Lorne Scott has never wished more for a magic wand.
The farmer, who lives near Indian Head, says his worries come from 50 years of trying to reconcile the plunging grassland bird populations and the needs of an agricultural economy hungry to compete in a world market.
“I don’t think anybody knows of a magic wand that would stop the continual conversion of natural landscapes to crops,” says Scott, who served as Saskatchewan's environment minister from 1995 to 1999.
The future of grassland birds — species like bobolinks, Baird’s sparrow, and sharp-tailed grouse — may depend on property owners like Scott eking out habitats on their lands.
Grassland bird populations have been in a free-fall for decades, decreasing overall by 57 per cent across the prairies from 1970 to 2016, according to a 2019 report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.
The decrease is even worse, 87 per cent, for birds that are more dependent on native grasslands. The chestnut-collared longspur, for example, has lost 95 per cent of its population since 1970, including a 50-per-cent drop in the decade leading up to 2019, according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Environment Canada wildlife biologist Stephen Davis has one word for it: “dire.”
Many grassland birds are listed as species at risk, and more will likely join them, he says. The causes are complicated, but some major factors — like habitat loss — are involved.
A big portion of the habitat loss that accompanied converting grasslands to cropland happened before population studies started around 1970, Davis notes. That would mean placing the blame solely on grassland cultivation likely isn’t fair.
He says it’s more probably “death by a thousand cuts,” ranging from habitat loss to pesticide exposure to the risks migratory birds run while flying a gauntlet from Saskatchewan to the Southwestern U.S. and Central and South America.
There’s about 17 per cent of native prairie left in Saskatchewan, notes Ian Cook, a grasslands conservation manager at Birds Canada.
Comparatively, Manitoba has about one per cent and Alberta has roughly 40 per cent remaining, he says.
Cook points to the conversion of land to annual agriculture as a main driver behind habitat loss.
The state of grasslands is a common criticism. In June, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society handed the Government of Saskatchewan a “D” for its stewardship of them.
Cook says practices like regenerative agriculture or leaving wetlands intact may help, and adds that ranchers can often provide the best habitats for grassland birds, with cattle in the role bison once played.
“Cattle take that place and provide the structure and the plant diversity that grassland birds need,” he says.
Larry Grant, who ranches near Val Marie, feels similarly. He’s managed his cattle grazing patterns to optimize the local habitat, and says he enjoys the results. It's a welcome sight to spot robins and horned lark dart around his property on a clear day.
Those birds are a point of pride, Grant says. Flourishing land shows he’s a successful manager.
”If I've got all that diversity there, that means that my cattle are doing the best job that they can to provide income."
Providing habitats is also a problem of incentive, says Kelly Williamson, a co-executive director with the South of the Divide Conservation Action Plan, which aims to make habitat management an economically sustainable priority. He adds that not all of grassland birds' problems are in Saskatchewan, but habitats play a role.
As soon as a cultivator rolls over native prairie, the land's monetary value goes up substantially, Williamson notes. Once it does, it's also difficult to replace the diverse native prairie habitat that was previously there.
He thinks creating a marketplace for easements — where property owners set aside land for conservation — makes sense.
While that's not a silver bullet and has its limits for entities looking only to farm, he thinks it can be helped along with other tools like conservation agreements and incentives to manage land for biodiversity.
Creating prairie conservation policy could also complement a push toward developing wetlands plans, he says.
Another route is buying land outright. It's possible, but organizations are then saddled with paying roughly 25 per cent of the land's purchase price to manage it, Williamson says.
“It's way more cost-effective to pay for outcomes, and to work with a rancher to produce a habitat."
Cost is also a concern for Scott. His goal is to save a few acres wherever possible, whether through landowners' private properties or undeveloped road allowances acting as corridors for travelling birds.
Scott has also placed a conservation easement on all the remaining natural habitat on his land, stretching over 160 acres. The easement will ensure future landowners won't develop that land.
He hopes that's replicated across the province, in “every bit of empty farm yard, or bit of prairie in the corner of a field," he says.
Until then, the future flights of prairie birds are clouded.