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For some, the Saskatchewan native grasslands are a remote, isolated expanse. For others, they are home. For everyone in Saskatchewan, they play a large part of the province’s culture and biodiversity. Those who make a living off of this rapidly disappearing ecosystem—ranchers, Indigenous communities, and private landowners—are using it as a grazing resource for their cattle. Like the bison grazing that coexisted with the birds and insects for millennia, cattle grazing, when done mindfully, creates wildlife habitat on rangeland. By monitoring bird and insect populations, the SSGF is getting a more complete picture of how prairie wildlife is adapting to a changing landscape.
Grassland birds can be very particular when it comes to the type of environment they need, not only to survive but to thrive. The increase of native grasslands being broken for annual cropping removes and fragments bird habitat, creating greater distances between appropriate habitat. This becomes problematic when birds need to find mates, raise their young, and still move freely within their habitat. Some species such as Ferruginous Hawks need large, undisturbed landscapes to nest and hunt so they thrive in intact rangelands.
To understand the true effect of lost habitat, we need to be able to monitor bird populations. We can get a snapshot of bird numbers by deploying remote bird-song detectors, known formally as autonomous recording units (ARUs). They are small recording devices that can be left for days at a time to minimize human disturbance and set up all over the province to increase the amount of information gathered. Monitoring can also be done in person by trained professionals but takes significantly more time and effort. Birds Canada is one of the organizations that supplies and deploys ARUs with the help of other partners to ensure monitoring takes place.
The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation offers conservation minded programs that ranchers and landowners can access for both resources and funding to help reach their goals. All of our programs focus on grazing to manage native grasslands with biodiversity benefits. Some examples include the installation of wildlife friendly fencing, addition of cross fencing to better manage grazing, and deferring grazing native until late season while changing management practices of tame forages. With active vegetation monitoring, soil health, bird, and insect monitoring, we can track environmental changes and adapt management practices to ever changing conditions.
Using cattle to graze these rich landscapes can create a grassy mosaic that a variety of bird species need to thrive, breed, and raise their young. Take the Thick-billed Longspur as an example. They need sparse grass for breeding habitat, found nesting on very heavily grazed native prairie. Compare this to Sprague’s Pipits that need light to moderately grazed areas for nesting. Cattle grazing can create a variety of grassland habitats, replicating how the bison used to create a mix of grassland habitats as they moved around the Great Plains. We can control the intensity and duration of grazing in order to create areas that grassland birds need to thrive. The grasslands are also home to a variety of insects that play an integral role in the overall ecosystem health and are the subject of a companion blog by my co-author, John Wilmshurst at the Canadian Wildlife Federation (read the CWF blog post here by co-author).
Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan is also host to two known Greater Sage Grouse leks, an iconic prairie species. For Sage Grouse to successfully mate and raise their young, they need large tracts of native sagebrush grasslands with light to medium grass heights—land that is unsuitable for annual crops.
We know that close to 60% of Canadian grassland birds have disappeared since 1970. Such dramatic changes to native biodiversity is having unknown effects on grassland health, so monitoring and studying the grasslands to understand the declines and work to increase their numbers is essential. We work with native grassland ranchers and landowners to help understand how to conserve these landscapes and maintain the species that depend on them— from insects to birds to mammals including cattle. By working with various organizations such as Birds Canada, South of the Divide Conservation Action Program, the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation, we are able to continue to monitor and understand grassland bird populations in southern Saskatchewan.
Authors: Mindy Hockley, SSGF and John Wilmshurst, CWF
John Wilmshurst is CWF’s Native Grassland Conservation Manager. Working in grassland ecology, management and conservation for over 25 years, John has studied across the Canadian Prairies, East Africa and Europe. His focus has been large grazers, including cattle, but is excited to partner with others passionate about grasslands to learn about all aspects of our beautiful prairies.