How to save at-risk birds? Talk to ranchers says biology researcher

By Costa Maragos Posted: March 14, 2018 6:00 a.m.

Phil Rose is a master’s candidate in Biology.
Phil Rose is a master’s candidate in Biology. Photo courtesy of Derek Morrell

They might seem like unlikely allies, but ranchers and prairie conservationists have a future working together.

At least that’s how Phil Rose, a master’s candidate in Biology, sees things.

Rose has been spending hours in the field, tracking grassland birds, which are some of the most at-risk birds in North America. Grassland bird populations on the prairies (Manitoba to Alberta) have dropped by 55 per cent over a period of 44 years, according to a study by the World Wildlife Fund.
 
The report cites farming and agriculture as the main causes of habitat loss in the prairies.

Songbirds generally require large tracts of open prairie and tolerate little to no trees or shrubs. Their living preferences often clash with the needs of modern agriculture.
 
“I’m going to surprise a lot of people and tell you that the solutions to grassland bird conservation relies on an industry common to Saskatchewan and that is ranching,” says Rose. “Believe it or not cattle grazing can be an effective conservation tool if managed responsibly.”

In Saskatchewan, fewer than 25 per cent of native mixed-grass prairie now remain and that has had a devastating effect on the most at-risk bird species out there.

Bobolink
Researchers estimate that the bobolink population has dropped by 88 per cent over the past 40 years. Phil Rose photo

There are six grassland songbirds listed as species-at-risk in Saskatchewan.

Complicating matters is that each bird requires its own distinct grassland conditions. Some of the birds prefer tall, dense grasslands while others prefer sparse grasslands with greater amounts of bare ground.

“Managing for one of these species can have very negative effects on the other,” says Rose. “It’s important to consider the habitat needs of all species involved when proposing conservation strategies and not just get tunnel vision for a single species at risk.”

Rose’s research examines the habitat requirements of the entire grasslands songbird community

Rose has conducted a series of songbird surveys throughout Southern Saskatchewan counting songbirds and measuring the grassland characteristics in the survey area.

Now here’s where the ranchers come in.

“The trick is to share the necessary information with ranchers and help them create ideal conditions on the landscape, using cattle and grazing,” says Rose.

“Without natural disturbances such as fires and bison grazing, the remaining grasslands rely almost exclusively on livestock grazing to achieve a constant state of regeneration required for a healthy prairie ecosystem.”

Rose’s research also considers the potential economic impact on ranchers.

Ranchers

The research results might help bridge the gap between wildlife conservation and the ranching industry. Phil Rose photo


“It’s also about setting realistic goals,” says Rose. “Conservation programs, such as results-based incentives are being piloted that compensate local ranchers for any loss of income they incur while managing their rangelands to promote high-quality wildlife and species-at-risk on their property.”

Rose hopes his most significant research contribution will be about helping bridge the gap between wildlife conservation and the ranching industry.

“These two ideas have often opposed one another which has resulted in increased tensions on both sides and a lack of will to work together,” says Rose.

“The goal of my research is to show that what is sustainable for cattle operations also tends to provide ideal habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife. Minor tweaks to management can have a huge positive impact on species-at-risk populations.”

Phil Rose is working under the supervision of Dr. Mark Brigham, Professor in the Biology Department and Dr. Stephen Davis, a Wildlife Biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service Prairie and Northern Region and an adjunct professor at the U of R.

The research has received funding from the Mitacs Accelerate Program, Saskatchewan Forage Network, South of the Divide Conservation Action Program, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment, Nature Regina, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

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