“Presently in Alberta only 10 million acres [40,470 km2] of the 23 million acres comprising the Grassland Natural Region remain in a native state. Of the remaining prairie, 40 percent of the native vegetation land base is private land, with the rest in Crown ownership. According to the Alberta Prairie Conservation Forum, Alberta has experienced significant losses of important native prairie habitat. The majority of the native prairie landscape has been transformed by agriculture, industrial development and urbanization. Seventy-three percent of Alberta's ‘at risk’ wildlife species rely on native prairie habitats.”
- Alberta Fish and Game Press Release, December 1, 2004
The government continues to sell native prairie for cultivation, allows increasing oil and gas operations and other industry to continue to fragment the region, resists formally protecting additional areas, and does a poor job at protecting those areas that are protected by allowing industrial activity to continue. Alberta’s grasslands have been increasingly altered and destroyed through sod-busting, invasive species, poor grazing practices, climate change, industrial agriculture, roads and other linear disturbances, and oil and gas. Wind farms and coalbed methane are more recent threats. The central parkland region has only remnants of native vegetation left with only a few opportunities for extensive protected areas.
Key issues affecting the Grassland Natural Region at this time are the following:
In the Northern Great Plains generally, including Alberta:
- Large oil and gas reserves exist in the grasslands of Alberta and Saskatchewan. As of 2003, there were 104,000 active oil and gas wells in the Canadian prairies. Oil and gas activity and coalbed methane development continue at a rapid pace.
- The plains bison, once a keystone species of the grasslands, is for all practical purposes ecologically extinct. Of the 500,000 now in existence in North America, only 4 percent (about 19,000) are in conservation herds. None of the Great Plains herds are free-ranging. The long-term viability of these herds is compromised by small herd size, non-native diseases, unnatural culling practices, cattle gene introgression, and lack of a coordinated management strategy, among other factors.
- The black-tailed prairie dog, another Great Plains keystone species, has been reduced to less than 2 percent of its former range. In the U.S., it continues to be shot, poisoned, and hunted for recreation.
- The black-footed ferret, North America’s most endangered mammal, is found only in the Great Plains and now numbers approximately 400 animals in the wild. Sylvatic plague, introduced from Asia, threatens both prairie dogs and ferrets.
- Grassland birds are undergoing greater and more widespread decline than any other ecological guild of North American birds.
- Alteration of grassland fire regimes has had large-scale effects.
- Dams, irrigation, and other water diversions threaten rivers and streams.
- Non-native plant species (and non-native diseases) are invading the remaining native prairie landscapes.
- Roads and other linear disturbances continue to be constructed, fragmenting prairie ecosystems.
- Climate change has been identified as one of the key impacts to prairie biodiversity. A gradual reduction of tree and shrub cover is predicted, along with a decrease in mid-grasses and an increase in short-grasses.
- The current ongoing transfer, with no public involvement, of the public lands referred to as Tax Recovery Lands to municipal districts. This is resulting in the privatization of great tracts of native prairie.
- Possible dam development on the Milk River within the Twin River Heritage Rangeland Natural Area.
- EnCana's proposal to drill 1,275 gas wells and associated infrastructure, including 22km of pipeline, in the Suffield National Wildlife Area, which was designated in 2003.
- A proposal to develop wind energy projects in a buffer zone around Cypress Hills Provincial Park that was designated by the county for native rangeland preservation.
- The proposed 24-hour opening of the Wild Horse Border Crossing, with the associated proposal that Highway 41 become a major transportation corridor to the oil sands.
- Sale of native prairie public lands without broad public knowledge and without commitment to the preservation of high conservation value native prairie.
- The Alberta government’s request to reintroduce the sale to end-users of 2 percent liquid strychnine after a 17-year ban due to concerns about human health and the incidental poisoning of domestic animals and at-risk species.
Windmill in Milk River Ridge - credit: S. Bray
In 2005, 16 bison were released in Montana’s high plains to roam wild as their ancestors did over a hundred years ago. With two more releases as well as the birth of calves, that herd totals 76 healthy bison (2009). Seventy bison were released in 2006 in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park where bison had not roamed for about 150 years. The release of these wild bison into native prairie is part of a vision that has grown over the past two decades: to restore large portions of the Northern Great Plains to their former beauty and ecological integrity.
Human communities of the Northern Great Plains are also at an ecological and economic crossroads. Drought, faltering agricultural commodities in the global market, and declining income are rapidly changing human demographic patterns in the area. As this socioeconomic transformation occurs, there is an opportunity to re-vision what the region can become. We can begin by rebuilding the biotic integrity of the grasslands while creating a more diversified and sustainable economic base for the region. Several studies have demonstrated that communities located near natural areas offering diverse outdoor recreational activities are more robust economically than communities that are not.
What is Needed?
The IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) promotes the establishment and effective management of a worldwide, representative network of protected areas. It recognizes that terrestrial grasslands are among the most diverse and productive of the earth’s biomes, yet have received very low levels of protection. With the population expansion and the rapid rate of industrial development in Alberta, the urgency of protecting and restoring the richness and diversity of our ocean of grass has never been greater. We know what is needed – now is the time for action.
