Canada pledges to protect its land while Saskatchewan stalls

Conservation | Gregory Beatty

We’re well into May and Saskatchewan spring is in full force. Hot, windy weather is blasting across the prairies and that, in turn, has sparked an early forest fire season. As this edition went to press, fires had forced evacuations in communities including La Loche, Clearwater River Dene Nation and the Saulteaux First Nations.

It’s an unsettling situation in a province where many struggle to understand the danger — and sometimes even the reality — of climate change. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about action and “made in Saskatchewan solutions”, but our provincial government’s passion for the extraction industry consistently trumps aggressive climate policy.

But climate change isn’t the only environmental priority Saskatchewan drags its heels on. We’re also bad at protecting our natural habitats and the plants, animals, birds and other life in them.

It wasn’t always thus. Go back a few decades, and Saskatchewan was an active partner in Canada’s early efforts to protect habitat and biodiversity, says Peter Prebble of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

“When I was an MLA I did quite a bit of work in this area,” says Prebble. “We created two ecological reserves — one in the Great Sandhills in southwest Saskatchewan, the other near Dore Lake in northwest Saskatchewan.”

Prebble was an NDP MLA representing Saskatoon in the governments of Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert. Back then, Ottawa and the provinces worked toward protecting 12 per cent of the country’s land and water. Twelve per cent was the international standard at the time.

Does 12 per cent seem low to you? If it does, you’re not alone.

“Last December, the UN held a big biodiversity conference in Montreal,” says Prebble. “One thing that came out of it was a pledge to protect 30 per cent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. But there’s a huge divide between the federal government and provinces on this. Some provinces are clearly not going to cooperate, and Saskatchewan is one of them.”

For Saskatchewan author and naturalist Trevor Herriot, it’s an all-too-familiar story.

“The original 12 per cent target goes back to 1992, when Saskatchewan signed the statement to complete Canada’s network of protected areas,” says Herriot. “Right now we’re at 9.8%, and we haven’t moved beyond that in a long time.

“It’s just another area where Saskatchewan seems to be going in the opposite direction of the rest of the world.”

Sustainable Yes, Extractive No

Herriot is a co-founder of Public Pastures — Public Interests, a prairie-wide organization that advocates for the protection of what PPPI describes as “old growth” grasslands that predate the colonial/settlement era.

Some people have a mistaken impression of what protection involves, says Herriot.

“People have always been on the land, so we want to make sure we’re not excluding traditional practices such as hunting, fishing, medicine gathering, grazing, sustainable use of forest resources and public access,” he says.

Done in an ecologically sensitive manner, these activities can protect and even promote habitat and biodiversity.

Extractive activities, though, are another matter.

“That list is long, and includes the bulldozing of wetlands, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer — all the stuff that goes with extractive agriculture,” says Herriot. “Hydro dams, mining, oil and gas, pipelines, industrial forestry, even wind energy projects. That’s the kind of stuff we’re protecting the land from.”

The type of habitat protected is important too, says Herriot.

“It’s not just about drawing a line in the Arctic or subarctic where very few people live and not a lot of resource development is going on,” he says. “The target is supposed to represent all ecosystems. Most of our lands and species that are at risk are in southern Canada. Each ecozone needs to have a corresponding amount of protection.”

Again, “protection” doesn’t mean hands-off. In the UN regulations, there’s even a provision for Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures (OECM). They give the landholder reasonable flexibility to develop the land, as long as broader habitat and bio-diversity goals are met.

“It’s a new concept that cities like Saskatoon are taking advantage of,” says Herriot. “It’s not new land per se, as places like Beaver Creek and the Swales have always been protected as part of Meewasin. But now they are being designated as protected. And they’re wonderful spaces. Regina should be doing the same. Moose Jaw and other cities could too.”

Delta Blues

Region to region in Canada, different “extractive” activities pose different threats to habitat and biodiversity. In southern Ontario, suburban sprawl is a big threat. On the prairies, the oil, gas and mining industries have well-deserved reputations as environmental villains.

But the biggest impact? It’s actually agriculture.

For decades now, land prices have been climbing. Costs for machinery, fertilizer and other inputs have been rising, too. The result? Smaller “family” farms are squeezed out, replaced by large-scale corporate farms hell-bent on maximizing profits by seeding maximum acres. They plough up grasslands, drain wetlands, and burn bush and tree cover.

“Agriculture is chewing up natural and semi-natural landscapes all the time — really any type of perennial cover that grows without having to be reseeded every year,” says Herriot. “Just have some grass, some bush, willows and wetlands. Is that too much to ask?”

For the Sask. Party government, it apparently is. And that puts Saskatchewan offside with Canada’s new habitat and biodiversity targets, which it committed to at the UN conference.

