25 April 2008

Conserving Three Bird Species at Risk in Saskatchewan

Promoting regional conservation of three species of birds at risk in Saskatchewan will be continued with funding assistance from the United States.

The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act program managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded Nature Saskatchewan a grant of $50,000, that will be matched with $475,000 provided by project partners, including the Government of Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, SaskPower, Saskatchewan Environment - Fish and Wildlife Development Fund, The EJLB Foundation, Alliance Pipeline Community Program, and Saskatchewan Environment Sustainable Communities Grant and SaskEnergy through the Prairie Conservation Action Plan.

Additional partners are SaskPower’s Shand Greenhouse, the Prairie Conservation Action Plan, Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Centre, Burrowing Owl Researchers and the Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards.

The grant funding will support "increasing awareness about species at risk through landowner visits and tradeshows, and increasing habitat for species at risk through our pasture expansion program,” said Michelle Yaskowich, Habitat Stewardship Coordinator with Nature Saskatchewan, a non-governmental group.

"The NMBCA funds are greatly appreciated as these contribute to Nature Saskatchewan's ability to deliver our conservation programming to preserve a valuable and meaningful natural heritage for future generations," Yaskowich said. "The vast populations of neotropical migrants have a significant influence and impact in boreal areas, on the prairies, and on migration and in wintering areas. Surveys such as Breeding Bird Surveys and our Operation Burrowing Owl program indicate that many species are in serious decline and in need of conservation actions."

The funding will allow the group to continue to "build on the awareness about habitat for grassland birds, species at risk, and other wildlife as well as the mutual benefits of biodiversity and agriculture that is increasing due to our program activities," Yaskowich said in an email. Grant funding "will allow us to start our initiatives at the beginning of May and continue to deliver awareness and outreach activities throughout the year."

Landowner with sign showing their participation in the Operation Burrowing Owl program. Images courtesy of Nature Saskatchewan.

Grant funds will be used for the Stewards of Saskatchewan (SOS) Bird Species At Risk (BSAR) project, according to Yaskowich. This consists of three voluntary stewardship programs:

1) Operation Burrowing Owl (since 1987), for the endangered Burrowing Owl;
2) Shrubs For Shrikes (since 2003), for the threatened Prairie Loggerhead Shrike; and
3) Plovers On Shore (initiated in May 2008), for the endangered Piping Plover.

"There are currently 479 participants in the two established programs, conserving 63,843 hectares of habitat at 638 sites," Yaskowich said. "The owl and shrike populations are monitored at known occurrence sites each spring in an annual census sent to BSAR participants, who record the number of these two species that return to their land. The neotropical grant fund will also help in the development and delivery of the new Plovers On Shore stewardship program."

"These programs increase awareness, conserve or enhance habitat and identify sites and monitor populations of these three species," Yaskowich said.

"Awareness is increased through on-site personal visits to landowners with any of these species to distribute our conservation toolboxes, as well as through attendance at tradeshows/events where outreach materials on the target species and programs are available for landowners and interested urban and rural residents, advertisements and articles in rural newspapers, our 'Wanted' posters and magnets, and our Steward Appreciation Day workshops.

"Habitat conservation is accomplished by engaging landowners in stewardship commitment through signed voluntary agreements - without an expiration date - where the landowner agrees not to destroy habitat, nor harm these species."

The Bird Species at Risk "project also provides 50% cost share funding to landowners for a pasture expansion program to seed cultivated areas to grassland (invasive species excluded) as well as shrub planting, fencing and alternate water developments. This enhances and increases available Burrowing Owl and Loggerhead Shrike habitat as projects occur near existing pastures. Identification of sites is done through landowners and urban and rural residents who call our toll-free number to report sightings, and when Nature Saskatchewan staff are out on the road."

Participants in the Shrubs for Shrikes program.

“The support of private landowners is essential to these projects,” Yaskowich explained. "As of 2000, only 20% of former grasslands in Saskatchewan remained as natural habitat, according to published research. With 85% of southern Saskatchewan's remaining grasslands being privately owned, conservation of this precious landscape would not happen without the help and concern from these landowners, who also make their living off this land. It is because of these environmentally aware landowners that Operation Burrowing Owl, Shrubs For Shrikes and Plovers On Shore exist."

Yaskowich pointed out the importance of international cooperation to conserve birds.

"As birds do not recognize international borders, for bird conservation to be effective countries that share bird species and individuals must work cooperatively and share resources including expertise and funds. For our project, the Burrowing Owls, Loggerhead Shrikes and Piping Plovers that are summer residents on the Canadian prairies are winter residents in the U.S., or pass through on their way to Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico (Piping Plovers). Because individuals and populations are shared, it is crucial that Canada and the United States work together for conservation of these species at risk and their habitat. Cooperation on conservation for these species results in benefits for all prairie species, most of which are migrants to or through the U.S."

Founded in 1949, Nature Saskatchewan is a "member-based, non-profit registered charity dedicated to protecting nature, its diversity, and the processes that sustain it. Their vision is 'Humanity in Harmony with Nature,' with a mission to promote appreciation and understanding of our natural environment through education and to protect and preserve natural ecosystems and their biodiversity through conservation and research."

More than 1,300 individuals from the Prairie Provinces, and other regions of North America are members. There are eleven local affiliates.

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