One of the world’s biggest ecological crises is in Saskatchewan’s own backyard, but according to conservationists, few people in the province are aware of the scope of the problem.
Nearly 70 per cent of prairie grasslands in Canada have already been lost, and more disappears every year, according to Dan Kraus, a Nature Conservancy of Canada conservation scientist.
“When you start looking around at the most endangered ecosystems in the world… the loser that comes up every time are temperate grasslands, which includes our prairie grasslands,” Kraus said. “We’ve actually lost more grasslands than have been lost of the Amazon rainforest.”
Kraus said the grasslands are important because they support rare species, bird migrations, and the ranching economy.
He added that the grasslands also act as a natural sponge.
“When there’s lots of water in the spring, they hold onto it, which can help prevent flooding, and they slowly release it in the summer when we need it the most,” he explained.
Large tracts of native grasslands were converted to farmland after the Prairies were settled more than a century ago. Now grassland losses speed up every time farming methods improve or when there is a spike in commodity prices, according to Trevor Herriot, Public Pastures Public Interest conservation group co-chairman.
As the price of grain goes up, the cost of maintaining grasslands for grazing becomes more difficult, Herriot said.
“It gets more difficult to pay for because you can make more money growing a crop on the same piece of land,” he said.
“We identify ourselves as prairie people, but if there’s no prairie, how are we prairie people anymore?”
Herriot is calling for the federal government to develop a national plan.
“We’re not going to be able to completely restore our grasslands. We can’t get rid of crop and agriculture. It’s still going to be dominant in Saskatchewan,” he said. “But can we find ways to hold onto our remaining native grasslands, manage them well.”
Two to three per cent of the remaining grasslands are disappearing every year, and at this rate, Kraus said, they could be gone in fifty years.
“We’re really kind of at a tipping point. We have two choices: we can either let our prairies slip between our fingers, or we can be the generation that does something to protect them so that they’re there both for people and for nature in the future,” Kraus said.