Establishing protected areas is central to conservation efforts, but surrounding buffer areas must also be maintained. Protected areas must be of sufficient size to allow for viable wildlife populations, and secure wildlife corridors must connect protected areas for the purposes of migration and population dispersal. Some of the longest reaches of undammed rivers in North America exist in the Northern Great Plains, providing opportunities to conserve representative habitat for fish and other aquatic and riparian species.
In Alberta, only 1 percent of the grasslands has been protected and the government aims to protect a mere 2.3 percent. This is a far cry from the 12 percent suggested by WWF’s Endangered Spaces program, and it also falls far short of the 8 percent of the Grasslands Region identified as priority lands by a provincial Special Places report.
What AWA is Doing
AWA has worked for many years to secure protection of public lands where specific conservation goals can be achieved. Conservancy organizations have worked hard at establishing conservation easements on deeded lands, helping to reduce fragmentation of habitat by filling in gaps public land does not cover.
AWA Areas of Concern Within Grassland and Parkland Natural Regions
- Grassland natural region (96,425km2)
- Dry Mixedgrass and Mixedgrass subregions
- Milk River Ridge
- Red Deer River
- Bow River
- Oldman River
- Milk River - Sage Creek
- Pakowki Lake
- Cypress Hills
- Middle Sand Hills (including the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area)
- Northern Fescue subregion
- Rumsey Natural Area
- Kirkpatrick Prairie
- Hand Hills
- Foothills Fescue subregion
- Central Parkland natural region (53,413 km2)
In a 1998 issue of Parks on the IUCN Grasslands Protected Areas program, Bill Henwood of Parks Canada, noted that temperate grasslands have long awaited their due recognition as valuable habitats worthy of protection and that many initiatives and programs indicated this emerging recognition. However, these initiatives often fail to address many grassland and parkland concerns and threats on the ground; these require local groups and citizens to take action, a role for which AWA is particularly suited.
Sunset over Milk River canyon - credit: C. Wallis
Prairie Conservation Forum (PCF)
AWA is one of 40 members of the PCF which was formed in 1989 to implement the Prairie Conservation Action Plan (PCAP), a World Wildlife Fund five-year strategy to influence policy and attitudes for conserving, protecting and managing native prairie and parkland species, communities and habitats in Canada’s three prairie provinces.
Successive five-year plans have been prepared based on a vision to ensure the conservation of native prairie, the recognition of its intrinsic values and its benefits for human communities, and a mandate to encourage local community involvement and ensure all stakeholders work cooperatively to achieve conservation objectives.
The PCF’s goals are to raise public awareness and information about management issues pertaining to prairie and parkland landscapes, habitats and species; develop and implement broad conservation strategies and focused initiatives; influence government policies, programs and regulations that favour the conservation while preserving cultural and economic values; and adopt land-use management practices and protective strategies that sustain diverse ecosystems across the whole prairie and parkland landscape.
Because the PCF is not advocacy-based, the membership and involvement of AWA and other conservation groups with PCF is vital.For more information, go to www.albertapcf.org.
Northern Plains Conservation Network (NPCN)
AWA joined with other grassroots, regional, and national conservation organizations in 2000 to form the NPCN in order to chart a future that integrates conservation with the renewal of the human communities and economy of the Northern Great Plain. The goal is to develop a vision and conservation plan for the Northern Great Plains to address the challenge of biodiversity conservation in the context of sweeping socioeconomic changes.
“Our premise is that there is power in working with, rather than against, the natural processes that shaped the plants and animals attuned to this landscape.” (NPCN News Release, Feb. 27, 2004)
Among NPCN’s principles for conservation efforts are promotion of sound stewardship of public and private lands, recognition of the cultural importance of land and wildlife for many people, the benefits of conservation for local communities and economies, and the importance of partnerships between conservationists and local communities.Short-term efforts to improve the conservation landscape include the following:
- Expanding the amount of land designated as reserves or managed primarily for biodiversity conservation.
- Promoting ecologically sustainable management in both the agricultural and non-agricultural portions of the landscape that prevents further loss of native prairie, limits spread of non-native species, and leads to widespread adoption of grazing practices that restore and maintain native prairie habitats and species diversity.
- Restoring populations of native species and securing their long-term viability, including restoration of ecologically functional populations of bison.
- Ensuring that flows in the Missouri River system and its significant tributaries, including the Milk River, can support the full complement of aquatic and riparian species.
Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC)
AWA has participated in CEC’s tri-national meetings on grasslands to develop a shared vision and North American Grassland Strategy for the conservation and sustainable use of grasslands. There are species that are common to and move between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. The goal is to sustain the ecological integrity and viability of grassland landscapes in North America by aligning relevant environmental, economic, and cultural values and activities. This includes:
- promoting habitat conservation and management activities that foster prevention and reversal of declines and restoration of species and habitats;
- encouraging the minimization of human disturbances;
- encouraging the creation of markets for environmentally produced agricultural goods;
- facilitating improved laws, regulations, policies, and programs favouring grassland conservation;
- supporting ecosystem restoration of degraded grasslands;
- increasing awareness of the worth of the environmental services provided by grasslands;
- promoting the efforts of landowners/managers who conserve grasslands;
- promoting consistent long-term monitoring techniques and research, and a common terminology;
- strengthening the capacity of a wide array of sectors to conserve the continent's grassland biodiversity; and
- promoting wide public involvement in the conservation, sustainable use, and equitable sharing of benefits of grassland biodiversity.