Beef producers will lead a new program in Manitoba aimed at improving the habitat — and thereby chances of survival — for grassland birds whose populations are in perilous decline.
Manitoba Beef Producers (MBP) will receive $750,000 from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) over three years to work with cattle producers in southwestern areas of Manitoba, MBP officials said last week.
The program is voluntary and will offer incentives to ranchers for the adoption of various grazing and feeding strategies that maintain and enhance grasslands. Cattle producers in Manitoba now maintain some of the last tracts of land that are habitat for species-at-risk birds such as the ferruginous hawk, the burrowing owl, and others.
The aim is to help farmers continue to use their land as productive cattle land, said Brian Lemon, MBP general manager.
“What’s really unique about this announcement and what makes me really excited about the SARPAL funding is it looks for ways to keep beef cattle on the land while at the same time enhancing the habitats for the species at risk, including a number of grassland birds,” said Lemon.
“This isn’t about choosing one over the other but rather showing how modern cattle production can complement the objectives of the conservation groups to maintain these key habitats.”
Cost-shared incentives and management services will made available to eligible producers under a 10-year agreement. Cattle producers can receive up to $10,000 per quarter section, to a maximum of $50,000 per farm for fencing to improve grazing, water systems designed to improve cattle distribution, control of invasive woody species, complementary pasture establishment and native pasture establishment.
Lemon said MBP sees this as a way for cattle producers to begin telling the public about their stewardship of their land and the environmental benefits of cattle production. Beef producers and species at risk have a long history of coexistence on the landscape, he said.
“I think we need to tell that story,” he said.
So does Christian Artuso, Manitoba program manager of Bird Studies Canada.
Beef producers continue to be these species’ last hope, because they’ve maintained the last vestiges of the Prairie ecosystem these birds depend on, which is grazed grass, said Artuso.
But there’s not much of it left.
“Today we’ve lost most of that prairie, on average 90 per cent and we’ve lost the primary grazer of bison so we need to steward the remaining 10 per cent of the grass. And we need it to be grazed. If it’s not grazed it won’t be prairie anymore. And that comes down to cattle producers,” he said.
The project is supported by grassland bird survey and monitoring work carried out by this organization and the Important Bird Areas (Manitoba program).
Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp. (MHHC) has been contracted by MBP to deliver the project, and will make field staff available to work with producers.
Tim Sopuck, CEO of MHHC, said this program brings recognition to how the beef sector is already seen as part of solution for saving endangered species.
But even as they maintain tens of thousands of acres of grasslands they are also under pressure to convert pasture to annual crops or for urban expansion.
Sopuck said the aim is that the program be beneficial to bird species, but it also must improve the bottom line of cattle producers.
“We don’t want to be making suggestions or recommendations that make operations less profitable,” he said.
“We recognize the pressures for production to go towards annual cropping and away from perennial systems and grazing livestock. At the end of the day maybe the most important thing we will achieve is to help producers stay in cattle production.”
MHHC will be working with the West Souris River Conservation District and the Turtle Mountain Conservation District in its delivery efforts.
The target areas for the MBP program are the Broomhill/Poverty Plains region, the Pierson/Lyleton Grasslands, the Coulter/Blind Souris River Valley, the West Oak Lake/Belleview area and the Pipestone/Maple Lake region.
These tracks of lands are some of the last remaining homes for grassland bird species at risk that also include Sprague’s pipit, the chestnut-collared longspur, and the loggerhead shrike, and Baird’s sparrow.
The MBP project, which will run until March 31, 2019, is one of four taking place in Manitoba under SARPAL.
The other three include the Turtle Mountain Conservation District and Manitoba Sustainable Development’s partnership on a burrowing owl project, and the West Souris River Conservation District’s grasslands birds project working on mapping, surveying and implementing bird-specific Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) are underway.
Manitoba Agriculture is also working to add a species-at-risk component to its existing Environmental Farm Plan Program process and booklet.