Nature Canada

Federal Government divesting itself of Canada’s richest grassland habitat

Image of a Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow Photo: Trevor Herriot

Hidden within the federal government’s omnibus assault on Canada’s environmental well being is a single item that will seem small compared to the layoffs at Environment Canada and the evisceration of the Fisheries Act. With climate change research and environmental regulation under attack, it was easy to miss the Harper government’s decision to divest itself of millions of acres of some of the rarest habitat on the continent. I am referring to lands that have always been known in the prairie provinces as “community pastures” or PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) pastures.
Most of this critical habitat is in Saskatchewan where 1.78 million acres or 720,340 hectares in sixty blocks of native grassland have been well managed by the federal government for both grazing and ecological health for 65 years. If you took the fences that surround these community pastures and stretched them out they would reach from Dawson Creek BC to Halifax. One of the pastures, Val Marie, in Sask., is 100,000 acres on its own.  
These are some of the last large chunks of grassland bird habitat in North America. More so than any other landscape — in national or provincial parks or on private land — the old PFRA pastures are vital to the remnant populations of 31 species at risk, including some of Canada’s most endangered birds. Botanists and Grassland birders will tell you that these pastures contain almost all of the best remnants of mixed-grass prairie in Canada–because they have been well-managed and grazed sustainably under federal funding. 
If this decision goes through — and it almost certainly will — the lands will be handed over to the respective prairie provinces where the pastures are located. Provincially run community pastures, with smaller budgets and limited staff, are not in the same league, in terms of scale, sustainable management, or biodiversity. However, the provincial governments have already made it clear that they have no interest in taking on more community pastures. Unless the conservation community is able to draw enough attention to the issue, the Saskatchewan government will almost certainly put the land up for sale some time within the next year or two.
The provincial Lands Branch is rumoured to already have a committee in place to facilitate the privatization. 1.78 million acres that currently have a significant level of federal protection and status under the Species at Risk Act will be privatized and there will be no recourse for anyone to defend some of the most endangered habitat in Canada and its declining species.
This is a conservation crisis that seems destined to go the wrong way simply because it is happening so far from the centres of power and public attention. Most Canadians have no idea that this kind of grassland is a viable ecology worthy of protection; much less that their government just placed it into the hands of those who will almost certainly sell it off. 
Meanwhile, NGOs in the conservation community in Saskatchewan are working with cattle ranchers groups to come up with an alternative proposal to selling Canada’s best remaining native grassland to the highest bidder — an alternative that will continue to allow for sustainable levels of grazing, healthy range management, and rural employment for pasture managers, while protecting vital mixed grass prairie ecosystems for burrowing owls, Sprague’s pipits, swift foxes, and countless other creatures.
Trevor Herriot is a Regina writer and naturalist. He is currently working on a new book based on a three-day walk on a prairie road. His blog Grass Notes is at Thanks for the guest post Trevor!

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