Innovative conservation program bears fruit

A federally funded incentive program designed to protect the remnants of Manitoba’s tall-grass prairie habitat, and the critters that call it home, is paying off in more ways than one as it gears up for its second year of operation.

The Tall Grass Prairie Stewardship Credit Pilot Program is delivered by the RM of Stuartburn and the Nature Conservancy of Canada in partnership with the Manitoba government and Sunrise Corner Tourism.

The two-year program, which began last summer, aims to protect at-risk flora and fauna found on private land located within a 1.1-million-acre area that spans much of the Southeast.

Any landowner, producer, or leaseholder in that area who believes they may have endangered plants or animals on their property is eligible to apply. If those suspicions are confirmed, they can receive monetary payments tied to positive outcomes for the habitat on their property.

“Having at-risk species on your property can benefit you in ways that you didn’t know,” said Norm Gregoire, community liaison for species at risk in the RM of Stuartburn.

Gregoire has spent the past year and a half drumming up local support for the pilot project, while navigating pandemic restrictions that complicated information-sharing efforts.

Seated last Thursday at a picnic table at the Prairie Shore trailhead near Tolstoi, Gregoire said the structure of the program acknowledges the important role locals play in protecting endangered species.

“This ecosystem is rarer than the Amazon,” Gregoire said, gesturing to the landscape around him.

There are 28 at-risk species that live in the tall-grass prairie. Half are birds. Some, like the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly, have become well-known in recent years, while others, like the northern leopard frog, have not.

Gregoire, a guide and naturalist who was raised on a vegetable farm near Marchand, often stops mid-sentence to admire a plant or bird. Watching a barn swallow swoop down into a ditch, he noted the at-risk bird—a striking blue and cinnamon breed that sometimes annoys landowners by nesting in the eaves of sheds and barns—eats a lot of mosquitoes and is actually good to have around.

The stewardship credit program is modelled on incentive programs deployed with success by watershed districts.

“Part of the program is to show that having these at-risk species on your land doesn’t have to be a money loss,” Gregoire said.

It is also premised on the idea that agriculture and conservation work can coexist. Gregoire said the most effective conservation work includes listening to landowners, rather than imposing solutions on them.

“Locals are the biggest reason why there is any tall grass left,” Gregoire said.

Participation in the incentive program is confidential, but Gregoire said five landowners—four from Stuartburn and one from Emerson-Franklin—participated in the pilot’s first year, which ends this summer. In total, 126.9 acres were preserved, including some home to the very rare western silvery aster, a nationally threatened wildflower.

Gregoire said the five participants approached the program with a great attitude.

“Everyone in our first group was really willing to learn.”

As the program’s second intake window opens, Gregoire is hoping to double the number of participants. He’s well on his way toward that goal; seven or eight landowners have already expressed interest.

Gregoire hopes more interest in the program will convince Ottawa to extend it. The current funding allotment runs out next year.

Gregoire said even if the program isn’t extended, it will still have raised the profile of at-risk species and spread valuable land management practices that landowners can continue on their own.

Each participant receives an individualized management plan developed in conjunction with an expert advisor. Program staff visit prospective sites with the expert, such as a botanist, in tow.

“We go with the landowners and we essentially walk their land,” Gregoire explained.

Incentive amounts depend on the quality and quantity of native prairie habitat present on the land. A scoring system is used to determine payouts, which Gregoire said can range from $5 to $45 per acre.

If the land is home to one or more extremely rare species—the Poweshiek skipperling, the western silvery aster, or the western prairie fringed orchid—the per-acre payment can rise as high as $67.50.

Payments are results-based, and it’s up to the landowner to decide whether to implement the plan created for them.

“Ultimately, this is your private land and we respect that,” Gregoire said. “These are just suggestions.”

The program also includes another facet: a cost-sharing option that offsets the cost of remediation work, such as spraying for invasive species or hiring a contractor to push back encroaching woodland.

In addition to protecting at-risk species, Gregoire said the program has the potential to drive economic development in the target area. Birders and orchid enthusiasts travel from Winnipeg and beyond to glimpse the rare plants and animals found in the tall-grass prairie.

For more information on the program or to apply, email Norm Gregoire at [email protected].

“If you think you have native prairie, just contact me.”


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