“Grasslands are one of the most threatened terrestrial ecosystems in the world,” says Mickenzie Plemel-Stronks, a DUC conservation program specialist whose work concentrates on Alberta’s cattle industry.
In a world where much of our native habitat is increasingly put at risk from human activity and development, that alarming claim underscores the vital need for grassland conservation. The importance of Alberta’s grasslands is also reinforced when one considers that the Great Plains of North America are recognized as one of the top four grassland biomes on the planet alongside the African savanna, the pampas of Argentina and the steppes of the former Soviet Union. Fortunately, thanks to the expanding work of DUC and others in the conservation community with Alberta’s beef sector, the prospect of maintaining the province’s prairie grassland habitat looks more promising.
To the uninitiated, Alberta’s grasslands appear to be a healthy, extensive and uninspiring monoculture. However, Plemel-Stronks says nothing could be further from the truth.
“The biodiversity of native grassland habitat is amazing,” she says. “In a single five-acre plot of prairie, there can be up to 100 different species of plants. Add to that the diversity of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and more that occupy that small parcel of land for all or part of their life history. It quickly becomes evident that what may appear from a distance to be relatively homogeneous is anything but. Every single species plays an important role in maintaining the health of the complex ecological web of grasslands.”
Prairie habitats are fragile, complex
“We sometimes don’t think about the impact of losing a single species,” says Plemel-Stronks. “Each species has an important function; if you remove one, it affects the whole web. Wetlands and creeks, grass and shrub lands, fish, birds and other wildlife—they’re all connected.”
Alberta’s grasslands have been altered significantly since settlement began some 150 years ago. It’s estimated that 74 per cent of Canada’s native grasslands have been lost and converted to other land uses. Further, prairie fires that were once a regularly occurring event that helped maintain the health of these landscapes are now suppressed which allows the encroachment of invasive weeds and non-native grassland plants to establish. Bison, elk and antelope used to roam Alberta’s prairies in vast numbers as did wolves. Sage grouse have all but disappeared and many other bird species that depend on intact grassland habitat are in decline.
But it’s not all bad news, says Plemel-Stronks.
“More than ever before people are recognizing the many ecological services that grasslands provide and the benefits that they provide to our communities; that is resulting in greater support to conserve them. Beyond providing critical habitat, grasslands play an important role in filtering impurities from the air and water. They also promote soil health, reduce soil erosion and act as carbon sinks. In fact, grasslands are one of Canada’s greatest natural assets in mitigating climate change.”
Environmental benefits and services are also important to cattle producers
“The beef industry has become one of the best advocates for grassland conservation,” says Plemel-Stronks. “Wildlife, including waterfowl, need healthy water and grass, just as cattle do. And cattle are good at sharing; they co-exist well with wildlife. As such, DUC has a deep appreciation for Alberta’s cattle industry and a lot of shared interests.”
The alignment of DUC and the cattle industry has led to the development of several DUC programs for beef producers. Conservation easements, for example, provide producers with financial compensation for agreeing to not drain their wetlands or break native prairie. And where native grasslands have already been lost, DUC’s forage program offers producers financial incentives applied to seed costs for land put back into perennial cover.
“Perennial cover like tame grasses used for haying or grazing is preferred to annual crops when it comes to maintaining important ecological functions,” says Plemel-Stronks.
But despite a somewhat dismal past for Alberta’s native grasslands, there’s optimism for the future and she suggests, and all Albertans can play a role.
“When the importance of grasslands was not well understood, people didn’t care about them and didn’t work to conserve them. Fortunately, that’s changing. I would also encourage everyone to make time to explore Alberta’s grasslands—they’ll be surprised at their beauty and diversity.”