Thursday, 24 May 2012

PFRA Pastures: Good for Farmers, Good for the Land

“The community pastures are public land, and their resources of life and beauty are part of our heritage.” (Candace Savage) 

In its recent budget, the federal government announced that it would be divesting itself of all the PFRA pastures, turning the land back to the provinces. As a city dweller, I (Penny) wasn’t sure what the consequences would be, so I did some online research.

Assisting Farmers
Drought and severe wind erosion in the Dirty Thirties had a devastating effect on Prairie farms. The federal government stepped in to help and passed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act. Their mandate was to rehabilitate land affected by soil drifting and to develop and promote effective land management practices.

In 1937, the PFRA Act was amended so that the Government could purchase some of the most erosion-prone land. The land was fenced and seeded, creating 16 community pastures that were open to grazing the following year.

There are now 62 federal community pastures in Saskatchewan covering nearly 710,000 hectares. Their mission, according to the 2006-2011 Community Pasture Program – Business Plan, is “to manage a productive, bio-diverse rangeland and to promote environmentally responsible land use and practices. The program does this by utilizing the valuable land resource to complement livestock production. In addition, this program provides stakeholders with expertise and services for the sustainable use of land and water by developing and communicating the best practices in agriculture.” 

Approximately 3,100 producers use the pastures each summer, grazing about 220,000 head of livestock and using over 3,000 bulls in the pasture breeding program. In 2002, over half the costs of the program were recovered through fees paid by local farmers, and this percentage was expected to increase.

Valuable Resource 
The community pastures are a valuable resource for Prairie farmers, providing them with rich pasture for their herds at very reasonable rates. In addition, they are carefully managed to ensure optimal animal operations and avoid over-grazing.

But the pastures also serve to protect a wide variety of plants and animals, including many rare species. Chet Neufeld, Executive Director of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, says that the Dundurn and Rudy-Rosedale PFRA Pastures, as just one example, have a number of rare plant species, including Hairy Prairie Clover, Schweinitz’s Sedge, Beaked Annual Skeletonweed, and Smooth Arid Goosefoot.

In addition, he believes that the pasture is home to rare birds, such as Burrowing Owls, Sprague’s Pipits, Short-Eared Owls, Common Nighthawks, and Barn Swallows.

Environmental Responsibility
Trevor Herriot, author of Grass, Sky, Song, is concerned that the Federal Government is offloading its responsibility for protecting Canada’s endangered species in order “to clear the way for oil and gas and other corporate interest to use the land as they see fit. Giving up 1.78 million acres of the most endangered habitats in the country is a sneaky way for Stephen Harper to wash his hands of its equally endangered species. . . . When are we going to wake up to the truth that laws protecting endangered species are useless without legislation to stop governments from giving up the management of the land critical to their survival?”

In a second article about the PFRA pastures, Herriot says, “The old PFRA pastures represent a critical opportunity to do something lasting and visionary with some of the most ecologically rich grasslands remaining on the continent. We must not let this moment pass without making every effort to find the kind of common ground between cattle grazers and conservationists that will ensure the health of these important remnants of prairie wildness.”

In a letter to the editor of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Candace Savage, author of Prairie: A Natural History, urges Saskatchewan residents to write to their MLA (contact info: http: // mlas/): “tell him or her that you care about the livestock producers and community-pasture staff who rely on these lands for their livelihood. More than that, tell him or her that you care about the prairie's wild inhabitants, which rely on the wide open spaces of cattle country for their very existence.”

Further Information
Federal Pastures to be Offloaded, Trevor Herriot’s Grass Notes
Offloading Federal Pastures: Part 2, Trevor Herriot’s Grass Notes
Action Needed in Order to Save Legacy Pastures, Candace Savage
Saskatchewan’s Environmental Champions: Prairie Farm Rehabilitation