Prairie protectors

Grasslands can help fight climate change. This farm couple hopes it’s not too late.   

Story and photos by Katie Doke Sawatzky

Published Oct 1, 2018 3:30 PM


Cedar chips spill from the walls of Kristen Martin’s and Jared Clarke’s newly bought bungalow. Family and friends are busy prying off wooden siding flecked with peeling paint. The home’s only insulation, the chips had been packed between the two-by-fours and, after 60 years, had settled to the bottom of the frame. Scattered on the ground, they join glass windowpanes that have tumbled into the grass after a simple push from the inside. The doors, windows and siding are all being replaced to make their new home livable in the winter. The wallpaper and green carpet that covers the floors, even the bathroom, will come out later.

For $171,000, Martin and Clarke bought 160 acres of land just northwest of Edenwold, Saskatchewan. The 115 acres of wheat and canola waving in the wind would soon be harvested, the soil hosting their roots for one final winter. Come spring, the crops, which have been a mainstay since German-speaking immigrants settled the area in the 1880s, would be reseeded with the help of the neighbours, many of whom had been farming those grains for decades. But Martin and Clarke wanted them gone. They had moved here, 40 kilometres northeast of their hometown, Regina, for one reason: to nurture what many have forgotten and few value. It was time to return the land to grass.

While “prairie” is an official descriptor for the province of Saskatchewan (used by the Canadian Encyclopedia, for example), it is, in fact, a complete misnomer. Eighty per cent of native prairie in the province, a landscape denoted by grassland and aspen parkland, is gone. The remainder exists in large federal pastures and Grasslands National Park in the province’s southwest corner, or in tiny islands dotting the bottom third of the province, where smaller pastures and marginal areas between fences and roads have escaped cultivation. The majority of the habitat loss happened in the early 1900s, when the province’s population and cropland dramatically increased. Between 1906 and 1916, in the southwest corner alone, the number of people quadrupled and cropland increased ninefold. The majority of prairie residents living now wouldn’t remember a time when yellow fields of canola didn’t outnumber wheatgrass and golden gaillardia, plants that have blown in the wind each summer for millennia.

It’s a pattern across the world. According to the International Union for Conservation Network, temperate grasslands are the most endangered and least protected ecosystem on the planet. Five per cent of the Northern Great Plains are located in the Canada’s prairie provinces, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, totalling 16 per cent of the provinces’ land area. Five per cent of a country doesn’t sound like much, but in Canada it means 114 million acres and, in Saskatchewan alone, 60 million acres. And of that five per cent of native prairie, only 3.5 per cent is protected.

Kristen Martin awoke to Saskatchewan’s natural beauty when she surveyed piping plovers on the South Saskatchewan River for a research project with the Water Security Agency in 2005. Fascinated, she took more ecology courses for a science degree at the University of Regina. She went on to complete an honour’s degree on Sprague’s Pipits, a grassland bird, and a master’s on the Yellow Rail, a secretive water bird that nests in wetlands. “You don't really care about things that you don't know about,” says Martin. “Unless you've experienced the prairies and you know how vibrant and how beautiful they are…you probably don't care about them.”

It’s not hard to speculate why southern Saskatchewan’s natural landscape—rolling plains of mixed and moist mixed grasses with occasional groves of small trees or bush—doesn’t garner the protection or fervour of, say, rainforests. The ecological drama of prairie land is by its very nature harder to see because most of it unfolds in the grasses themselves. One quarter-section (160 acres) of native prairie contains up to 100 different plants, which provide nesting grounds for dozens of migrating bird species.

“You don't really care about things that you don't know about.”  - Kristen Martin

Knowing exactly how much native prairie remains is like chasing the wind. Twenty per cent, a figure quoted regularly by the conservation community, comes from a 2001 study by the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, and is based on 24-year-old satellite imagery.

While data from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada shows that grassland land cover has decreased by 12 per cent between 1990 and 2010, no provincial government report specifying the amount of native prairie has ever been released. In 2015, Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Environment began working on the Prairie Landscape Inventory, in response to the lack of data about the ecozone, but the project, which has so far only tested different ways of monitoring the endangered landscape, won’t be completed for five to ten years.  In the meantime, Ben Sawa, a landscape ecologist for the landscape and habitat assessment section with the ministry, says the province doesn’t know how much native prairie is left.

