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Making wildlife land a priority

As grain and oilseed prices have climbed to near record levels across the entire range of Prairie-grown crops, there is a lure for farmers to turn every acre of land possible into crop land.

As grain and oilseed prices have climbed to near record levels across the entire range of Prairie-grown crops, there is a lure for farmers to turn every acre of land possible into crop land.

In general terms, that makes sense, since producers want to cash in on the high prices.

However, there is a downside to the decision to claim lands which have previously been left as wetlands and tree bluffs, and that is the impact on the natural biodiversity of the Prairies.

When wetlands are drained, wildlife suffers.

Over the years we have seen that impact grow. It doesn't take long when you are driving around the country in the spring and summer to recognize the duck population is not what it once was in farmland areas.

Ducks need potholes and sloughs for nesting, and every time a wetland is drained that impacts their ability to do that.

It often sends paired ducks to smaller water puddles, like accumulations in ditches, which in turn dry up, and leave the young vulnerable to predation.

Of course a slough is not only home to ducks, but a range of wildlife, from other water birds, to salamanders and snakes and frogs.

Interestingly, anecdotally I must say there seems to be less frogs around these days too, although admittedly I don't go looking for them like I did as a youth.

Trees too offer wildlife a home as well, and we have seen more and more of those cleared over the decades.

It's to the point even planted windbreak rows of trees have been bulldozed away in order to salvage a few more acres of land.

In general terms many of the bluffs left behind when the land was initially cleared are there because of stones, or low spots, which means they were not seen as ideal farm land. Higher grain prices at times like we have now, and in the past justify the need to generate more gross dollars to pay bills, and has pushed farmers to claim the marginal areas.

You can't blame farmers for attempting to influence their bottom line in a positive fashion.

But there is the question of maintaining a level of biodiversity as well. We as a society should see value in being able to take a drive and see a family of ducks, and for our grandchildren to still be able to go and catch frogs.

The problem is that wooded areas and wetlands generate to returns.

In fact, some farmers might argue the cost in relation to the fact wildlife can impact crops by eating them, and land close to a lot of trees must battle the trees extensive root system for moisture and nutrients.

So a growing question is how do we create a system whereby farmers save fringe areas from the plough?

For some it's a case of raising cattle. Fringe land is still good for grazing, and cattle can replace grazers such as buffalo in an ecosystem which still allows other livestock to thrive.

But not every wood lot or slough is reasonable to become pasture either.

There needs to be an element whereby society takes on some role in ensuring such lands are protected, most reasonably through some form of tax incentive. It would seem wildlife sustaining land could be allocated an annual value (think of it as a low level of rent), which on lands approved, those with significant wildlife value, farms could receive a cut on taxes, a program cost shared by the two senior levels of government and farmers. It could be administered through the existing crop insurance structure.

Sadly, saving wildlife land, while a priority for groups such as Ducks Unlimited, the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation and a few others, it does not seem to be high on government lists, so progress on smaller areas of wildlife suitable land seems limited.

Let's hope that changes for the conservation of natural ecosystems and their wildlife.