Conserving Critical Grassland

helloHabitat Stewardship Program, Species At Risk, Uplands

The Malyon Conservation Agreement protects increasingly rare mixed-grass habitat for endangered species and future generations.

When Earl Malyon was approached by Al Bourrier, Habitat Conservation Specialist with the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, to consider having a portion of his land preserved for wildlife habitat under a conservation agreement, he didn’t hesitate.

“I was familiar with the program and the efforts to conserve habitat in the area,” Earl says. “So when Al approached me, I knew where he was coming from.”

Earl is the reeve of the Rural Municipality of South Cypress. He and his wife Carol Lynn live a couple of miles northwest of Glenboro. The 80-acre parcel of land under the conservation agreement is about six kilometres south of Spruce Woods Provincial Park.

“The land is really only suited for pasture,” he says. “It’s sandy and hilly. Under the agreement, it can continue to be used as pasture, as long as it is managed properly to protect the habitat.”

The habitat is protected under a conservation agreement, or easement. Landowners who sign a conservation agreement receive a one-time payment as part of the agreement. The easement is recorded on the land title and remains in force with the transfer of ownership. The agreement is entirely voluntary. There are restrictions on the use of the land, such as no drainage or breaking, but normally the landowner can still take hay from the land or use it for grazing.

The area around Carberry, Shilo, Glenboro and Spruce Woods Provincial Park is part of anatural region known as the Assiniboine Delta. The delta was formed more than 10,000 years ago when massive amounts of meltwater from the retreating continental glacier swept along the Assiniboine River channel and emptied into glacial Lake Agassiz. The result is one of most unique landscapes in the province. It supports grasslands that are home to many species of plants, birds and animals that are threatened or endangered under the Species At Risk Act. One of those is the Northern Prairie Skink, an endangered species and Manitoba’s only lizard.

“The area is perfect habitat for the skink and that is what prompted me to talk to Earl,” Al explains. “The land is mixed upland forest with patches of mixed grass prairie, similar to the vegetation over much of the Assiniboine Delta. The skink prefers mixed grass prairie on sandy soils. Habitat of this type has been lost, and continues to be lost, at an alarming rate.”

“We have seen skinks on that land for as long as I can remember and never gave it a second thought, but obviously it is special,” Earl says. “Besides that, there are some unique species of grasses growing there and also what we call sandhill cactus, and all kinds of birds.”

Observed within 10 kilometres of the Malyons are four species of grassland songbirds classified as threatened. These include the Loggerhead Shrike, Bobolink, Chestnut Collared Longspur and Sprague’s Pipit. The Ferruginous Hawk, also seen in the area, is threatened as well. The Burrowing Owl is an endangered species that lives in the area. Several plants also fall into the threatened category.

There is a direct correlation between the loss of grassland habitat and dramatic decline the populations of grassland birds. Biodiversity Canada has estimated that more than 70 percent of the original mixed grasslands on the Prairies has been converted to other uses. In Canada, since the 1970s there has been an overall population loss of nearly 50 percent of grassland birds, with some species as high as 87 percent.

In Manitoba, mixed-grass prairie is under increasing threat, primarily from annual cropping and oil and gas development in the southwest. As a result, grassland bird populations,  are suffering big time. But there are initiatives underway in an attempt to reverse this disturbing trend. The Spruce Woods Provincial Park Draft Management Plan has a strategic objective to provide a large, contiguous and intact tract of habitat for wildlife in the Assiniboine Delta natural region, and the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation is actively seeking out habitat in the area for protection. The conservation agreement with the Malyons is the seventh to be signed within a five kilometre area at the south edge of the Spruce Woods Provincial Park, bringing 768 acres of critical habitat under protection.

“I consider myself a bit of a conservationist,” says Earl. “I believe it is important to set aside pieces of the natural landscape for the future. You never know what’s going to happen down the road.”