The only way to know is to invest in field work that validates satellite imagery and is analyzed regularly. In other words, people need to be out on the landscape itself, which takes time and resources. It has been done, however. Alberta Environment and Parks completed a native prairie inventory in 1993 and updated it in 2006. The geospatial Grassland Vegetation Inventory provides “biophysical, anthropogenic and land-use inventory” of the southernmost part of the province. Likewise, the independent Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute has been keeping track of habitat loss for two decades and compiles annual reports on the human footprint in each of its ecoregions.

But in Saskatchewan, “Nobody’s doing it,” says Chet Neufeld, the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan’s executive director in Saskatoon.

Neufeld says most people in Saskatchewan’s conservation community guess that if newer images and data are released, more native prairie will be gone. He says the loss won’t come from huge tracts of bulldozed land but smaller conversions: a quarter-section here, a road or two, there.

“Almost a death of a thousand cuts,” he says.

The other threat is the destruction of habitat caused by invasive plant species. Kentucky Bluegrass, for example, the grass in conventional lawns, often makes its way from yard sites to prairie patches in the country. Once it takes root it becomes the dominant grass in the area, affecting the species that depend on the native grasses.

“Nothing around here evolved with Kentucky Bluegrass dominating the landscape,” says Neufeld. “So (animals are) all generally going to try and move out. You know, look for greener pastures, no pun intended.”

Agricultural cultivation still remains a threat, however. According to a 2016 report from the World Wildlife Fund, Saskatchewan and Alberta had the highest rates of prairie conversion to cropland in the Northern Great Plains.

While the prairie quietly erodes, another threat now looms. Saskatchewan has entrenched itself as the world’s second highest per-capita contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating the damage done by climate change, a reality that on the prairies means more intense storms and droughts that threaten native grasslands and other prairie ecosystems.

The small audience gathered at the Fort Qu’Appelle Senior Citizen’s Recreation Hall gasps as water from a storm cell falls like a nuclear bomb on houses in Tucson, Arizona. It’s as if the divine commitment to never again flood the earth was revoked for fun, just to see what would happen. Described as a “wet microburst” by local papers, for Tucson residents there would have been nothing micro about it.

Jared Clarke, standing to the left of the screen, pauses for the reaction and then moves on to the next slide.

His neat appearance—blue suit jacket, white collared shirt, jeans and suede shoes—cuts a contrast with footage of chaos: trucks and cars floating in muddy water down a street in Spain; blue-white glaciers, like the icy walls of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, exploding and crumbling into nothingness; a global warming time-lapse spreading graphic orange over black.

Since January, Clarke has been giving Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project presentation on weekends and evenings at community centres and libraries in small towns in southern Saskatchewan. He attended Gore’s climate leadership conference in Pittsburgh last October and, like a revival preacher, with a small emblematic green circle pinned to his left lapel, now spreads climate awareness like the gospel truth.

This being his eighth talk, Clarke knows the material well and speaks with conviction.

Despite his grey-flecked hair, at 32, Clarke is easily one of the youngest people in the room. The average age of the small crowd looks to be 60. People sit comfortably with Tim Horton’s coffee cups in their hands or notebooks on their laps.

The presentation itself is made to convince people beyond a doubt that the effects of climate change are happening on a global scale, but also on a local one. While Regina, Saskatchewan’s capital city, doesn’t have cars floating along its streets, Clarke emphasizes that 2017 was the second driest year on record for the city and the driest ever for Moose Jaw and Assiniboia. Because of dry ground that shifted, Regina spent $4 million on water-main breaks the same year.

“We’re doomed,” one man whispers loudly.

When Clarke is done some press forward to talk with him at the front, while others visit in the red vinyl chairs or drift toward the coffee and cookies on the back table. If Clarke is craving a cup of coffee, he never makes it past the seats.

After the last thankful group says good-bye—all women, like 93-year-old Doreen who pushes a walker and worries about the polar bears and is getting hearing aids in a few days—Clarke sits down with a sigh.

“Are you tired of hearing me talk?” he says, grinning, before drinking from his glass of water.

It seems like he’s preached to the choir. These aren’t people who need convincing; many are already concerned. Clarke even knows some of them. And, for today, he’s okay with that. “The big piece of these talks is just to have the conversation, especially in Saskatchewan where, you know, climate change is kind of a dirty word,” he says. He hopes the conversation will spread.

