Thursday 22 April 2021

From Ranches to Classrooms: The Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan

The Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan prides itself on tackling as many issues related to native plants as possible. You’ll find them in the field, in the classroom, and interacting with as many plant lovers as possible. 

“When Covid hit in March 2020, the vast majority of our funding had expired,” says Chet Neufeld, Executive Director. “I had no idea if our future funding would be cancelled, so I spent the next two months writing funding proposals in case our regular funding sources didn’t work out.” As it turned out, most of the regular grants were renewed with greater flexibility given the delay and the change in normal procedures. In addition, three quarters of the additional proposals were awarded so the Society’s cash flow in 2020 was the best they’d ever had. Many of the projects were for up to three years. 

The Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan has two full-time staff: Chet Neufeld and Hilary Pinchbeck, who is the program coordinator. Hilary is responsible for delivering the Rare Plants & Ranchers program. She also looks after lots of the fieldwork for other projects in the southwest of the province as this is where she lives. Contractors are hired to assist with the fieldwork. 

The NPSS staff and contractors took advantage of a dry spell in late summer to get out in the field. “We were out until the third week in September when it got too dry,” Chet says, “And we were out every day for as many days as possible.” 

Nashlyn Pasture is a former PFRA pasture that is now managed by Environment and Climate Change Canada. NPSS was hired to conduct range health assessments and plant species at risk surveys of the 250-square-kilometre site. It was all hands on deck as they placed a frame on the ground and recorded what was growing within that ¼ metre square space. They did this 10 times in every 150-metre transect, examining a total of 520 plots. The assessment followed a standard format to serve as a reference for future assessments. 

As Nashlyn Pasture is a remote site with limited accommodation, and because the pandemic posed certain complications, NPSS could only hire two contractors, but they worked flat out. “Strict Covid protocol and one trailer per person meant they were able to maintain their own bubbles with radio communication and Garmin communication devices overcoming the isolation,” Chet says. 

NPSS was also awarded funding to develop an invasive species strategy for the South of the Divide region (SOD). SOD covers 15,000 square kilometres of southwestern Saskatchewan and the project includes many different elements. “There’s very little data on invasive species in this area, so we hope to fill a void,” Chet says. “We want to work cohesively with the ranchers and other stakeholders to address invasive species and alleviate their impact on native species at risk.” Chet says there are some very large ranches in this area. “We want local adoption of the proposed strategy,” Chet explains. “We want it to be a working document rather than just another shelved report.” 

Future work will involve bringing in sheep to graze on a site invaded by leafy spurge. “It’s a riparian area,” Chet says, “so we wanted to take a conservative approach.” NPSS has also established an iNaturalist project for SOD so anyone doing invasive species work in the area, now or in the future, will be able to add to the results. 

The Native Plant Society is working with the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure to establish a pollinator planting. They have planted a wildflower seed blend in an area that had already been seeded to native grass on Highway 5 near Saskatoon. NPSS will be calling on volunteers to help bolster the number of native plants and increase density by planting some seedlings. “We can space volunteers out if Covid restrictions are still in place,” Chet explains. 

Educational Programs 
The Rare Plants and Ranchers program has been running for over 10 years and is the Society’s largest, longest-running project. NPSS works with the ranchers to help them manage their land to protect native species at risk and prevent invasive species. Over 133,000 acres of native Saskatchewan prairie are enrolled in the program. 

The Native Plants in the Classroom program provides teachers with free printed resources, online games and lesson plans, and Zoom calls so students can talk to a biologist and ask questions. “Going virtual has been an asset,” Chet says. NPSS also provides advice, plants, and seeds to schools that want to establish a native plant teaching garden. Native plants support native pollinators and students are encouraged to keep a nature journal of new pollinator species that show up once they’ve planted native seeds. 

Annual Conference 
The Native Plant Society shifted to a virtual format for their annual conference this year and was pleased with the results. The focus was on Nature to the Rescue and focused on things you can do in your local area. “Sandra Walker’s presentation was unique,” Chet says. “She live-streamed from her kitchen to show us how to cook cattail pollen biscuits, and while they baked she answered questions and described her foraging adventures.” The presentations from the 2021 conference are available on YouTube. Chet says they’re exploring some kind of hybrid system for future conferences with presentations live-streamed or recorded to post at a later date. 

“We can always use volunteers,” Chet says. “You can get your hands dirty outdoors or prepare seed packets from your own home. Critical thinkers are invaluable for reviewing reports and spreadsheets.” If you’re interested, call or email Chet and he’ll find an opportunity that matches your interests.

Photo Credits
Creek - Hilary Pinchbeck
Assessment - Chet Neufeld

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