The first phase of the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) program in Saskatchewan is nearing completion in 2020. The SARPAL program works with agricultural producers on voluntary stewardship initiatives to support the recovery of species at risk on agricultural land. To understand its effectiveness and benefits for participating producers, Beef Business sat down with Dr. Dana Reiter, a post-doctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, to discuss her research with 36 producers involved in the program.
Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) received SARPAL funding through Environment and Climate Change Canada to work with producers on the program with South of the Divide Conservation Action Program Inc. (SODCAP) acting as the delivery agent (see sidebar). Reiter did an independent evaluation of the SARPAL program through the University of B.C. funded by the Post-doctoral Fellowship under the Mitacs program. While many programs are evaluated from an outcomes-perspective, she took a unique approach by getting the viewpoints of the program participants for their perspectives on its implementation. “That’s a view that’s under-represented,” she added. “I don’t know how anybody can make policy without talking to the people who are directly affected by that policy. It’s important for policymakers to hear their voices.” Reiter’s work may be used to assist in developing the potential next phase of SARPAL to better meet the needs of producers.
SARPAL was well-received by the participating ranchers and the program had broad support. “The whole idea,” says Reiter, “was to work with producers to help them preserve species at risk on their ranches” as well as to remain viable. Her research illustrated that producers found that both were possible.
The producers also appreciated that the program wasn’t prescriptive, nor did it change what they were doing in their grass management. They preferred the results-based model because it accommodated for uncontrolled factors like drought. “When I started my research, they were in the middle of a three-year drought,” she noted.
Another positive aspect of the program for producers was the use of a local agent to deliver the program, in contrast to some programs with an anonymous person from far away who doesn’t understand their local situation. Both SSGA and SODCAP have ranchers at all levels of their organizations, many of whom themselves live in the unique ecosystem of southwest Saskatchewan. “Good rangeland management is good for all species,” Reiter said. “They are making their decisions for the long-term and what’s good for cattle is good for species at risk.” SSGA and SODCAP would understand the need by selling off some cattle or grazing an area they didn’t want to graze to remain viable. “They really appreciate the fact that the SARPAL program was designed with that in mind,” she said. The producers also very much appreciated that SSGA and SODCAP met with them personally to create workable and viable contracts.
A key message that emerged in the research was that producers were already following management practices to preserve species and protect habitat. Ranchers have been “really, really great stewards of the land for generations,” said Reiter. Most of the ranchers she interviewed were on the land for three or more generations. “They’ve always known that they need to protect the grass to be a viable operation, and they know that their cattle grazing on grassland is very good for all species,” she said. For producers this was another positive aspect of the SARPAL program, and it gave them a feeling of recognition for the positive conservation work that they were doing.
The research also looked at any changes producers had to make to participate in the program. “The producers found that they didn’t change an awful lot of their management practices to participate in SARPAL, which is one of the things that they appreciated about the program,” she noted. “They did make a few changes and learnt a bit more about species at risk and how they help to protect their species and habitat while maintaining a viable ranch.”
This is a message that Reiter wants to get out to Canadians. “Ranchers are not only providing safe food for Canadians,” she noted. “They are also providing really valuable stewardship of the last native temperate grasslands in the country.” That’s another point that emerged: the ranchers stressed that this is the last remaining temperate grasslands – an important, yet fragile ecosystem that is under siege. “In a way, they’re managing that land for all Canadians,” Reiter explained. “Canadians should know that if they support species at risk conservation and conservation of habitat, they should support these types of programs with their tax dollars.”
Because they are good stewards of the land, the ranchers would like to be rewarded for doing the same work as environmental non-government organizations (NGO) that receive substantial government funding to protect the environment and species at risk habitat. “That’s why government programs like SARPAL, which are supported by taxpayer dollars, should be supported and increased,” she said. While the NGOs take land out of production, the ranchers can protect habitat and keep the land profitable, contributing to the local and national economies.
In the course of her research, Reiter encountered people outside the industry who recognized the value of grassland management by producers. One interview with an NGO employer made the strong point that keeping ranchers on the land and supporting ranching livelihood is the only way to achieve desired outcomes of species at risk habitat and species at risk protection and to adapt to climate change and other environmental issues. The recognition was welcome because ranchers had expressed frustration in their interviews with media misinformation about their industry. They want their story told. “I think it’s underrepresented information,” Reiter said.
Producers are interested in species preservation, but they still need to be profitable to survive. Some ranchers not in the study have expressed doubts that they can do both. However, the results of the SARPAL program show that it is possible to conserve habitat and be profitable. The program provides some recognition for the grass management practices of participating producers.
At the same time, there is a financial cost for rancher stewardship. “It’s costing them money to keep that land in native grass,” said Reiter. “If they are providing that service to the Canadian public as a whole, they should be rewarded for that.” She also noted that, to increase profits, the ranchers could choose other practices that would be irresponsible to the land like overgrazing and overstocking, or they could sell out and fragment the native grass for crop farming. Instead, they have chosen to be good stewards to keep the grass viable for generations to come. Good stewardship is a sound long-term operational decision.
The ranchers expressed their concern for preserving the unique heritage of the native grasslands. When the native grass is broken up and fragmented in this unique area, a vital habitat is being decimated, they maintained. “It wasn’t just about them and their personal properties and rangeland,” Reiter conveyed their concern for the land. “If people keep breaking up that habitat, you are losing a really core centre of species at risk habitat.” She doesn’t think this part of the story gets enough attention. “Canadians need to be aware that this is some of the most unique of ecosystems here that can really make a big difference for species at risk in Canada.” The Milk River Watershed in the southwestern Saskatchewan area is a very important region for species at risk, where they thrive. SARPAL focused on certain species, including Prairie Loggerhead Shrike, Greater Sage Grouse, Sprague’s Pipit, Northern Leopard Frog, Chestnut Collared Longspur, Swift Fox, and McCown’s Longspur.
