A CWF conservation expert tells us why insects might be our best ecological allies… and why we must act now to prevent a collapse of the world’s bugs.

The Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes is one of the five largest collections of its kind in the world.

Established in 1886 by James Fletcher, the first official Dominion entomologist, it now contains more than 17 million specimens. Although more than 70 per cent of them originate in Canada, the collection also includes exemplars from all over the world. Many samples are the only known representatives of their species. You might think that a collection such as this would be housed in a special facility designed to preserve the specimens in perpetuity.

Think again. One of the largest and most important insect collections in the world is divided among some 1,500 metal cabinets, many scattered in the hallways of a building on the federal government’s Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

As expansive as this database has become, it may be in the process of becoming even more important. That’s because many of the species in the archive are declining at an alarming rate. Studies from around the world are confirming entomologists’ worst fears.

Without insects, most of the foods we eat, including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and seeds, would disappear or be very limited. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates more than three-quarters of the world’s food crops (equalling $577 billion annually) rely on pollination, primarily by insects.

Not just human food is at risk: insects are also the backbone of terrestrial and aquatic food webs. Many species of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals rely exclusively on insects. Without them, these species would cease to exist, and the predators that rely on these animals for food would starve. Loss of insects would be a grand disruptor to food chains globally. Scientists are already documenting steep declines in some species that rely on insect prey, notably many species of birds.

Moving on to medicines, roughly 7,000 medical compounds prescribed by western doctors are derived from plants. For everything from simple headaches to malaria, plant-derived medicines have provided modern society with a variety of cures and symptom relief, and most of these plants are pollinated by insects.

Insects are also all-star recyclers. They play a vital role in decomposing dead plants and animals and recycling the nutrients into the soil, as well as in aerating the soil as they burrow. Losing insects would thoroughly disrupt agriculture because plants would lack nutrients necessary for growth. Also, the accumulation of dead plants and animals in the environment would cause a putrefied mess.

Insects are vital to ecosystem function and to our very existence, and yet the evidence seems incontrovertible that they are declining. Consider three recent studies. In 2017, a German entomological society found that the overall mass of flying insects in 63 German nature reserves had decreased by 75 per cent over the last three decades. Known as the Krefeld study, researchers found declines in every habitat sampled and concluded that intensive agriculture, with its pesticides, herbicides and simplification of the landscape, was the principal factor in the decline.


A second longitudinal study out of the Caribbean is even more concerning. Published in late 2018 and drawing on data collected in the Luquillo rainforest of Puerto Rico back in the 1970s and 40 years later in the early 2010s, U.S. tropical ecologist Brad Lister revealed a 10- to 60-fold decrease in insect biomass over the four decades. This astounding result is even more troubling considering that the study area is not directly affected by pesticides, herbicides or habitat loss. The data points to climate change: average temperatures in the forest have risen by 2 degrees C since the 1970s.

The third study, published in April this year in the journal Biological Conservation, is a global review of four decades of insect studies by a pair of Australian entomologists. This survey of 73 different studies revealed insect declines on average of 41 per cent and a drop in the total mass of insects of 2.5 per cent a year. The authors calculated the rate of insect species extinction as eight times faster than that of vertebrates. The research identified habitat loss, pesticides, fertilizers, introduced species and disease, and climate change as the primary factors in the decline.

Here in Canada, there are no comparable studies: the focus among entomologists has been on identifying insect species. Still, informal anecdotal evidence suggests a downward trend in the quantity of insects they have collected over the past decades. Environment and Climate Change Canada has a role in listing all species at risk, but this is often a case of too little too late.

Canadians need to focus on reversing declines before it is too late. All government departments relevant to the issue must collaborate on a solution: Environment and Climate Change Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Transport Canada and their provincial counterparts all need to support the health of our insect populations. It is time for creative approach-es to stem the decline, such as integrating insect habitats into the design of buildings, roads, power transmission corridors, rail- roads and farms. It is also time to establish a monitoring framework for flying and aquatic insects across Canada.

