Pronghorn herds are smaller, and burrowing owls have all but disappeared.

And about 75 per cent of Canada’s species at risk live in the grasslands across southern Alberta and neighbouring provinces, a Lethbridge audience learned May 16.

But landowners and conservation-minded Canadians are taking action, reported Leta Pezderic. By partnering with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, they are ensuring that at least some areas remain intact as habitat for the Prairies’ wide range of plant and animal life.

Pezderic, grasslands nature area manager for the conservancy, told the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs most of the land preservation is accomplished through conservation easements. The national organization works with farmers, ranchers and others who want to see their land continue to remain productive – but not to be converted to residential, industrial or other uses.

That protection is now in place on much of the land bordering Waterton Lakes National Park, she pointed out.

In return for a legal caveat saying the land use will remain in perpetuity – regardless if it’s passed on to the next generation or sold to a third party – the owner receives financial compensation along with ongoing services to help with its stewardship.

But about 30 per cent of the land under legal protection has been purchased from a motivated seller, she added. Funds for those purchases come from donors across Canada and from provincial governments.

“We had a phenomenal relationship with the NDP government,” Pezderic said, with many projects completed.

But members are concerned about the United Conservative Party’s proposals to sell Crown land, currently afforded some level of protection. Questioners pointed to the loss of habitat in Saskatchewan, after its government sold some of the well-run public grazing land.

“What influence we’ll have with the new government, I don’t know.”

Alberta’s grasslands began shrinking more than a century ago, as homesteaders began breaking the prairie soil. Today, much has also been lost to urbanization.

Even now, “It’s disappearing at an alarming rate.”

Grasslands’ value can’t be underestimated, Pezderic pointed out. As well as protecting the soil profile and the natural habitat, it facilitates biodiversity – and acts as a sponge during rain storms.

The grasslands also recycle natural nutrients, resist weeds and potentially invasive species, and sequester carbon in much the same way as Canada’s forests.

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