Grass, sky, gone.

Grass, sky, gone.

Sprague's Pipit (Wildearth Guardians)

The latest ecosystem status and trends report for Canada, released last fall, indicates rapid decline of native grasslands.  Grasslands are among the most endangered ecologies in the world and in Canada.

Many grassland species are endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). 77%, of the 31 species at risk in Alberta rely on grassland habitats.   Under SARA critical habitat must be identified in a recovery strategy to be protected.  Critical habitat identified on federal lands is protected automatically, while identified critical habitat off federal lands can be protected if there is not sufficient provincial protection.   On March 3 2011 documents were posted on the federal Species at Risk Act online registry regarding the protection of critical habitat for  Sprague’s Pipit a tiny grassland bird endangered from breeding habitat loss in Canada.

Sprague’s pipit is not listed as endangered under the Alberta Wildlife Act. Even if it was this act does not protect critical habitat.  Accordingly, it is urgent that critical habitat outside federal lands be identified and included in federal recovery strategies for this species and others.  Although most of the grasslands on which this bird depends are outside federal lands, only federal lands are identified as critical habitat in the recovery strategy.

Inappropriate grassland management regimes (including idling and overgrazing) can result in habitat loss for pipits. Complete loss of grassland habitat invariably results in Sprague’s Pipit populations disappearing from a given area. Habitat degradation (including fragmentation), on the other hand, typically reduces the population, but can lead to local extirpation if the magnitude, frequency and duration of these threats are great enough.

In the wake of “potatogate” what will Alberta do to maintain its wild grasslands?  The recently released advice on the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan offers some suggestions:

  • Identify an integrated network of public and private lands that contribute to the conservation of biodiversity;
  • On public lands, establish conservation management areas that represent important natural features, patterns and processes, and habitats;
  • Conserve critical habitats for species of concern; and
  • Where feasible, and in priority order, avoid, minimize or mitigate the conversion of native grasslands on public lands. Promote their restoration through the use of conservation and stewardship tools, incentives and other stewardship approaches.

Alberta urgently needs to make a clear commitment to protection of remaining native grasslands to prevent extirpation of grassland species.  Instead, the Alberta Government continues to dispose of native grasslands for other uses.

You can comment on the recovery strategy for Sprague’s Pipit online until May 8, 2011.  Consultations on the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan are forthcoming.

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