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Partnerships boost conservation efforts in unique sandhills ecosystem

Posted on 24 June 2022 by Matthew Liebenberg

Partnerships and collaboration with various organizations and stakeholders will assist the conservation efforts of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in the sandhills ecosystem of southwest Saskatchewan.

The NCC’s activities take place in an area it refers to as the Southwest Sandhills, which stretches from west of Swift Current to the Alberta border.

The NCC has received a donation of $50,000 from SaskEnergy that will fund sustainable management efforts through research, the creation of conservation plans and the development of partnerships with various stakeholders.

Matthew Braun, program director of working landscapes for NCC in Saskatchewan, welcomed the funding support from SaskEnergy.

“It’s a good boost for the work that we’re doing,” he said. “We’re lucky enough to have a good team and a process in place to make good use of this money to help develop our plans for working in the area, and then to make land purchases and do good land management that benefits the rare species in this unique habitat.”

This area includes the active sand dunes of the Great Sandhills that are constantly being reshaped by wind, as well as sandy prairie and native grassland.

The Southwest Sandhills provide habitat for 39 species at risk, including burrowing owl, chestnut-collared longspur, piping plover, monarch butterfly and little brown myotis, a small insect-eating bat.

These sandhills are also home to the endangered Ord’s kangaroo rat, a desert-dwelling rodent with no close relation to common rats. They have large hind legs that are useful for hopping through a sandy environment.

“It can jump or stride up to two metres at a go, and it kicks sand in the face of a snake if it’s getting into trouble,” he said.

Some plant life in this ecosystem is able to survive in a challenging environment of constantly moving sand.

“There’s some very interesting plants that specialize in those open sand areas that you just don’t see too often,” he said. “It’s a pretty unique place. I think we’re so trained to think of a healthy ecosystem as one where the plants have clamped down all the soil, but in the healthy dune ecosystem there’s soil moving around and that gives plants that have a different life cycle a chance to really do well.”

The life cycle of these plants makes it possible to cope with dry conditions and less fertile sandy soil.

“Perennial grasses that live year after year in the same place come up and spread a little bit, but in the place like a sand dune you end up seeing plants that look almost weedy, because they only come up that one year,” he said. “Then they die off and spread their seed and they need that exposed soil to be able to continue living.”

According to Braun the Southwest Sandhills is a very large area of 1.6 million hectares, of which over 360,000 hectares of land has some form of protection on it.

“That includes land owned by the Government of Saskatchewan under wildlife habitat protection, and there are former provincial and federal community pastures,” he said. “There is the representative area ecological reserve, where you find most of the actual sand dunes. There’s also a variety of protected areas and a few other private conservation lands in that area as well. The area we generally work in is on the edges of that. The land that maybe wasn’t high enough priority to quite make some of these protected areas or just maybe it got missed over for some reason.”

The NCC’s intention will be to add some more hectares to the existing protected and conserved land in the Southwest Sandhills.

“In terms of our fundamental things that we do as an organization, which is land securement through purchased donation or easement, we haven’t actually had any projects in the Sandhills and we’re looking forward to being able to use this money to get those projects started,” he said.

The NCC is partnering with various other organizations, including Nature Saskatchewan and Birds Canada.

“Nature Saskatchewan is a wonderful organization that has a number of great connections in the area,” he said. “Birds Canada is just about wrapping up their five-year data collection for the Saskatchewan Bird Atlas. There are some really important surveys done in the Sandhills area of Saskatchewan that we were able to make use of in our work to help decide where we should work and what kind of work we should be doing in that area.”

NCC’s goal is to develop a 10-year Southwest Sandhills Natural Area Conservation Plan with details about biodiversity targets and threats, partnerships and restoration projects. It will include input from Indigenous advisors and land users, as well as various other agencies and stakeholders. It is also receiving funding from the Government of Canada’s Nature Fund to create this plan.

“One of the relatively recent trends in the conservation world is to focus our efforts on areas of high biodiversity and high value,” he explained. “So instead of scattering our work throughout the province wherever we might have an opportunity, we have over the last number of years tried to focus our attention in specific areas of the province that have a unique set of conditions that we can develop our work around. We have been developing those plans for different parts of the province for the last number of years and we’ve finally been able to get the resources together to tackle what we want to do in the Sandhills part of the province.”

The next step in the process to create a conservation plan will be public engagement events, including a webinar on Aug. 4 and an in-person event on Aug. 13. It will be hosted jointly by the NCC, Nature Saskatchewan and Birds Canada. Participants will include landowners, land managers and land users in the area.

NCC is already working with two community pasture patron groups within the area, which will result in the creation of grazing management plans. In addition, a core working group has been formed to coordinate conservation efforts within the Southwest Sandhills. The information in the conservation plan will assist the NCC’s future priorities, but at the same time these details will be useful to others.

“That’s kind of the great thing about the process and the type of plan that we are using, because it involves partners from a variety of industries and land managers and just different groups with an interest in the area,” he said. “When you start going through and digging into what they want to do, that’s when you start coming up with interesting ways to partner together and work on some of these things.”

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