What can you do to help? Support CWF’s five-step neonic Ban With a Plan ( Avoid using harmful pesticides or herbicides in your garden or lawn, plant a pollinator-friendly garden, lobby your elected representatives on the issue, and buy from local food producers who do not use harmful chemicals and who support wildlife habitats on their land. Finally, spread the word through your network of family, friends and colleagues — encourage others to take action. Every bit helps.


Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today!

Celebrating World Soil Day

“Essentially, all life depends on the soil … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”
~Charles E. Kellogg


These words of Charles Kellogg are as pertinent today as they were in 1938 when he was quoted. Ask any farmer what is the most important thing that sustains agriculture, and most will tell you soil health.

farmer field snow soil

Truth: Healthy Soil is a “Must” for Agriculture

Why is that? Well, among many things, healthy soils support sustainable food production – for humans as well as for all terrestrial species. Even predators need healthy soil. Healthy soil produces healthy food for their prey.

Healthy soil also helps to control erosion and reduce impacts of drought and flooding.  It cleans and stores freshwater. These are essential functions to supporting life on earth.

And yet, most of us give soil no more than a passing thought. This is probably because the goings on in the soil are invisible to the eye. There are no mega fauna underground.

There are billions of microflora in soil going about their daily business of supporting all terrestrial life on the globe.

Truth: The Greatest Amount of Biodiversity is Found in Soil

When it comes to biodiversity, no other structure on earth is more diverse than soil.

A single gram of soil can support up to 100 billion bacterial cells and an estimate of up to 500,000 species.

And that is only bacteria. The diversity of fungus in soil is immense; fungi make up 90 per cent of the total biomass and in forest soils and 50 per cent in agricultural soils.

Other microflora include actinomycetes, fungi and protozoa. Larger soil fauna include mites, springtails, earthworms, nematodes, ants, termites, many insects and larger organisms such as burrowing mammals.

Truth: Soil Helps Regulate Climate and Climate Change

If the important functions of soil were not enough to elevate the status of soil in your eyes, how about the fact that soil helps to regulate climate and holds a key to mitigating climate change? Soil organisms regulate the dynamics of soil organic matter and soil carbon sequestration. Soil organic carbon captures carbon from the atmosphere and plants then fix carbon in the soil.

Human activities have degraded soil organic carbon.

It is estimated that one third of the world’s soils are now degraded and this has caused the release of 100 Gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Canada is not immune to degradation of soil carbon. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada keeps track of Soil Organic Carbon. The situation has improved in Prairie Canada over the past few decades but has worsened in eastern Canada. See Agri-Food website for an interactive map of soil carbon in Canadian agricultural lands.

Let’s Make Soil Healthy Again!

So what can be done to restore soils to optimal health?

  • crop rotation
  • cover crops
  • ending the destructive practices of draining wetlands
  • stop harvesting peatlands
  • protecting native grasslands: grasslands are a powerhouse of carbon sequestration, storing more than twice the carbon than any other agricultural use.

Healthy soils are so important to life on earth that the United Nations declared World Soil Day to be December 5. This day is an opportunity to celebrate healthy soils and to resolve ourselves to support the restoration of soil health in all countries around the world – for biodiversity, food security and climate change mitigation.

Learn more Canada’s Forests & Fields and how to help.

Why Our Wildlife is Part of What Makes Me Canadian

“These lands and the wildlife that occupy them are an important part of my identity as a Canadian.” ~Carolyn Callaghan, Senior Conservation Biologist, Terrestrial Wildlife

Lake Emerald, Yoho National Park @ Amber Ather

As Canada Day approaches, I am taking time to reflect on my good fortune of living in a country with an abundance of wild lands and wildlife.

UPDATE: Carolyn appeared on Cross Country Checkup on Canada Day 2018! Listen to learn more about unexpected encounters with wild animals.

I have been enormously lucky to have done field work in the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec. From the mini to the mighty, I have studied Lake Trout, elk, wolves, Snowshoe Hares, songbirds, Chorus Frogs, and insect pollinators.

I have followed wildlife to seek answers to numerous conservation questions: What is the habitat quality? How does habitat fragmentation affect wildlife movements? What do wolves eat? How do they survive in the mountains? What drives the Snowshoes Hare’s cycle? What farmland habitats are important to wild pollinators?

