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Nature Conservancy of Canada launches major plan to conserve prairie grasslands

Posted on 13 June 2023 by Matthew Liebenberg
Burrowing owl is an endangered species on the Canadian prairie. Photo by Jason Bantle

By Matthew Liebenberg


The native grasslands on the Canadian prairie continue to disappear at an alarming rate due to various human activities, but an ambitious new plan aims to conserve this important ecosystem.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) announced the Prairie Grasslands Action Plan on World Environment Day, June 5.

It aims to conserve more than 500,000 hectares by 2030, which is an area six times the size of Calgary.

“The Grasslands Action Plan is really the acceleration of our conservation effort across the prairies in Canada,” NCC Saskatchewan Acting Regional Director Cameron Wood said. “Grasslands really are the unsung heroes in Canada. They’re so important for wildlife and biodiversity, but also so many other ways in terms of storing carbon dioxide to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, helping to filter the water that we drink and use through our industries, and being an important driver of our local economy, especially when we look at things like livestock production across the prairies.”

It is one of the most endangered and least protected ecosystems in the world. It is therefore important to conserve what still remains of it, because 80 per cent of prairie grasslands in Canada are already gone.

He noted that this project fits really well within NCC’s overall strategic direction for the rest of the decade.

“We’re looking to double our impact as an organization as a whole looking towards 2030,” he said. “So we really looked at that from a grasslands perspective and how we can highlight the importance, the value and the opportunity that exists in grasslands, and be able to share that with the country as a whole and to share that on international stage and align it.”

The 10-year period leading up to 2030 has been declared on an international level as the decade on ecosystem restoration. Initiatives in countries around the world can make a difference to protect and revive ecosystems.

“We’re seeing a growing recognition across Canada and North America and the globe in terms of the value of grasslands,” he said. “So it’s really a lot of things coming together at the same time that allows us to really lean in and focus on the benefits that we can drive to the prairie of Canada through our conservation work.”

The target of conserving 500,000 hectares across the three prairie provinces by 2030 will be a significant achievement, but in reality this will simply match the rate at which grasslands are destroyed. Native prairie in Canada disappears annually at a rate of 60,000 hectares or 100,000 CFL football fields due to grassland conversion and human activity.

To achieve this conservation target will require a whole new approach with a strong emphasis on partnerships and collaboration.

“That will be a combination of helping to support the land management and stewardship efforts of other groups, collaborating with Indigenous nations, collaborating with industry to be able to maintain the resource as it is, in addition to some of the traditional conservation tools of property acquisition and conservation easements,” he said.

He noted that partnerships have been a big part of NCC’s history to date, but this project will really be accelerating the process of partnership development and working collaboratively with other groups to achieve those common goals.”

“It’s taking all of the best of what we’ve done as an organization in the past, but it’s also taking a renewed approach to conservation and looking at a whole of society approach,” he said. “We’re not just thinking about conservation for the sake of conservation, but really focusing on how that touches all facets of our society, whether it’s the pragmatic benefits of reducing the cost of water filtration to municipalities or contributing to local economies and communities, collaborating very closely with Indigenous nations, the agriculture industry, individual agricultural producers, and really looking at how this type of work contributes to all of those other needs that sometimes in the past were looked at as being in competition with conservation.”

Work is already taking place in the three prairie provinces to achieve the goals of the action plan to conserve grasslands.

A successful $6.9 million fundraising campaign was recently completed to conserve The Yarrow, an ecologically diverse 1,650-hectare property near Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta.

The NCC has secured its largest ever conservation agreement in Manitoba with 21 Farms project near Wawanesa. The nearly 455 hectares include native mixed-grass prairie and other ecosystems, which are protected while the land is still used for livestock grazing.

The NCC has secured about 160 acres in the Cypress Uplands natural area in southwest Saskatchewan through a recent initiative, the Parker conservation project. It is now looking for support to conserve more grasslands in this area. Wood noted that they will look at grassland conservation in all southern areas of the province.

“Obviously, in southwestern Saskatchewan there’s a lot of opportunity throughout the Milk River basin and up into the Sandhills area and Missouri Coteau,” he said. “That’s where we see the greatest densities of grassland existing. So there’ll be a very big focus for us in southwestern Saskatchewan, but also through east-central, where we see those really high rates of loss in recent years.”

According to Wood a fundraising campaign of about $500 million is required to reach the conservation goals of the Prairie Grasslands Action Plan. The NCC will be looking at support from governments, corporate partners, foundations, individual donors and the public at large.

“It is a massive amount of money, but it’s also a massive opportunity,” he said. “It is an incredible investment into grassland conservation that far exceeds anything we’ve ever seen in the past. If people are willing and able to support that, either through helping us to communicate the messages or supporting directly with donations and things like that, they can find out more information by going to prairiegrasslands.ca.”

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