The Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, P.C., M.P.
Minister of the Environment and Climate Change
House of Commons
Dear Minister Wilkinson,
As a group of dedicated conservation organizations, we are writing to express our growing concern of the fate of Canada’s grasslands, wetlands and other ecosystems due to the stark challenges being felt today by Canada’s beef farmers and ranchers.
Some of the most important habitats remaining in southern Canada are managed and conserved by beef producers. We are watching the challenges faced by Canada’s beef farmers and ranchers due to COVID-19 through a conservation lens, as we know nothing is more detrimental to the preservation of one of Canada’s most at-risk ecosystems, native grasslands, than for the beef industry to relive hard economic times.
As you know, the early 2000s were a difficult economic period for many Canadian ranchers. Animal health issues took centre stage in 2003 when a case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in a cow in Canada. As a result, international markets closed their borders to Canadian beef almost immediately. The economic consequences for ranching families was devastating, forcing many out of the business.
In addition to the economic impacts, there were negative environmental impacts as well. The BSE crisis led to a rapid and disconcerting acceleration in the loss of our prairie grasslands, wetlands and other critical habitats. Without ranching to provide a sustainable and profitable means of preserving these intact landscapes, they were rapidly converted to other uses, especially annual crop production. Consequently, Canada lost 26,917 ranching operations between 2001-2011 and with them five million acres of grasslands. This is especially concerning since today less than 20% of the grasslands in the Northern Great Plains remain intact.
We recommend that as you analyze the economic losses being endured by Canada’s beef farming and ranching community you also strongly consider the potential environmental impacts including the release of carbon stored in grassland ecosystems, the loss of pollinator habitat, the loss of wetlands, the loss of flood mitigation services and the loss of biological diversity.
Canada’s highly threatened and rapidly diminishing grassland habitats are largely privately owned and managed. Some protected areas do exist, and conservation groups, such as ours, work with ranching families to ensure these critical grasslands continue to exist into the future. Canadian beef producers collectively steward some of the most important habitat we have in Canada. The collateral benefits of grassland stewardship resulting from a healthy beef industry are often overlooked.
Grasslands have long been synonymous with Canada’s prairie provinces. Part of the world’s most endangered terrestrial ecosystem (temperate grasslands), they are the backbone of community culture and the foundation of sustainable ranching economies. More than 60 Species at Risk depend on this habitat and its ongoing management. Species as diverse as Swift Foxes, Poweshiek Skipperling butterflies and Small White Lady’s-slipper orchids depend on Canada’s grasslands, and upon the Canadians who steward them.
Grassland bird species, which have been negatively impacted by declining cattle production and associated grassland loss, are experiencing among the highest avian population declines in Canada and North America. According to the 2019 State of Canada’s Birds Report, grassland birds have declined by 57% since the 1970s and native prairie obligates have declined by a staggering 87%. The primary steward of the remaining grasslands in Canada is the beef industry.
Many in the grasslands conservation community were relieved when the financial viability of Canada’s ranching sector began to rebound. A healthy beef industry is an important conservation partner, and with their support, enables us to conserve what’s left of Canada’s grasslands. As conservationists, we are not oblivious to the individual financial realities of our farmers and ranchers. The Canadian beef industry must be able to compete economically on the agricultural landscape to conserve and restore grassland habitats.
We recognize that conservation groups raising concerns about the viability of farms and ranches may appear to be unrelated to the work we do. The simple answer is that actions that impact cattle, grasslands and wildlife go hand-in-hand in Canada.
During the BSE crisis, we didn’t fully appreciate how financially hard times for beef producers would quickly transcend into habitat loss. Today, we have a far better understanding of the extent of habitat loss we could face and encourage swift action.
We thank you for your consideration of our concerns; should you have further questions about the connection between the beef industry and the conservation of grasslands and other critical habitats, we would be pleased to discuss this matter at your convenience.
Yours in Conservation,
Karla Guyn, CEO, Ducks Unlimited Canada
Steven Price, President, Birds Canada
Kevin Teneycke, President Regional Vice President-Manitoba Region, Nature Conservancy Canada