Some of the work was glorious, such as watching a wolf pack interact at a den site in a stunning Rocky Mountain valley. Some of it was less glorious, such as collecting wolf scat and later boiling it and investigating the hair of prey animals contained within the stinky scat. Even the latter experience was fun, however, because I was driven to find answers to conservation questions.

It’s Been a Wild Life

Some of the most memorable experiences of my life include encounters I have had with wild animals. Some of these encounters were awe inspiring, such as watching a Grizzly Bear powerfully run up an avalanche path, with its fur rippling along its body.

red fox

Other encounters were highly amusing, such as a discovery I made while studying wolves in Algonquin Park.  One evening I watched a Red Fox pick up a cup in its mouth that my teammate had just set down, and run off with it. Out of curiosity, I followed the fox and it led me to a cache of ‘toys.’ This consisted of some of our bagged and labelled wolf scat. The fox tossed it into the air, ran after it, and then pounced on it again. I was amazed to watch the fox playing with objects that it seemed to have cached for this purpose.

Each spring, I enjoy hearing the calls of the seven species of frogs that live on the farm. My favourite is the Gray Tree Frog, which has a wonderful slow staccato trill and doesn’t begin singing until the spring air warms up to around 20 degrees Celsius. For me, this sound signals the beginning of summer weather.

Hognose snake @ Carolyn Callaghan
Hognose snake @ Carolyn Callaghan

Recently, I encountered a very rare snake in Norfolk County in southern Ontario while sampling pollinators. My colleague Liz Sears nearly stepped on it. When we discovered that it was an Eastern Hognose Snake, it was cause for celebration. The snake rested in my hands and although it flattened its head and hissed, its body was relaxed. This snake lives in sandy soil and uses its hard pointed nose to burrow into the soil.

Our natural heritage in Canada is exquisite and worth protecting and celebrating. From the Common Eastern Bumblebee to the majestic Boreal Caribou, Happy Canada Day!

A Case for Pollinators in Canada

I’ve known that I wanted to be a biologist since I was 11 years old.

As a young girl, some of my fondest memories were the summers my family would go camping. I loved being in the woods. I loved connecting with nature and wildlife.

Many years later, I’m now on a team of dedicated wildlife scientists in Canada, working to develop long-term solutions for some of the most serious and complex environmental issues of our time.

One of these very important issues is the state of Canada’s pollinators.

Canada’s Pollinators are in Jeopardy

High-clearance sprayer working a canola field in Canada.
High-clearance sprayer working a canola field in Canada.

Pollinators — such as bees, butterflies and many others species — face real and serious problems including habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. Insect pollinators are declining around the world. . Without pollinators, our food system will suffer.  We all need insect pollinators to thrive. But here at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we are trying to give them a fighting chance.

How Are We Helping Pollinators?

Senior Conservation Biologist Carolyn Callaghan in the field.
Senior Conservation Biologist Carolyn Callaghan in the field.

Learning more. Research. Research. Research. We need to learn more about pollinators, how they’re coping in their current environments and what habitat improvements will help the most. We are initiating scientific research, in collaboration with one of the world’s leading entomologists Jeff Skevington, to determine what farmland habitats are optimal for insect pollinator abundance and diversity. The knowledge generated from this research will inform farmers on what habitats pollinators need to provide pollination services to their crops.

Make choices about the food they buy in order to support sustainable farming
Understanding the right choices in the market to support sustainable farming.

Savvy Consumers. Alongside research, a goal that we are working hard to develop, are markets for ‘pollinator-friendly’ foods and products. This approach is the most efficient way to make change quickly. When concerned consumers make choices about the food they buy in order to support sustainable farming, real change can happen.

This work will support wild pollinators which play an important role in food production.

Go Neonic Free

When you use systemic chemicals on plants of any kind (whether they’re in your backyard or in farmer’s fields), those chemicals seep into bees’ food sources. Researchers at York University studied the levels of neonicotinoids that Honeybees were exposed to in regions in Canada where corn is grown. It seems these bees were also exposed to the neonicotinoids for longer periods of time than originally believed – about four months to be precise – when they’re hard at work pollinating. They also found that worker bees died quicker than they would have if they hadn’t been exposed to the substance, clothianidin. Moreover, these same bee colonies had a higher risk of losing their queens.