“Not only has Saskatchewan not updated its target, we’re even going backward by removing protection and conservation management from hundreds of thousands of hectares of Crown land in the south where we can ill afford to lose any,” says Herriot.

“That started with changes to the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act in 2010. It was a tremendous piece of legislation that Grant Devine’s [Progressive Conservative] government brought in [in 1983]. A lot of those lands have now been reclassified and put up for sale,” he says.

Over two million acres of Crown land have been sold since 2007.

To put that in perspective, that’s an area nearly twice the size of Prince Albert National Park.

Prebble offers a blunt assessment of Canada’s ability to honour its international commitments if Saskatchewan doesn’t step up.

“If we don’t cooperate it’s going to make it much harder for the federal government to meet its 30 per cent target,” he says.

Consider the Saskatchewan Delta. It’s a high-priority conservation area in northeast Saskatchewan where the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers merge in their meandering journey from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Winnipeg, and ultimately Hudson’s Bay.

“The federal government is working with Indigenous people to enhance environmental protection on the delta,” says Prebble. “But the irrigation plan that premier Scott Moe is pushing for Lake Diefenbaker would absolutely affect the flow of water that ultimately reaches the delta. What’s required is a joint effort by the federal government, the province, and Indigenous people who live on the delta to map out a plan for areas that require formal protection,” he says.

After significant public pressure, the Saskatchewan government has committed to developing a new wetlands policy.

Herriot is curious to see what the government comes up with.

“Will the policy really protect any percentage of our wetlands, which are being ditched and drained away into Manitoba? That needs to be done. We’re dewatering the prairie in a situation with climate change that could see massive droughts in the future,” says Herriot.

“Grasslands have the capacity to bounce back,” Herriot says. “But it takes work, and it takes funds. And the time to do it is yesterday. Let’s get started.” ■


Save The Swales

The Swales are a precious sliver of prairie grassland just northeast of Saskatoon. The land is home to a diverse range of grassland species, including a critical breeding ground (called a lek) for the endangered sharp-tailed grouse.

The City of Saskatoon has long had designs on the Swales, though. It wants to build a subdivision in the area. And the province has plans to build a perimeter highway to facilitate commuter traffic to and from the booming burgs of Martensville and Warman.

When the city’s development plans first surfaced in 2011, conservationists rallied to protect the Swales. In Saskatchewan, those battles typically don’t go well for nature.

But in late February, the advocacy group Swale Watchers received good news from Saskatoon city council, says Saskatchewan author/naturalist Candace Savage.

During deliberations on what the boundary of the new subdivision should be, city council considered several options that offered varying degrees of protection for the Swales.

“We expected to be disappointed, but council decided to go with the boundaries that had been recommended by the community,” says Savage. “It was a matter of adding another 40 acres. It’s not monumental, but it does mean that the minimum standards, which hopefully will be adequate, may be observed.”

What the city didn’t do is give up the idea of a new subdivision, says Savage. “For Saskatchewan as a whole, we maybe have 20 per cent of original grasslands left — greatly altered, of course, because there aren’t many buffalo around these days. For Saskatoon, it’s less than five per cent. And for Regina, I believe it’s less than one per cent.”

When the city-owned development company Saskatoon Lands does submit a development plan for the land, two essentials that need to be in the plan are adequate buffering and connectivity between the protected zones, says Savage.

“Urban spaces are mentally disorientating and alienating for individual animals,” Savage says. “They also fragment populations. It’s well known that species that exist on actual islands are much more susceptible to extinction than those with broader connections. You get these isolated, inbred populations that aren’t as a [robust].

“With climate change, things are going to have to move, so the need for connection is even stronger,” she says.

While the ultimate fate of the Swales is still to be determined, Savage hopes they will be protected.

She points to a companion initiative that Saskatoon has underway to establish a national urban park.

“When Jonathan Wilkinson was the federal Minister of the Environment, he came to Saskatoon in the summer of 2021 to announce that Canada would be establishing a network of national urban parks,” says Savage.

Toronto already has one: Rouge National Park. Windsor will soon have one too, and cities across Canada are developing their own proposals. In Saskatoon, the process is led by Meewasin Valley Authority.

The prospect of having real conservation in the Swales strengthens Saskatoon’s case that it too deserves a national urban park, says Savage.

“What we think needs to happen at a minimum is that the land within the boundary line be designated as a protected area,” she says. “It would be managed that way, with no development permitted. But the buffers and wildlife corridors that connect those protected areas could be OECMs [Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures].

“There could be soft development like trails, picnic tables and playgrounds,” she says. /Gregory Beatty