Drought Watch 2024: Grasslands and Drought Management in Alberta

Photo of a withering grassland

Drought Watch 2024: Grasslands and Drought Management in Alberta

It is essential to ensure the maintenance of Alberta’s grasslands – especially native grasslands – for their significant carbon storage and biodiversity services.  Unfortunately, Alberta’s approach to the conservation and protection of grasslands is a collection of policies and management approaches that are unevenly applied throughout the province, often unenforceable, and lacking in cohesive over-arching goals and objectives.  Climate change impacts will exacerbate the weak approach to grassland conservation because grasslands are particularly susceptible to the impacts of drought induced by climate change.   This is especially concerning in light of the critical drought situation in Alberta, which has recently necessitated water-sharing agreements, a drought response plan, and proposed legislative changes.

In February, we began our series of blog posts on how the protection of our wetlands, forests and grasslands may be a solution to prevent even worse drought conditions in the future. Today’s blog post, the last post in the series, looks at grasslands and drought management in Alberta.

Alberta’s Drought Conditions and Responses

As of June 18th, Alberta is still in stage 4 of 5 in its management response to drought conditions.  There are currently 25 water shortage advisories in place, a significant decrease from the 51 earlier in the year. Despite improvements in volumes and reservoir levels in the last few weeks, some Southern Alberta reservoirs, including the Oldman Reservoir, remain well below normal. The water supply outlooks for May through to September, which are long-term river volume forecasts, are still unchanged from earlier in the year and are below average in many places.

As detailed in our blog post on June 5th, the government has taken significant steps in response to the drought. Four water-sharing agreements have been established, a Drought Response Plan has been released outlining the triggers for declaring a water emergency, and Bill 21 has been tabled to grant the provincial government broader authority to respond to emergencies such as wildfire, flood and drought. This proactive stance by the government is a promising sign for potential policy changes in the future.

Grasslands in Alberta

In Alberta, native prairie can be found in the Grassland Natural Region (comprised of dry mixed, mixed, foothills fescue and northern fescue subregions) and the Central Parkland Natural Subregion of south-east and east-central Alberta.  It can also be found in the Foothills Parkland and Montane natural sub-regions and some “remnant sites” in the Peace River Parkland. [See Cheryl Bradley and Marilyn Neville, Minimizing Surface Disturbance of Alberta’s Native Prairie: Background to Development of Guidelines for the Wind Energy Industry (Lethbridge, AB: Foothills Restoration Forum and Prairie Conservation Forum, 2010)]

Natural Regions and Native Prairie in Prairie and Parkland Alberta

Natural Regions and Native Prairie in Prairie and Parkland Alberta

Grasslands are essential ecosystems from the perspective of biodiversity (providing habitat for many species at risk), as well as for the provision of ecological services such as water quality and carbon sequestration (see Edward Bork and Pascal Badiou, The Importance of Temperate Grasslands in the Global Carbon Cycle (Edmonton: 2017, Ducks Unlimited Canada). Despite this, there are significant and continuing losses of grasslands in Alberta (and elsewhere in North America).

Grasslands and Drought

Given the low and variable rainfall in grassland ecosystems, they are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (Bev Betkowski, “Intense short-term drought is harder on grasslands than previously thought” (January 12, 2024) University of Alberts Folio).  In fact, recent research demonstrates that grasslands are even more susceptible to short-term drought than previously thought (Melinda D. Smith et al., “Extreme drought impacts have been underestimated in grasslands and shrub lands globally” (2024) 121:4 PNAS e2309881120).  At the same time, grasslands contribute significantly to global carbon stores and, especially in Alberta, are an essential source of forage for cattle (Betkowski).

Maintaining plant diversity is essential to ensure the presence of more drought-tolerant species on the landscape (Melinda Smith et al.).  Good management of cattle on the landscape is also vitally important to provide healthy, resilient grassland ecosystems (Michael Brown, “Grazing technique that mirrors natural patterns helps protect grasslands from drought” (February 18, 2022) University of Alberta Folio and Bharat M. Shrestha et al., “Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing Lowers Soil GreenhouseGas Emission Potential by Altering Extracellular Enzyme Activity” (2020) 10 Agronomy 1781).

Grassland Conservation and Management in Alberta

Conservation and management of native grasslands in Alberta occur under several pieces of legislation addressing the use and access to public lands and regulating activities on private lands.  Although the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act does allow for the creation of a type of protected area called heritage rangelands (protected grasslands used for managed grazing activities), the majority of grasslands conservation and management considerations arise in the course of regulating activities that happen to occur on grasslands.

The first determinant of which legislation applies to a particular grassland is whether it occurs on public or private lands.  On public lands, grasslands management primarily occurs through the operation of the Public Lands Act which manages access and use to public lands through various licenses, permits and other statutory authorizations.  Because the government owns public lands, there is much governmental control over how those may be used.

On the other hand, there is less direct governmental control over private lands, although the use of private is not entirely unrestricted. Municipalities have planning and development authority under the Municipal Government Act, which operates to restrict the use of private lands.  As well, provincial legislation regulating industrial activities or providing environmental protection restricts the use of private lands (as do common law requirements, which protect against things like nuisance and trespass).  Whether the land is public or private, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act and its regional plans apply.

The proposed activity type is the second determinant of which legislation applies to a particular grassland.  Numerous pieces of legislation, accompanied by multiple policy and guidance documents, regulate industrial activities in the province (usually on a sector basis).  The general structure of this type of legislation is to restrict activities unless statutory authorization is obtained, at which point the activity may be conducted.  The general thrust of this legislation is to allow the activity to occur while imposing conditions or requirements to avoid, minimize or mitigate harm to the environment and public health.  This can include impacts to native grasslands.

The provincial government has issued numerous policy and guidance documents encouraging the avoidance of native grasslands and minimal disturbance of grasslands by industrial activities (see the Government of Alberta website).  However, by and large, these documents merely encourage rather than require avoidance of and minimal impacts to native grasslands.  In some instances, there may be protective notations or standard conditions relevant to grasslands that restrict activities on public lands. However, the province lacks an overarching grasslands policy that establishes conservation goals and outcomes (such as “no net loss”), addresses risks, and sets strategies specific to the grassland ecosystem.

The result is a collection of guiding principles and management practices that may be unevenly applied throughout the province and are often unenforceable.  This leads to loss and fragmentation of grasslands, decreased biodiversity, negatively impacting drought resiliency, and consequent loss of important carbon sinks, which help mitigate climate change.  The ELC would like to see a comprehensive grasslands policy to address the continuing loss of grasslands and to maintain the biodiversity of these critical landscapes and carbon sinks.

Cover Photo by John Thomas on Unsplash


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