In the end, I wanted to write this: Thank you for your outstanding support of Canada’s environment and the plants and animals that call it home…especially our incredibly hardworking pollinators. Together, we can revolutionize how our food is grown for environmentally sustainable farming, food security, and biodiversity conservation. This is not only possible; it is essential.Medallion Plants

Act today! Our friends at Medallion Plants are generously commitment to triple matching your donation, up to $40,000! Learn more.

Monarch Butterflies Hit Hard This Winter

The latest news on the Monarch Butterfly is cause for deep concern.

Surveys conducted this winter in the Mexican Highlands, where the bulk of the Monarch population overwinters, has revealed that the Monarch population dropped 15% from December 2016 to December 2017.

The population now occupies only 2.48 hectares (ha) of land. Since the counts were initiated, the greatest amount of land occupied was 18.19 ha. The current area of occupation represents a decline of almost 90% since the highest count in 1996. The figure below provides details of the overwintering counts.

monarch overwintering population in mexico
The graph depicts ups and downs in the population over the years, which likely was normal for this species. However, the downward trend without recovery years is very concerning. Over the past six years, the three lowest populations ever were recorded!

Why are Monarchs Declining?

monarch on orange flower

Scientists have listed the main cause of the decline to include habitat destruction on both breeding and wintering habitat. Also, use of pesticides and herbicides on agricultural lands, and climate change impacts have hurt this species. More recent research in the U.S. points the finger at yet another issue: diminished sources of nectar-rich plants along the migratory pathway. Nectar is the fuel that Monarchs need on their incredible journey from Canada to their overwintering grounds. Monarchs need to refuel regularly. The loss of nectaring wildflowers along their migratory path makes it hard for Monarchs to restore their depleted energy reserves. It would be similar to the removal of about one half of all gas stations along our vacation route. We would have difficulty refueling and might run out of gas.

Why did the Monarch Population Decline this Year?

Many of you rejoiced last summer when you saw many adult Monarchs flying in southern Canada. It seemed to be a banner year, especially in Ontario and Quebec. Here at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we held hope that this would be a recovery year. So what happened to the population? One of the main culprits was the fall hurricanes that struck the southern U.S. this fall. Another culprit was the warmer than usual weather, which delayed migration in some parts of Canada and the United States. Both may have also contributed to reduced numbers in 2017.

Climate change brings extreme weather and increasing variability in weather. Climate change scientists predict increasing extreme weather events and more variability of weather. This will not likely be an advantage for the struggling Monarch population.

What is Being Done About the Decline?

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which is tasked with assessing species and recommending listing to the federal government, has recommended that the Monarch be listed as Endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. In Ontario, the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), the group of experts tasked with listing species under the province’s Endangered Species Act, will likely decide this year whether to list the Monarch as Endangered. An endangered listing will spark the creation of a Recovery Strategy with specific conservation action plans.

In addition to government action, there is plenty of good science happening for Monarchs. Maxim Larrivée’s team at the Montreal Insectarium and colleagues are researching whether milkweed is limited in Canada. Milkweed is the host plant that Monarch larvae depend on for survival, and there are several species of Milkweed in Canada. The results of this research will help us to understand the impact of changing land use on Monarch as well as whether we should target restoration of milkweed host plants to aid the recovery of Monarch.

Monarchs grouped

On other science news, a Canadian study led by Tyler Flockhart determined that habitat in Canada contributed a relatively high proportion of the overwintering Monarchs in Mexico, considering Canada comprises a small portion of the total range of Monarch. The research team looked at chemical isotope signatures from Monarchs on the overwintering habitat to determine where the butterflies were born in the previous summer and fall. They found that 12 per cent of the insects were born in the northwestern U.S. and Canadian Prairies, 17 per cent in the north-central States and Ontario, 15 per cent in the northeastern U.S. and the Canadian Maritimes.

