Friday, August 12, 2011

Western Producer - A delicate balance at Grasslands National Park

Western Producer - A delicate balance at Grasslands National Park
By Karen Briere
August 4, 2011
Grass. That’s what pioneering ranchers came to southern Saskatchewan to get. That’s what Parks Canada wanted to preserve when it created a national park in the area in the 1980s. Natural prairieland of mixed grass was disappearing before the plow and conversions to tame pastures, but farming the park created friction with ranchers. Ironically, the park’s desire to protect native grasses and plants allowed non-native species to thrive. Regina reporter Karen Briere describes how Parks Canada and ranchers are now working together to create the grazing environment needed to revive the native prairie.
VAL MARIE, Sask. — Cattle are grazing in Grasslands National Park.
That’s a sight some people thought they’d never see after the park began buying land in the 1980s and grazing was viewed as a threat to preserving the mixed short-grass prairie.
The view was among several that put ranchers and park officials at odds until recently.
Work is now underway to remedy that relationship as well as the condition of park land.
“I do personally take accountability for the park missteps of the past and I want to go forward in a better manner,” said park superintendent Katherine Patterson, who has been on the job for two years.
Parks Canada had its own ideas in 1988 about what was good for the grass, and that didn’t include grazing.
Ranchers argued that grazing and disturbance were critical to healthy native prairie. The bison had done it for centuries and cattle more recently.
But for 20 years much of the grass lay idle, grazed only occasionally by wandering wildlife.
Tame species such as crested wheatgrass took over native stands as well as areas in the park that had been cultivated by its previous owners.
“This land has always been grazed by large grazers,” said Patterson. “Antelope and deer nibbling are not enough.”
In 2005, the park was given an exemption from the regulation that prohibited grazing in national parks.
The arrival of bison later that year opened the door to a plan that could eventually see more than 60 percent of the 920 sq. kilometre park grazed.
Bison were preferred over cattle because they were native to the area, said park resource conservation manager Adrian Sturch.
The original 71 head of Plains bison brought from Elk Island National Park have now grown to 240 and graze 44,000 acres in the western part of Grassland’s two blocks.
A long-term grazing experiment began in 2008 on 4,500 acres in the park’s east block and small herds were introduced in the west block.
Darcy Henderson, protected areas ecologist with Environment Canada in Saskatoon, said native prairie is healthiest when grazing occurs.
Some birds and animals find it difficult to thrive in dense grass. Species at risk such as the burrowing owl, mountain plover and McCown’s longspur need some short-cropped grass that grazers create.
Wildflowers also do better under grazing, and birds such as Sprague’s pipit, which prefer dense grass litter, do better when that litter is from native grass rather than alien species.
“For many reasons, the consequences of not grazing large areas of native prairie grasslands for long periods of time are generally negative consequences where the goal is to maintain a diversity of native plants and animals,” said Henderson.
Ranchers Glenn and Greg Kornfeld could tell you that.
They ranch along the park boundary and have watched as the grass went unused and crested wheatgrass took over.
“It’s been frustrating,” said Glenn Kornfeld.
However, they have grazed cattle in the park for the last four years and think things are changing for the better.
“Thirty years ago the government got hold of it and figured they were saving the grassland from the ranchers,” said Greg Kornfeld.
“The park is now realizing they’ve done more harm than good.”
Some of that change of heart stems from employing local ranchers and listening to what long-time residents have to say.
Doug Gillespie was opposed to the park’s creation but was one of the first to sell his land. He also sat on the local advisory committee to the park in the 1980s.
He said park officials would not listen to ranchers who had first-hand knowledge of the grass.
“Not grazing doesn’t work for native grass,” he said. “They had no idea what they were dealing with.”
The grass should be grazed, he said, at least to mitigate fire risk.
However, he acknowledged that things are changing.
“Experience is a great teacher,” Gillespie said. “They’ve gained it and they’re headed in the right direction.”
Sturch said the park service now wants grazing for ecological purposes to increase diversity of species. That may differ from ranchers’ commercial motivation but will achieve the same result — healthy native grass.
Grazing is one tool to restore the ecological integrity of prairie hurt by previous policies. Herbicides and prescribed burning are also being used to control invasive plants and litter buildup.
Sturch said the park service is becoming more flexible in its thinking and appreciates advice from people such as the Kornfeld brothers, who say they are more comfortable now that some of their ranching knowledge is being used.
Ranchers will never be able to rely on park land as a grazing source because the park does not have a mandate to commercially graze, but the recent willingness to work together can benefit everyone and everything living on the grass.
“Don’t let what happened in the last 20 years happen in the next 20,” said Jody Larson, a local rancher who also works as a program policy officer at the park.

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