The research found that the SARPAL program provided a wide sweep of benefits. One of the biggest findings was the rancher stewardship aspect. The program helped ranchers continue with their rangeland management to support conservation, while providing healthy, local food for society, and protect the temperate grasslands where a lot of species at risk reside. The ranchers are also contributing to the national economy through their production output as well as to the fragile local economy in rural communities where they reside. Reiter said these results send a strong message to Canadian society, “Canadians, as a country and society, if we value species at risk and want to preserve them, then we need to support programs like SARPAL.”
Although the ranchers appreciated learning about the species at risk on their land, they also recommended broadening the focus and taking a multi-species approach. They pointed out that the species that aren’t at risk were also flourishing which was also positive. For example, deer and antelope are thriving and expanding. The ranchers want to keep their grassland as healthy as possible for generations to come for all species to thrive there. She summarized their point, “If the cattle are happy, then all the species are happy on that land.”
“Species are coming back because areas are being made viable for them,” Reiter said. She cited the example of the Grasslands National Park (GNP) which had not been grazed for the last 20 years, ostensibly to preserve species at risk. At that time, grassland ecologists thought that taking it out of production was the best practice. Notably, these species at risk moved onto grazed land next to the park. Grassland ecologists have since changed their thinking. Grazing was reintroduced to the GNP in recent years when the park collaborated with the SSGA on a grass bank pilot project, using managed grazing by local ranchers.
Reiter asked the ranchers for their ideas about improving SARPAL programming. In general, they were satisfied with the program and its implementation. They suggested improvements could be made on the funding side. Under the five-year SARPAL program, many of them signed contracts for less than three years. A longer funding term, like 10 years, would provide more security and would allow them to develop long-term planning for their ranches. A higher level of funding would allow ranchers to put more land into the program. It would also mean more ranchers could participate in the program and devote more land to habitat protection.
Reiter noted that at least one rancher felt the program should be expanded beyond the South of the Divide region because other areas of the province had significant species at risk habitat and the potential to make a difference. However, the reality of the current program funding means that resources cannot be spread too thinly. More funding to influence more producers to come into the program.
While the ranchers appreciated the funding from SARPAL, the level was insufficient to create real behavioural change. The participating ranchers only tweaked their rangeland management, but for those ranchers who would have to change their practices substantially to participate, the costs would be too high. The funding would not be an incentive to change their behaviour. “If you actually want to create behaviour change,” she said. “fund it so they can offer higher incentives.”
The ranchers also suggested breaks at the local level to incentivize producers to participate in conservation, such as tax benefits from the rural municipality for keeping their native grass or credits at the federal level for sequestering carbon.
Starting in November, Reiter will expand her research to look at producers involved in SARPAL in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba and she will revisit Saskatchewan. Funded by a Liber Ero Post-doctoral Fellowship, she’s collaborating with SODCAP Inc. and Dr. Jeremy Pittman of the University of Waterloo, and Dr Lael Parrott of the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. They will prepare a final report to help Environment and Climate Change Canada and the local delivery agents in each province improve the program.
As Reiter concludes this phase of the research, there’s a couple of messages emerging overwhelmingly from her data that she wants Canadians to hear. “Producers value this type of programming and if the Canadian public wants to protect species at risk and their habitat, then they should absolutely be made aware of the value of the SARPAL program and what ranchers are doing with their rangeland management to protect species at risk and their habitat,” Reiter maintained, adding that society needs to become serious about funding a successful program like SARPAL.
To conclude, she wants to make sure Canadians know about another research finding: “I think it’s really important that the general public feels really good about buying Canadian beef because, if they buy Canadian beef, they know it’s a safe, healthy food source for their family, and that’s a way to support the industry and producers who are supporting habitat and species at risk,” she stated.
For Reiter, “the most powerful part of this research is getting this directly from the producers, talking to the ranchers in in-depth interviews.” She appreciates that they took time from their busy lives to participate in her research. “I’d like to express my gratitude for that.”
What is SARPAL?
Environment and Climate Change Canada introduced the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) initiative in 2015 with a federal allocation of $2.9 million annually for the first phase. SARPAL works across Canada with farmers on voluntary stewardship initiatives to support the recovery of species at risk on agricultural land. In 2016 the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) received $2.58 million from SARPAL to work with its members-producers in Saskatchewan industry to support rangeland sustainability, species conservation and recovery of species at risk in ways that also benefit farmers and ranchers.
The federal government led the development of a Multi-Species Action Plan which focused on 13 species at risk. The South of the Divide Conservation Action Program Inc. (SODCAP Inc.) was developed as a partnership between stakeholders and government to implement recovery measures relating to the South of the Divide Multi-Species Action Plan. SODCAP Inc. operates by a board of directors that includes representatives from the agriculture sector, energy sector, environmental NGOs, as well as the local, provincial and federal environmental ministries. The Multi-Species Action Plan was officially signed in November 2017 and identifies critical habitat for 13 species and over 60 recovery measures to recover species at risk. It has identified 1 million acres of critical habitat. All critical habitat is native grass. There is a strong correlation between native grasslands and critical habitat.