What is CWF Doing for the Monarch?

It will take large scale restoration efforts to increase breeding and nectaring habitat. The Canadian Wildlife Federation is forming partnerships with right-of-way corridor (e.g. roadways and hydro-electric) managers to conduct habitat restoration trials, including:

We aim to document the cost and conservation benefits of restoring Monarch habitat, which will inform restoration practices at a large landscape scale.

CWF also continues to engage school groups and citizens like you to plant milkweed and native wildflowers to provide for Monarch during breeding and migration. Everyone can help to restore Monarch habitat!

Let’s Do More for the Monarch!

To compensate for ever increasing impacts of climate change and agricultural intensification, habitat restoration throughout breeding and overwintering habitat will need to overachieve conservation outcomes. In other words, restoration efforts will have to be bigger and better than ever before. It will take a concerted effort of federal, provincial, federal governments as well as private landowners to make this happen. Together, we have to knock it out of the park for the Monarch!

Learn how you can Help the Monarch!

What is the Connection between A Food Policy for Canada and Wildlife?

The Government of Canada recently announced that it is developing a food policy for Canada. I attended a consultation forum to learn what connections exist between such a policy and the conservation of wildlife and habitat.

The Government of Canada indicates that “A Food Policy for Canada will set a long-term vision for the health, environmental, social, and economic goals related to food, while identifying actions we can take in the short term.”

The four themes identified for this policy include:

  • Increasing access to affordable food
  • Improving health and food safety
  • Conserving our soil, water, and air
  • Growing more high-quality food

There is no question that food touches the lives of every Canadian, and none more strongly than those who do not have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. According to the federal government, almost 1.1 million households in Canada experienced food insecurity in 2011-2012. In addition, unhealthy diets affect the health of millions of Canadians. Food safety also affects all of us. There are approximately 4 million episodes of food-related illnesses each year in Canada.

Wildlife Management

The management of wildlife populations is a surprising connection to A Food Policy for Canada. Many northern and indigenous peoples of Canada rely on wild meat to sustain themselves due to the prohibitive cost of food in the grocery store, and that means there is a need for good management of wildlife populations such as caribou and Moose. Climate Change will have significant impacts on the wildlife populations in the north, such as Barren Ground Caribou, and that could cause great food insecurity among northern Canadians.

© Rachel Auger | CWF Photo Club


One of the gaps that immediately came to mind when I read the list of themes is biodiversity. Agricultural land in Canada supports habitat for thousands of species, and all of our agricultural production relies on biodiversity, whether that is the rich microbial life in soils, the pollination services of thousands of pollinating insects, or the predation services on insect pests by beneficial insects. The trend of greater agricultural intensification in Canada can create challenges because a greater proportion of land under intensive production of annual crops supports less biodiversity.

Crop Diversity

Biodiversity also includes the genetic variability of crops and crop diversity, which are an insurance policy against impacts of climate change in the future. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields worldwide, and approximately 75 per cent of the world’s food supply is now provided by only 12 species of plants. A greater diversity of crop varieties is an insurance policy to protect against future uncertainty in agriculture.

The interactions of crops, pests, pathogens, weeds, and climate change are more complex and dynamic than originally understood. Climate change will bring surprises that cannot be predicted in advance, so the best defense to climate change impacts is ensuring our agricultural lands are resilient, and that includes landscape that grow a diversity of crops and crop varieties and sustain habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects and other species.

During the consultation forum, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada officials indicated that they have already received feedback from many Canadians insisting that biodiversity be included in this policy.

Disappearing Farmland

The second gap that comes to mind is farmland security. A Statistics Canada report released in 2014 indicates that since 1971, Canada has lost 3.9 million hectares of prime farmland (class one, two and three), an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island. Urbanization is one of the primary causes of farmland loss in southern Canada.

Have your say in A Food Policy for Canada

The Government of Canada is inviting Canadians to provide their input into A Food Policy for Canada. Online consultation close on July 27, 2017. To complete the survey, click here.

