Connecting ranchers and consumers to save grassland habitat

The plight of the white-tailed jackrabbit black-tailed prairie dog and ferruginous hawk might not be the first cause that comes to mind when considering pressing provincial concerns. Operation Grassland Community (OGC) wants you to reconsider that. Founded in 1989 the Edmonton-based organization sees the state of species that are unique to native grasslands — in particular the grasslands used for cattle grazing — to be pivotal to the future of food in Alberta.

“We use the species-at-risk as our flagship issue that we deal with” says Mara Erickson of OGC. “But that’s just the overlying issue. What it really comes down to is that having those species on the landscape and ranching in a way that keeps the habitat intact is indicative of a functioning ecosystem. What that means is that we have good air quality good soil quality and good water quality. If people don’t really care about burrowing owls that’s fine: birds aren’t everybody’s thing. But they work within a system that we all benefit from.”

As part of the organization’s efforts to foster relationships between Alberta ranchers and urban consumers it created a 12-minute PSA of sorts (with a touch more intrigue than the standard MADD ad). The project titled Conservation Caravan reflects the group’s commitment to promote the stewardship of the endangered grassland ecosystems that make up 14.5 per cent of the province most of which has been turned into spots for oil and gas development crop land and livestock feeding.

Amy Trefry a master’s graduate from the University of Alberta in food security and culture serves as the face of the organization in the short film in which she visited five ranches that maintain sustainable interactions with native grasslands (for example rather than overstocking fields ranchers choose to limit the amount of cattle munching on the grasses and destroying habitats). There’s no financial incentive for the ranchers and it’s often costly to change a practice but it’s that long-view commitment that the Conservation Caravan seeks to communicate to consumers.

“In talking with our membership — who are all ranchers — one of the biggest things that we felt was there was a disconnect between producer and consumer” says Erickson. “Our main thing right now is awareness and conversation and having people realize that this issue is even in existence. There’s so much room for improvement. If we’re aware of the topic and are willing to take responsibility as consumers then there’s huge opportunity for great things to happen.”

Native grasslands in Alberta are considered an extremely endangered ecosystem; the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society approximates that three-quarters of the region has been annexed for development and tillage. The attributes native grasslands offer — natural carbon storage remarkable soil fertility and pollination services — are in danger so long as farmers are fettered by the steady-growth economy which requires them to overburden the landscape.

Many ideas about the next step are circulating — Erickson suggests that a slight tax on food could serve as a payment for ecosystem services — but for now the mission of OGC is about improving the public’s knowledge of the alliance sustained between some 300 Albertan ranchers and their grasslands.

“More and more it’s coming to the forefront” Erickson says. “It helps that we’ve had this local food and organic movement. People are thinking about food more. Thinking about the land use part of it is another piece in that puzzle.”

OGC will hold and open house and film screening on April 8 at Lougheed House.