The world’s scientists come to Sask to talk about rangeland

Science by Gregory Beatty

photo Courtesy Duane McCartney

When scientists gather in Saskatoon for the Tenth International Rangeland Congress (IRC) they’ll no doubt be all serious. It goes July 17-22, and features all sorts of presentations, panel discussions, workshops and even field trips on the topic of rangelands. But they’ll probably squeeze in some time for socializing too.

If they do, I wonder if the old cowpoke chestnut “Home On The Range” will come up? As sung in North America, it starts “Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play.”

Given the congress’s international scope, “range” land obviously isn’t confined to North America. And if the scientists wanted to have some fun, they could offer up their own “home-grown” versions of the song. Because of the diversity of rangeland in the world, animals that might be celebrated would include yaks, wildebeest, camels, water buffaloes, caribou, llamas and more — which would certainly make for exotic listening.

The first IRC was held in Denver, USA in 1978. Hosts countries since then include Australia (1985), India (1988), France (1991), Salt Lake City, USA (1995), Australia (1999), South Africa (2003), China (2008) and Argentina (2011). Each congress offers delegates the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the unique character of the rangeland in the host region.

Grassland is a big part of Saskatchewan’s rangeland in the southwest corner of the province. But rangeland also includes shrubland, woodland, tundra, desert and wetlands. One common denominator no matter what the land’s character is that it’s usually used for grazing, and the animals eat native vegetation rather than specially grown field crops.

When it comes to rangeland management, says IRC co-chair Duane McCartney, a retired Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada research scientist, Saskatchewan is one of the leading stewards.

“The people involved have done an extremely good job,” says McCartney. “They’re well monitored, the rangeland health assessment shows that producers are looking after these lands in a good way. So the health of our rangelands is really good.”

When McCartney speaks of “producers”, by the way, he means ranchers and farmers. With ties to the province sometimes stretching back generations, they’re deeply invested in preserving the land’s health and productivity.

Over the last few decades, though, a new economic player has arrived on the scene: the resource extraction industry. Dominated by transnational corporations, its ties to the land are strictly profit-driven — and therefore much more tenuous.

And that can make stewardship — and the long-term viability of the land once the extraction activity has ended — a challenge.

“We’ve invited representatives from different industries to attend the congress, but we’re not sure if they’ll show,” says McCartney. “Part of the problem is they also have congresses. There’s a really large Canadian reclamation society that looks into those issues. We tried to invite them to participate, but their congress is about a week before ours. Hopefully, though, some will attend.”

Another goal of McCartney and co-chair Bruce Coulman of the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Plant Science was to get a broad representation of scientists involved to better address all the complex issues tied to rangeland management.

“We had an e-mail list of over 7000 names, but we’re running into travel restrictions and having big problems getting some delegates here,” says McCartney. “The other challenge is that there are conferences and organizations for everything you can think of tied to specific disciplines. What the rangeland people are trying to do is be all-encompassing. So bring the entomologists in, bring the modelers in, bring the grazers and other producers in.”

As of mid-June, 583 delegates had registered from 58 countries, which is comparable with previous congresses.

“All these places have leading [experts] and it’s going to be very interesting to hear what people from Australia talk about,” says McCartney. “Same with South Africa, the United States, and South America.”

The theme of the Saskatoon congress is The Future Management of Grazing and Wild Lands in a High-Tech World.

“We’ve got a large number of presentations on the topic, especially with remote sensing, satellite imagery, and a system the Australians have where they’re able to remotely manage and move their livestock,” says McCartney. “So it will be a big part of the congress.”

Not surprisingly, climate change is another item on the agenda, with local expert University of Regina geography professor David Sauchyn scheduled to give a presentation.

Meteorologically speaking, rangelands are arid and semi-arid zones. So drought, such as Saskatchewan has had in the past, and Australia and major parts of Africa are currently experiencing, is always a big concern. But flooding, such as we’ve had several times in the last few years, can also wreak havoc.

Efforts have also been made to include an indigenous perspective, says McCartney. “In places like Mongolia, northern China, some parts of Australia, definitely in some of the African countries, there are people still leading relatively traditional nomadic and pastoral lifestyles.

“We have a speaker named Cory Wright. He used to live in Melfort, and he specializes in pastoral issues in Tanzania and Kenya. So that’s going to be one of the really fascinating presentations.”

Pre-conference tours give delegates the opportunity to visit the grasslands area in southwest Saskatchewan, the aspen parkland in the Lloydminster area, or the Rockies in Alberta with stops in Cypress Hills and Banff. And mid-conference, an evening BBQ is being held at Wanuskewin Heritage Park outside of Saskatoon which will feature a performance by Plains First Nations dancers and drummers.

“That’s the thing about the IRC, there’s always a day in the middle of the congress devoted to seeing the lands around the area, unlike other scientific conferences where you stay in the room all the time,” says McCartney.

For more information on X International Rangeland Congress, visit