, there should be little difference between bird conservation and the producer’s bottom line.
“What we’re learning with best management practices and the rest is that managing your grazing will help the quality of your grass, will help your pastures, will help your operations and will also help the birds,” he said.
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Christian Artuso, a researcher with Bird Studies Canada, has been a strong advocate for keeping grazing animals on land allocated to grassland bird conservation. Grassland birds are showing the greatest decline of any threatened bird, he argued, something he blames on disappearing grassland and pasture as forage lands are converted to crops and habitat disappears.
Birds like the chestnut-collared longspur have lost most of their population since the ’70s, he said at a recent SARPAL informational meeting in Hartney. The bird, along with the Ferruginous hawk, loggerhead shrike and Sprague’s pipit, features in Artuso’s “big five” species of most concern, many of which once nested as far east as Winnipeg, but are now limited to the livestock-centred areas of western Manitoba.
Grazing animals are critical to maintaining habitat, he later argued, and not only as financial incentive to leave grasslands unbroken. Artuso has tied grazing animals to pushing back bush, as well as providing varied forage heights to support a wider range of species, some of which might prefer longer or shorter grass.
That argument has already played out in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. Originally set aside without livestock, park managers later realized that grazers were needed to mimic the original prairie and its herds of wild bison.
“Grazing is a natural disturbance,” Adrian Sturch, the park’s manager of resource conservation, has posted on the Parks Canada website. “It is essential to a healthy ecosystem.”
The park has since introduced cattle on nine parcels of land.
Manitoba has taken a somewhat different tack to SARPAL than its neighbours to the west. In Saskatchewan, program providers have created a patchwork of options, from results-based agreements that give the farmer free rein in management, as long as targets are met at the end of the term, to programs that fund specific changes to the farm, labelling for direct-marketed meat, or partner programs with existing conservation lands, like Grasslands National Park.
Manitoba’s program, meanwhile, is parcelled into 10-year conservation agreements and is geared to farm-specific projects to enhance habitat, Graham said.
“It will include fencing. It may involve the establishment of cross-fencing and a rotational grazing strategy. It may require beefed-up or alternate watering systems or relocation to kind of get the pasture utilization more efficient,” she said. “We do shrub mowing. For some birds, having the presence of shrubs is a detriment.”
Each plan is tailored to the farm, she said.
The program may one day spread to other regions, providers have said, although western Manitoba may be more conducive to maintaining wide swaths of unbroken grassland than heavier crop-producing regions.
Making a difference?
It’s hard to gauge the impact of the program, Graham said.
Although the program was announced in 2017, most SARPAL projects got underway this year and have only a single year of data.
The program does not expect meaningful results for several years. A single year’s variability might skew results, Graham says, one reason that agreements are set in a 10-year term.
“It does take time for the habitat to respond,” she said. “It does take time for producers to tweak and make those changes, so if we kind of maintain that continuity, I think we have a better way to evaluate in terms of what to offer.”
The program hopes to document changes after about eight years, she added.
“There will probably be changes before that, but it may not be captured in our assessments until that time,” she said.
Artuso assessed baseline populations on 60 participating properties this year, he said.
Regional SARPAL managers have begun evaluating pilot projects and outcomes nationwide, Robin Bloom of Environment and Climate Change Canada said.
“Different regions — and we have five regions in Environment and Climate Change Canada across the country — undertook these kind of pilot projects to see, first of all, what was the receptivity of the industry, and different subsectors of the ag industry, and that really varies across the country,” he said, adding that there has been a “whole menu” of ways that SARPAL has been rolled out since 2015, as is evident in the comparison between Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“What we’re recognizing is that there’s different, what we call styles, of programming that might be appropriate in different situations, and partly because one of the biggest problems or biggest challenges that we have for species at risk is habitat loss,” he said.
The program will look different for a stretch of land that is already best suited and being used as rangeland for livestock, he said. In those cases, the question will be how to enhance the habitat while moving in step with the farmer’s current operations. Where land is at active risk of conversion, he said, those programs may look very different.
“In that situation, you’d be looking at perhaps contracts to keep the habitat as rangeland, first of all,” he said.
Habitat management agreements might add a second, more project-specific layer, he added.
SARPAL projects are now on the back end of the curve as the end of the pilot phase approaches. SARPAL is already slated for ongoing funding, with a similar level of financial support, Bloom said.
Environment and Climate Change Canada will now attempt roll up that “wide menu” of pilot programs and see where resources are best spent once SARPAL enters its next phase.
“Now we’ve got to figure out, what are the costs and what are the reasonable costs for the public to share in that, and how does that vary depending on the threats we’re talking about — the opportunities that producers have to maybe change or not change their operation?” Bloom said.
That process will start over the winter with meetings between the different parties involved in SARPAL, he said.