It took me about 10 minutes to fill in the survey. It did not touch on wildlife management, farmland security, or diversity of crop varieties or crop types in agricultural landscapes. If these principles are important to you, you will need to include them in the comment sections.

What is a prairie?

If asked this question, many Canadians might imagine wheat and canola fields extending as far as the eye can see.

Deer in Canola Field

While this image is technically correct – most of Canada’s wheat and canola fields occur in the Prairie region of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba -I am referring to native prairie, lands dominated by native grass species, also known as the Grasslands.

With too much rainfall to be a desert and too little rainfall to be a forest, Grasslands exist at the nexus of continents, at places far from large bodies of water. Grasslands occur in many regions around the world, covering about one quarter of our planet. They can be grouped broadly into two categories:  the Tropical Savannahs of Africa, Australia, South America, and Indonesia, and the Temperate Grasslands of more northerly and southerly regions across the globe.

Temperate Grasslands have many names. In South America they are known as the Pampas, in Southern Africa as the Veldt, in Hungary as Puszta, and in Eurasia as the Steppe. In the USA, they are known as the Great Plains, and here in Canada as the Prairie.

Temperate Grasslands typically have deep, rich soils and have provided grazing habitat for wild and domestic animals over millennia. In many regions they also provide excellent conditions for growing annual crops, and consequently much of their expansive flattish lands have gone under the plough and are now used to grow crops such as the wheat and canola, which is why we easily envision these crops in our minds-eye image of the Canadian Prairies.

A 2008 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicated that temperate grasslands are now considered the most human-altered and threatened ecosystem on the planet, with only 5.5% of these grasslands protected. The plough has reduced native grasslands to a small fraction of their original global distribution.

In the 2010 Ecosystem Status and Trends report of the Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers, native vegetation were estimated to now cover less than 25% of the Prairies Ecozone. Most of this loss of native vegetation occurred prior to the 1990s, but losses, primarily to annual cropland, continue today.

The Prairie Ecozone of Canada spans 465,094 km2, which is almost 5% of Canada’s landmass. It is estimated that over half of the remaining native grassland in Canada is in the Mixed Grass Prairie, which occurs in southern Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. The map below indicates where the Mixed Grass Prairie occurs.

The Prairie Ecozone, showing location of Mixed Grass Prairie, where the majority of native grasslands remain in Canada. Source: Canadian Biodiversity Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010.
The Prairie Ecozone, showing location of Mixed Grass Prairie, where the majority of native grasslands remain in Canada. Source: Canadian Biodiversity Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010.

Where can we still find the wild prairie in Canada?

Although less than one third to one quarter of the original 24 million hectares of Mixed Grass Prairie remains in Canada, this area still contains large tracts of native grassland, primarily occurring on crown lands.

Saskatchewan and Alberta have the lion’s share of our remaining Mixed Grass Prairie, and that is the focus of this blog. Future blogs will feature the grasslands of Manitoba, Ontario, and British Columbia.

The common grasses in the Mixed Grass Prairie include blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), wheatgrasses (Pascopyrum), speargrasses (Hesperostipa), and June grass (Koeleria macrantha).

The most significant sources of our remaining native prairie grasslands include the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) pastures, the Alberta Provincial Grazing Reserves and Allotments, and the Saskatchewan Community Pastures.  These pastures were set aside in Canada’s three Prairie provinces in the 1930s to help reclaim badly eroded soils during the intense drought of the Dirty Thirties. The 85 PFRA lands alone cover a total of 2,256,072 acres, most of which occur within Saskatchewan.

Today, these pastures continue to be managed with the goal of protecting the land from drought, development and intensive cropping impacts, and supporting ranchers. These lands also support a very diverse community of species, including 31 species at risk, such as the Swift Fox and Greater Sage Grouse. It also supports populations of grassland specialists such as the Pronghorn, North America’s fastest land animal.

Pronghorn Antelope
A Pronghorn Antelope in the Mixed Grass Prairie of southwestern Saskatchewan. Photo: Carolyn Callaghan

What Does native prairie look like?

I recently had the opportunity to visit some of Canada’s great native prairie grasslands in the southwestern corner of Saskatchewan, to help out with the Breeding Bird Atlas of Saskatchewan. The photo below givens an indication of what our native Mixed Grass Prairie looks like.

