The Nature Conservancy of Canada has identified 453 hectares of land for protection near Wawanesa, Manitoba, which will be added to the non-profit’s lofty goals of conserving 500,000 hectares of grassland by the year 2030.

The land, located 53 kilometres southeast of Brandon, is home to elk, coyotes, American badgers, and birds like the Sprague’s pipit and a large sharp-tailed grouse lek.

On World Environment Day, which took place on June 5 and coincided with Canadian Environment Week, from June 4 to 10, the NCC unveiled the ambitious Prairie Grasslands Action Plan, to care for and conserve one of the world’s endangered and least protected ecosystems — the Prairie grasslands. The 500,000 hectares of land the group seeks to conserve is equivalent to an area six times the size of Calgary, and the plan will take $500 billlion to come to fruition.

The plan is about conserving life across the Prairies, said Kevin Teneycke, regional vice-president of NCC in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“Grasslands continue to have ecological, cultural, spiritual and economic significance. Only by working together can we make a real change,” Teneycke said.

Teneycke calls grasslands nature’s unsung heroes. They are drivers of local economies and essential to food security for people living across the country, but people often don’t realize they’re under threat, Teneycke said.

“People often equate these places that need conservation and are under great threat as being places far away, but these [grasslands] are right in our backyards.”

Grasslands are disappearing quickly, NCC says, with more than 80 per cent of native Prairie grasslands already gone. Every year, 60,000 hectares of Prairie grasslands — equivalent to 100,000 football fields — disappear.

Grasslands provide an essential service to the land by trapping and filtering water on the Prairies, mitigating both floods and droughts, and providing drinking water for communities.

The ecosystems also act like “upside down” forests, with 90 per cent of their biomass hidden underground in vast, deep root systems that absorb carbon dioxide and store billions of tonnes of carbon, acting as natural defences against climate change.

Grasslands are also home to a variety of plants and wildlife that are increasingly threatened by habitat loss. Populations of birds that rely on native grasslands have declined by 90 per cent since 1970, the NCC says.

Currently, the biggest threat to grasslands in the Prairies is land being converted to other uses such as agriculture, and business and property development, Teneycke said.

“That is certainly the biggest threat, but there are other threats to grasslands, too. Invasive species are certainly a concern, and that affects the quality of those grasslands.”

Some of these species include European buckthorn, a species of small tree, the emerald ash borer, a jewel beetle native to northeastern Asia, and wild boars.

Since only a whole-society approach can slow the loss of grasslands, NCC is partnering on projects with local communities, industry, government and other conservation organizations.

“That’s what this action plan is all about. It’s about real, tangible outcomes, but it’s also about education and increasing awareness of how important grasslands are,” Teneycke said.

The NCC has recently conserved a 1,650-hectare project near Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta called “The Yarrow.” The $6.9-million fundraising campaign is now complete, thanks to funding aid from the federal government through the Natural Heritage Conservation Program, part of Canada’s Nature Fund.

The program is a unique public-private partnership to support new protected and conserved areas by securing private lands and private interests in lands. The program is managed by NCC. Federal funds invested in the program are matched with contributions raised by NCC and its partners, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the country’s land trust community.

The benefits that grasslands provide can no longer be overlooked, and the time is now to accelerate the conservation of remaining grasslands, said Tom Lynch-Staunton, regional vice-president of NCC in Alberta.

“For every hectare of grassland that slips away, we not only lose habitat for wildlife and grazing land for cattle but also compromise the resilience of our environment,” he said.

In Saskatchewan, NCC seeks support to conserve grasslands in the Cypress uplands Natural Area in the southwestern part of the province. The uplands, which rise more than 600 metres above the surrounding plains, are the highest elevation east of the Canadian Rockies. Wildlife such as the pronghorn, mule and white-tailed deer, elk and cougars call the area home, and it also has the highest diversity of birds in Saskatchewan, including at-risk species like the burrowing owl, the chestnut-collared longspur, the common nighthawk and the ferruginous hawk.

NCC’s Prairie Grasslands Action Plan brings hope to the Prairies’ remaining grasslands, which are essential for food security and carbon storage, said Michael Murak, an NCC program director in southwestern Saskatchewan.

“Grasslands also support wildlife, and unless we act now to conserve and care for what’s left, remarkable species such as one of my favourites, [the] ferruginous hawk, will be gone forever,” he said.

The vast majority of remaining grasslands on the Prairies are owned by cattle and livestock producers. Beef cattle and production is an effective way to conserve grasslands, sequester carbon and enhance biodiversity, says Duane Thompson, environment committee chair with the Canadian Cattle Association.

“Canadian cattle farmers and ranchers are proud of their role in managing and protecting these at-risk ecosystems and are steadfast in their commitment to maintaining and conserving these ecosystems through continuous involvement,” Thompson said.

Grazing livestock maintain the variety of vegetation heights that grassland birds need, enhance the diversity of plants, and even improve carbon sequestration, Birds Canada’s website states.

The practice of controlled fires also helps to restore and maintain the health of grasslands by providing suitable conditions for a greater variety of plants and animals, since some species need shorter grass to survive, while others need longer, NCC said.

In return, grasslands provide nesting sites, refuge and food for a diverse community of wild pollinators that the agricultural sector relies on to produce food.

Over and above conserving 500,000 hectares of land, Teneycke hopes that the work that NCC and its partners are doing will take root in the consciousness of people across the Prairies, Canada and the world, he said.

“There are opportunities to volunteer with organizations … to get involved with some actual on-the-ground conservation activities and support our initiatives by helping to spread the message.”

By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 22, 2023 at 07:08

This item reprinted with permission from   Brandon Sun   Brandon, Manitoba
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