While their business is beef, Prairie livestock producers are also being urged to remember the pastures and grassland they manage are critical habitat for many migratory birds.
Migratory bird populations have dropped sharply worldwide, with many grassland bird species high on the list of priorities for conservation action. Beef farmers and ranchers own or manage approximately 21 million hectares of grass pastures in Canada that are also prime habitat for these birds.
The list of grassland birds in Canada that find safe haven on cattle pasture land includes everything from threatened Sprague’s Pipits and endangered Burrowing Owls and Bobolinks, to Western Meadowlarks and Swainson’s Hawks, among over 200 different species. The greatest threat to these migratory bird populations is loss of habitat, said Jon McCracken, a biologist and national director of Bird Studies Canada, a not-for-profit bird conservation organization.
“The decline of migratory birds is a global phenomenon that we are experiencing here in Canada,” said McCracken. “For grassland birds, the biggest issue has been the loss of grasslands, whether native prairie, rangeland or hay-fields. If it weren’t for the cattle industry, we’d have lost many of these threatened bird species already.”
While the cattle industry provides an important economic justification for maintaining grasslands on the landscape, the activity of cattle grazing is also very important from an ecological perspective, said Dr. Nicola Koper, an associate professor and researcher in terrestrial ecology at the University of Manitoba. “The cattle themselves have become an integral part of healthy grassland ecosystems, which evolved under the presence of grazers such as bison. Cattle now provide the disturbance necessary to drive ecological cycles and support biodiversity.”
In general, the same good grazing management practices that support sustainable cattle production also support good bird habitat, said Koper.
That’s not to say there aren’t key parts of management to fine tune and take a closer look at, she said. “We’ve come a long way in improving grazing management, for example by managing stocking densities. Supporting ongoing research is one of the best ways we can continue to improve.”
Ultimately, the greatest challenge may come from economics. The economic viability of beef cattle production in Canada has been poor in recent years, leading numerous producers to exit the industry.
“We need to recognize there is more at stake here and find ways to keep beef grazing viable,” said Reid. “I think the pathway we need to head down is toward building incentives and support programs that reward producers for the role they play as ecological stewards.”
Current industry practices have been supported by the long-time experience of cattlemen as well as by a broad range of research related to both cattle management and grassland management, said Lynn Grant, a Val Marie, Sask., rancher and chair of the Environment Committee of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA).
“We’re learning we’ve got a fairly wide suite of grassland bird species out there,” said Grant. “Some nesting birds like the grass short, some like it lean, some like it tall thatch. On any pasture cattle operation, you’re going to have a varying mixture of all of that, which is good to support a diversity of bird species. By and large our best practices are working well. We also need to continually be on the lookout for ways we can keep getting better, by working together as bird conservation people and cattle people.”
Grant, whose land borders Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, encourages producers to become more aware of the bird species on their land, to make a more direct personal connection to the important role they have. “There’s a lot of enjoyment you can get out of listening for songbirds or bird watching. It’s also an excellent reminder of the job we have to do.”