“We’re doomed,” one man whispers loudly.

Clarke teaches Grades 6 and 7 at Regina’s Lakeview Elementary School. His students helped him present his first talk. Since then he figured he’d presented to 500 people by the time he brought his slide show to Fort Qu’Appelle. He wonders if he has made any impacts. Making climate change reality a palatable prairie message is nothing short of a challenge, but he has seen at least some opinions change. He says his father wasn’t sure about humans causing climate change but is now convinced after seeing the climate talk. Such small gains are the reality of conservation work, something to which Clarke has resigned himself. Host of The Prairie Naturalist on CJTR, Regina Community Radio, he’s a well-known voice in the province’s conservation community but is unsure how many others outside that small community are listening.

Recent political moves in Saskatchewan don’t encourage him either. Saskatchewan is the only province that refused to sign on to the federal Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change on Feb. 28, 2018. And now the provincial government is set to file a lawsuit against Ottawa over the plan’s imposed national carbon tax. Saskatchewan misses out on $62 million as a result, funding offered to the provinces to kickstart clean energy programs.

But Clarke is determined to keep talking to people despite the hostile atmosphere. “How many people … write a letter or become involved in something, I don't know,” he says. “But we’ll on keep fighting.”

Back on the farm near Edenwold, all didn’t go as planned. Clarke and Martin’s dream was to plant mostly native grass, but they soon realized they didn’t have the pocketbook. Native plant seeds are expensive because of the time it takes to harvest them, and even with a rebate offered by Ducks Unlimited Canada, the couple’s seed mix included cheaper, non-native species like Meadow Brome and Green Pubescent Wheatgrass.

Martin and Clarke’s neighbours helped them reseed half of their cropland in 2010, the spring after the couple moved in. The tractor pulled the seed drill along, cutting rows into the soil with rotating discs, seeds falling among the wheat stalks already in the field. The wheat would keep the weeds under control while the grasses established. That spring was the wettest on record for southern Saskatchewan and while 40 rural communities claimed agricultural disaster across the Prairies due to the rain, the moisture helped Martin and Clarke’s embryonic pasture to establish.

It’s in the process of trying to rebuild native prairie that Joni Mitchell’s line—“you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”—rings true. Pulling up prairie destroys a complex web of interconnected plant species, ranging from tall grasses to millennia-old lichens and mosses on the ground.

"That took ten, fifteen thousand years of evolution to happen." - Chet Neufeld

Martin says the big hurdle is overcoming the weeds. They inevitably take over once the native cover is gone because native species take longer to establish. “It's almost impossible to get it back the way that it should be,” she says.

Settling for non-invasive, non-native species was a compromise Martin and Clarke were both willing and forced to make. They added native Blue Grama Grass and Green Needlegrass to their mix, which also included native Slender and Western Wheatgrasses. Over the years, they’ve harvested seeds from the native wildflower garden in their front yard. When there’s a wet day, they drop the seeds on the ground in the pasture and push them into the soil with their feet. Now when they look out on the field, the purple heads of Prairie Clover, Wild Western Bergamot, Giant Hyssop, and yellow stalks of Goldenrods dot the horizon.

“You'll have an approximation of a prairie but you just won't have the same thing,” says Neufeld. “Anybody who practices restoration will agree that conservation is best because once it's gone, it's gone. You cannot replace that. That took ten, fifteen thousand years of evolution to happen."

Martin and Clarke originally wanted to put their grassland back to its prehistoric use and raise bison on the land, but their neighbours politely shook their heads.

“They were like, ‘Oh boy, there’s no way,’” laughs Martin, who recalls being told they didn’t have the infrastructure to raise the massive creatures. After deciding they couldn’t make cows work either, they settled on goats, a smaller and more manageable ruminant. Since 2010, they’ve averaged 35 goats a year, but are down to 11 now. The goats keep the weeds down in the grassland in the summer. In the fall some of the animals are sold for meat in Regina.

It’s kidding season and, every two hours, Martin walks on the snowy path through the grove of spruce and ash lining the western side of the house. Her brown snow pants and orange toque stand out against the snow, which in March, stubbornly sticks around. Six-year-old twins Teal and Rowan amble along, underneath the branches where chickadees sing. Past the trees and through the wooden gate is the small red barn, where goats and their kids keep warm under heat lamps, snuggled in hay. The first kids were born in the small field behind the barn five days ago, at the end of a bitter cold snap in the middle of the month. Martin regularly checks the field and brings any new kids into the barn so that their wet fur doesn’t freeze in the wind. Rowan and Teal feed grass to their favourite goat, Cutie, a white doe, and her new kid, Cockapoo.

