How can we develop oil when we’re running out of grass?

by Gregory Beatty

illustration by Nigel Hood

provinceThe Effects Of Oil Development On Grasslands Songbirds
Saskatchewan Science Centre
Jan. 21

Saskatchewan is a big place and there aren’t a lot of people living here. Maybe that’s why we tend to think this province has lots of wilderness. But the truth is, we live in one of the most altered ecosystems on Earth — at least in southern Sask. Thanks to decades of farming, ranching and other settlement activities, we’ve whittled the Prairie grassland down to less than one-fifth its original size.

How is this shrunken remnant of a rich, once-sprawling ecosystem doing in the Land Of The Boom? And where can we go to see it?

“A good portion of the remaining habitat is located in Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan,” says Jason Unruh, a University of Regina M.Sc. candidate who’s speaking at the Science Centre on Jan. 21. “But all those former PFRA pastures that are being turned over to the province hold a good portion too.

“What’s going to happen with it? That’s a big concern.”

Lately, says Unruh, there’s been a sharp rise in oil industry activity in the grasslands, and it’s having a noticeable impact on wildlife habitat.

“When you put in a road, when you put in a well pad, when you put in a battery or a pipeline, you’re taking away habitat,” he says. “[That leads to] fragmentation, where the remaining habitat gets cut into smaller and smaller sections. There’s good evidence to suggest that species can be dependent on the size of a patch of habitat. If you keep making those patches smaller, you’re reducing the amount of habitat that’s there for them.”

Increased human activity in a region also creates opportunities for invasive species to creep in, which puts more stress on the indigenous plants and animals that rely on the grasslands for survival. Because of all the damage we’ve done to the grasslands over the last 160 years, many of those species are already stressed enough. Black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, prairie rattlesnakes, swift foxes and Mormon metalmark butterflies are only some of the grasslands species listed under the Species at Risk Act. And let’s not forget — in the 19th century, bison were just about hunted to extinction.

Unruh’s particular area of interest is songbirds.

“One of the first things these species would look for is the quality of the grass they’re going to nest in,” says Unruh. “When they choose a breeding or nesting location they’re cuing-in on some very specific grass features. That’s going to be different for each species. Some species are tied strongly to native grass, so they will even avoid tame pastures.

“Another question I’m looking at is how the predator community is responding to the oil features on the land,” he continues. “Is it giving them an edge that didn’t exist before? So power lines that get put in, or the vertical structures of oil wells, maybe they provide perches for avian predators like hawks to better scout out grassland bird nests.

“Or maybe the vegetation has changed in such a way that animals such as ground squirrels and snakes can better find nests. Or maybe roads create corridors for foxes and coyotes to travel down.

“All these things that are happening on the land can change how the predator community [works],” says Unruh.

Sprague’s pipit and Baird’s sparrow are two species of songbirds in decline, says Unruh.

“Both are tied [closely] to native grass habitat,” he says. “Other species, such as the Vesper sparrow and brown-headed cowbird seem to be responding positively to some of the changes.”

Bottom line: it’s complicated.

Unruh intends to publish his findings once his research is complete. Presumably, his work could be used to guide oil exploration in the future and reduce the environmental footprint in the grasslands.

But ultimately, there’s only so much you can do to “green” the industry.

“The fact we have so little native grassland habitat left would suggest we need to do something to really minimize our development on those sections of land,” says Unruh. “But oil means money, and it’s hard for governments to say no to money.

“We can say, ‘Okay, we can try to limit our development on these pieces of land.’ But as long as development keeps happening, I think we’re going to see more downward trends in these populations.”

Expect Unruh to make that point during his Wednesday talk. Hopefully there will be some government and industry people there to listen.

In the big picture, it all boils down to how we as a society view the environment and our fellow animal and plant species, and how willing we are to rethink our tunnel-vision focus on growing the GDP.

“Obviously you can make the argument that species have intrinsic value and that’s worth protecting,” says Unruh. “But also, as you remove species from their habitats, you reduce biodiversity. And there’s good evidence to suggest that ecosystems that have reduced biodiversity are less resilient and less able to provide the services they once did.”

Those natural services include water management — prairie grass is resistant to drought and makes flash floods less likely, two things ranchers benefit from — protecting fertile soil from wind erosion, and being a natural carbon sink.

“If you want to take a selfish look at that, and [the benefits] we get from native prairie, we’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot because we won’t be able to rely on those services.”

Jason Unruh’s talk, “The Effects of Oil Development On Grasslands Songbirds,” is presented by the Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan on Jan. 21 at the Saskatchewan Science Centre. It starts at 7 p.m.