[Note: The following was first published in the April 2013 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2013 Don H. Meredith
I followed the other vehicles over the rolling, grazed pasture land in the parkland of central Alberta. After passing through a gate, we crossed yet another rise and came upon a large pond at the bottom of a swale, encircled by tall cattails and other riparian vegetation. Unlike other wetlands in pastures, the cattle hadn’t grazed down to the shore of this pond. They were kept out by a well made fence. Upon our approach, shorebirds and waterfowl flushed from the rich variety of plants along the shore, indicating the value of this little oasis to the wildlife that frequented this area.
In this age of governments abrogating their responsibilities to protect the environment, including fish and wildlife habitat, it is left to private individuals and organizations to pick up whatever slack they can. Of course, many conservation organizations, such as the Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA) and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), have been stepping up for many years to preserve wildlife habitat on private lands. It’s not an easy job, requiring many hours of effort and funds.
For example, both the AFGA and the NCC have purchased or otherwise set aside many hectares of private land to preserve habitat. Often the two organizations work together, along with other land trust groups, to acquire these lands. However, land acquisition is not the total answer.
Operation Grassland Community
Individual land owners can also do their part to keep wildlife in our future. Most are concerned about disappearing wildlife and want to help where they can but many do not have the specific information and resources to help out. To address these needs, the AFGA has since 1989 run a very successful program in southeast Alberta called Operation Grassland Community (OGC) that helps prairie land owners preserve wildlife habitat on their lands without negatively affecting their agricultural operations. Operation Grassland Community provides information about how wildlife can help reduce agricultural pests and how important habitat is for both healthy, sustainable crops and wildlife. Often, something as simple as the timing of tilling the land or opening a pasture to grazing can have a significant effect on the survivability of a bird like the burrowing owl. The program has signed up over 300 landholders to protect over 340,000 hectares (840,000 acres) of habitat. Landholders work with OGC staff to develop habitat development plans and are provided financial assistance. The program is completely voluntary and all information about specific properties and owners is kept strictly confidential.
Another program that came on stream in the late 1990s to help ranchers and farmers conserve wildlife is Alternative Land Use Services or ALUS. The Delta Waterfowl Foundation and Keystone Agriculture Producers started ALUS in Manitoba to help farmers and ranchers get paid for providing environmental services from their land. The program encourages individuals, industry and organizations to support those farmers who are managing their lands in a sustainable manner including providing habitat for wildlife. The program has since expanded into four additional provinces: Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
ALUS first came to Alberta in 2010 with a pilot project in the County of Vermillion River (Lloydminster area) where more than 400 hectares of sensitive wildlife habitat have been enhanced. In 2011 the program expanded into Parkland County (west of Edmonton). The county partnered with the Delta Waterfowl Foundation and Cows and Fish (Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society) to provide the program to some of its land owners.
It was with representatives of these groups that I visited that fenced wetland in September of last year. We were on a cattle ranch east of Hasse Lake. The owner had answered an invitation from Parkland County to participate in a pilot ALUS project. With the help of ALUS, the rancher fenced off the riparian vegetation adjacent to Hasse Lake, ensuring that her cattle would not destroy the habitat there and that fewer nutrients would reach the lake from her pastures. As well, ALUS helped her erect a wildlife-friendly fence (non-barbed top wire) around the pond in the middle of the field, including sufficient area for riparian vegetation to grow. Like many potholes in pastures, the pond had been used as a water source for the cattle and all the vegetation around it had been grazed and trampled to oblivion. Again with the help of ALUS, an alternate water source was provided for the cattle.
What does the rancher get in return for setting aside this land? By signed agreement, ALUS pays an annual fee related to the value of what the land would have produced if left in production. Also, ALUS helps pay for the materials required to protect the land. By protecting wetlands, the rancher is helping maintain the water table that supports it, and is helping maintain the biodiversity in the region that helps keep crops and our environment healthy.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Gabriel Clarke, Parkland County Sustainability Coordinator, told me on our trip to the wetland. “A land owner partnering with ALUS not only receives funding to help cover lost production, but society as a whole benefits.”
On this particular day, Gabriel with his colleagues, Jim Fisher from Delta Waterfowl and Kerri O’Shaughnessy from Cows and Fish, came to install two “hen houses” or nesting structures for waterfowl. The houses are placed in the water adjacent to the shore and provide protection from the weather and predators that might frequent the pond. Studies have shown that such structures can increase nest success by as much as 85%.
Kerri O’Shaughnessy told me that baseline environmental information is collected at the start of each ALUS project, and reassessments are made at least every five years. Each assessment documents the plant and animal species on the protected land, providing an indication of the biodiversity and whether it is increasing.
Funding sources for ALUS vary locally. Parkland County ALUS projects are currently being supported with funds and “in-kind” service from the county, Cows and Fish, the Alberta Conservation Association, Wildlife Habitat Canada and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation.
Like Operation Grassland Community, farmers and ranchers participate in ALUS on a strictly voluntary basis. They sign agreements that cover three-year periods, after which the landowner may opt out of the program. The program targets environmentally sensitive land; for example, crucial fish and wildlife habitat or critical sources of water. Eligible projects might include: protecting/creating pollinator (e.g., wild bee) habitat, creating multi-row shelterbelts, enhancing riparian areas, restoring wetlands, creation of wildlife friendly fences and artificial nests for birds.
The amount of land enrolled in the program is capped at 20% unless special consideration is made for a high proportion of environmentally sensitive land. As well, wherever possible, ALUS projects are integrated into other existing conservation projects.
As you can see, if you are a landowner interested in protecting some wildlife habitat on your property, there are options. If programs are not available in your area, perhaps you should contact your county or local conservation group to see about bringing them into your area. What is becoming clear is that you are not going to get help from our federal and provincial governments in the near future.