Native Mixed Grass Prairie
Native Mixed Grass Prairie of southwestern Saskatchewan. Photo: Carolyn Callaghan

Threats to Mixed Grass Prairie Grasslands

The remaining intact Mixed Grass Prairie habitat generally has lower soil quality and receives lower amounts of annual precipitation than other regions of the prairie, but the threat of the plough remains, primarily due to the influence of high crop prices on landowner decision making and government policies related to the management and retention of crown grasslands.

In addition to the loss of this habitat, degradation of habitat quality has occurred. The Ecosystem Status and Trend Report of 2010 states that “about 8% of the native rangelands and tame pastures assessed in Alberta and Saskatchewan were considered ‘unhealthy’ as a result of overgrazing and invasion by non‐native plants.”

Despite habitat loss, opportunities exist to conserve and restore remaining large areas of the Mixed Grass Prairie.

Why should native prairie be protected?

Canada’s native prairie grasslands are part of our home and native land. This habitat, with its dry grasses waving in the prairie wind, carries visions of the millions of thundering hooves of the Plains Bison that once roamed across the Great Plains of North America. It is a landscape resilient to extremes of drought and cold. It is unique. It is an important element of our natural heritage. It is to be celebrated and revered. Burrowing owl, black footed ferret, black tailed prairie dog and many other species depend on grasslands for survival. The grasslands depend on you for protection.

Visit and to watch videos filmed in the grasslands and learn more about this important ecosystem and how you can help with prairie conservation efforts.

Results of the Saskatchewan Community Pasture Survey

The Government of Saskatchewan recently announced its intention to end the Saskatchewan Pastures Program and consult on the future management of the 50 pastures totalling 780,000 acres of public grasslands that have never been cultivated.

These grasslands support a high level of biodiversity, including species at risk. The program managed these lands for cattle grazing, whereby private ranchers grazed their cattle for a fee to the government. Such programs, where managed well, can successfully support the grassland ecosystem, species at risk, cattle ranchers, and rural communities.

Overwhelming response from the public to keep these lands public

The Government of Saskatchewan invited input from interested citizens on how these pasture should be managed in the future through an on-line survey. Participants were asked to consider whether current pasture patrons (ranchers) should be given preference to enter into long-term lease agreements, whether the lands should be subdivided and used as a combination of purchased land and land under long-term lease, and if the pastures should continue to be public land.

CWF was concerned that the end of the Saskatchewan Pastures Program would increase the vulnerability of these grasslands to degradation, invasion by alien invasive plant species, cultivation, and sale to private interests that may not be committed to conservation of wildlife and biodiversity values on the pastures.  In Saskatchewan, the greatest threat to native habitat may occur when property changes ownership. We wrote about this issue in our blog on May 5 and encouraged our readers to fill in the survey.

Over 2,000 surveys were completed.  The vast majority of respondents (76%) placed a higher importance on ecological preservation of land over economic opportunities. Nearly 60% of respondents were opposed the idea of selling the land to private interests and would not support the idea of land being sub-divided into smaller parcels for managing, leasing, or selling the land. Opposition to the sale of land was driven by environmental concerns.

Saskatchewan Pastures Program Locations

Citizens are united in their interest to keep Saskatchewan’s public pastures as public lands and manage them for environmental values as well as for cattle grazing. It would also appear as though the Saskatchewan government has listened to the opinion of its citizens. In a press release issued June 15, Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart stated: “After considering the input received through the public engagement process, we have determined that 15-year leases will be offered to interested patron entities. This approach will ensure continued grazing opportunities and environmental stewardship of the land.”

The complete survey results are available at

Thank you to everyone who filled in the survey. You made a difference to the outcome of the government’s decision and helped to build a legacy for our native prairie pastures.

Greener Pastures

Did you know that our native, wild prairie grasslands are at risk?

Grasslands are the most endangered terrestrial ecosystem in the world. They support a high level of biodiversity. In Saskatchewan alone, there are 31 known species at risk in the prairie pastures, including Burrowing Owl, Swift Fox, Black-footed Ferret, Sprague’s Pipit, and Greater Sage Grouse.