Martin stays at home with the twins and the goats and works as a server at Bronco’s Pub and Grill in a nearby town, Pilot Butte, in the evenings. She had the twins right after she finished her master’s degree. Before that she worked as field technician for Environment Canada and Ducks Unlimited. She hopes to work in biology again, when the kids are in full-time school, but the scarcity of daycare near Edenwold makes it challenging. Her days are full, including acting as the secretary for Public Pastures-Public Interest, a small organization that raises awareness about native prairie in community pastures and public land.

The Public Pastures group holds its monthly meetings in Regina. While the conservation community in Saskatchewan is small, the farmers among them are even harder to find.

“We’re kind of alone in our field,” says Lorne Scott, a 71-year-old farmer from Indian Head and friend of Martin’s and Clarke’s. Scott has farmed for 35 years near Indian Head and was Minister of the Environment for the Saskatchewan NDP from 1995 to 1999. An active bird-bander who works with national and international conservation organizations, Scott put a conservation easement on his land to protect the bush and wetlands that provide habitat for wildlife, something he says other farmers don’t understand. “I'm often considered to be non-progressive because I don't bulldoze every tree down,” he says. He admires Clarke and Martin for the fact that they are young farmers putting the ecological value of the land first. “They are model young people that we need in our society, in rural Saskatchewan in particular where most of us are older.”

For Martin, living in the country with the twins can be isolating, but the land makes up for it. When they step outside their door, she says her kids see garter snakes, lots of different birds and wildflowers growing in the pasture.

The second half of Clarke and Martin’s cropland was seeded last summer, a field they plan to use for hay once the grass establishes, which could take a couple years. Conscious of their carbon emissions from driving so much, they used their wedding money to put solar panels on their roof in 2016 and bought a hybrid vehicle at the end of 2017.  For Clarke, their lifestyle choices are a result of looking the future of the prairie in the face and realizing what’s at stake. The fact that 50 per cent of land-based species will be gone by the end of the century is the projection he wrestles with the most.

“That blows my mind,” he says. “As a Dad, as a teacher who works with kids all the time I think, what kind of future are we leaving these guys?”

For Martin, their decision to restore prairie and live away from the city has meant they understand how their land supports them. The danger of intense droughts hit home last summer, when their dugout went dry.

“We could potentially run out (of water),” she says, “and so you really think about…how what you do affects the land because you need the land to survive.”

"What kind of future are we leaving these guys?” - Jared Clarke

Martin’s words have even more import with the threat of climate change. While grassland has a myriad of ecological benefits like water and air filtration and soil stability, research from Diego Steinaker at the University of Regina in 2013 suggests that grasslands sequester more than double the amount of carbon in the ground per hectare, per year, than the Weyburn-Midale carbon storage project. So if prairie residents want climate solutions, all they have to do is look at the grass underneath their feet and make sure it stays there. When prairie is plowed, some studies show it loses around 50 per cent of the carbon stored in the soil through its plant matter.

“Native prairie should play an important part in … Saskatchewan's climate change plans in the future,” says Clarke. “We need to protect native prairie so that it can continue to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere.”

After encouraging the group to pressure governments to pursue renewable energy and join initiatives like solar co-ops, Clarke ended his presentation in Fort Qu’Appelle by asking everyone what they would tell their grandkids, when, in 20 years, they ask, “What did you do to solve the climate crisis?” It was a bold question to pose to a room full of prairie people, who, at best, are conflicted about climate change and can see few alternatives to their current way of life. Weather variability is a natural part of the prairies and floods in Spain have little relevance in a larger province with a fraction of the population. But with wetter springs and drier summers projected for the rest of the century, the fate of Saskatchewan’s already threatened landscape is unclear. The patch of prairie Martin and Clarke restored is now safe, but much more remains unprotected.

“Can we call ourselves prairie people if there's no more prairie left?” asks Clarke.

Forthcoming in The Crow magazine, Fall 2018.

Read more:

The state of native prairie in Saskatchewan