The province of Saskatchewan manages almost two million acres of wild prairie under its community pasture program. The total size of these pastures are 1.25 times bigger than Prince Edward Island and include some of the largest remnants of protected native prairie remaining in the world.

PFRA Community Pastures

However, the Saskatchewan Pastures Program is soon ending and the provincial government may sell off approximately one third of the pastures. The Saskatchewan government is inviting participation from the public on how former Saskatchewan Pastures Program pasture land will be owned and operated in the future.

As a part of this process, an online Saskatchewan government survey is available until May 8. You are invited to provide your input.

Before completing the public opinion survey, it would be beneficial to learn more about the history of the Saskatchewan Pastures Program and potential options for the future use of the 50 parcels of land.

Background information is available through the Government of Saskatchewan website. Once you’ve reviewed the information, you are encouraged to fill out the survey:

The Canadian Wildlife Federation also encourages you fill in the comment section.

CWF believes these pastures should remain as public lands. We also believe that the pastures should not be subdivided and should be managed for biodiversity values. Responsible livestock grazing is a key element to managing these pastures for biodiversity.

© Andrea Halwas-Larsen | CWF Photo Club

You can read more about CWF’s positions by following our blogs or emailing

Don’t forget to watch and share the Hinterland Who’s Who vignettes on the grasslands.

And that’s just a start.

Stay tuned for more news and updates from our Greener Pastures blog series.

We could lose 2.3 million acres of prairie habitat if we don’t act now

In 2013, Canada made a promise to the world: that we would protect 17 per cent of terrestrial habitat and inland water in our country by 2020. We currently protect 10 per cent of the land in Canada, but we can do so much more – starting with conserving our prairie grasslands.

The federal government is the midst of transferring ownership of 2.3 million acres of critical prairie habitat. This area is known as the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) community pastures. They were created in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba following the drought and economic depression of the 1930s. The goal was to restore and manage fragile grasslands in the region, including preventing the spread of invasive alien plants and monitoring the area for species at risk. Today, these 87 community pastures are being transferred from federal ownership to the provinces without plans for protection.

PFRA Community Pastures
Over 80 per cent of native prairie has been lost in Canada, and the PFRA community pastures represent a large portion of what remains.

Normally, local management would be something to celebrate; however, these provinces have not committed any funding to protect the species at risk relying on community pastures for food and shelter. In fact, Saskatchewan announced early on that they would like to sell the properties.

There are more than 30 endangered species on the community pastures. What’s more, temperate grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. At CWF, we’re very concerned about the fate of our native grasslands and the at-risk species they support if the plan is to sell off community pastures for private interest. These lands must be protected.

Species at risk on community pastures include the Swift Fox, Greater Sage Grouse, Monarch Butterfly, Burrowing Owl, Northern Leopard Frog, and Black-footed Ferret. Many other plants and animals are also in danger of extinction, including pollinators such as the Western Bumble Bee and the Yellow-banded Bumble Bee.
Species at risk on community pastures include the Swift Fox, Greater Sage Grouse, Monarch Butterfly, Burrowing Owl, Northern Leopard Frog, and Black-footed Ferret. Many other plants and animals are also in danger of extinction, including pollinators such as the Western Bumble Bee and the Yellow-banded Bumble Bee.

Last month, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna met with her counterparts from each of the provinces to discuss Canada’s conservation targets. Conserving the PFRA community pastures should be a key part of Canada’s plan to protect biodiversity and species at risk. Conservation of the PFRA pastures can happen in partnership with the ranchers that have grazed cattle on these lands over decades. Grazing is key to maintaining the wild prairie. Placing these lands in protection is possible, and critical to ensuring that they continue to be wild prairie in perpetuity.

Join me in letting environment ministers know that we believe conserving our prairie grasslands is a priority for Canada.

We can protect 2.3M acres of critical habitat for #SpeciesAtRisk by urging provinces to conserve community pastures.

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Together, we can ensure that our wildlife and wild spaces are protected for generations to come.