Just how far will the Species at Risk Act (SARA) go when it comes to endangered plants and animals?
That’s the question weighing on the minds of land users concerned that the greater sage-grouse protection order is just the beginning of many protection orders to come.
An information meeting was held at the Piapot Legion Hall on Jan. 14 to discuss SARA and its effect on ranchers, farmers and many other land users not often considered. Keynote speakers Keith and Ronda Reesor of Irvine, Alta. and Randy Stokke of Consul shared their concerns with about 25 people who attended the meeting.
Following the introduction of the sage grouse protection order, the Reesors and Stokkes – who use Crown land that is affected by the order – established Sustainable Canada, a group calling for “common sense conservation.” It’s mission is to “advocate economic, social and environmental sustainability to maintain, harvest and protect our resources, thus preserving our heritage for present and future generations of Canada.”
Keith said he is concerned for everyone who makes a living on the land, but more than that the Reesors and Stokke emphasized protection orders will have an effect on all Canadians. It could not only jeopardize beef production, but also impact hunting, oil and gas employment and production, and recreational activities.
The federal government introduced the sage grouse protection order after environmental law group Ecojustice took the government to court demanding more be done to protect the species. Only 138 of the birds are believed to still live in Canada. The order affects 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan with sage grouse habitat.
According to Keith, there’s a long list of species at risk that could bring more protection orders.
“We’re nervous about this. The same folks have set their sights on a horned lizard in southern Alberta and a plant,” he said, referring to the greater short-horned lizard and smooth goosefoot. “They’ve decided they should save the landscape from the stewards of the land.”
Ronda stated ranchers and farmers have been looking after the land that is their livelihood for years and the habitat has remained basically unchanged.
Rules and regulations to be followed by land users include the restriction of producing noise greater than 45 decibels – the equivalent of a conversation at home – within 3.2 kilometres of sage grouse mating sites an hour and a half before sunset to an hour and a half after sunrise. This is due to the suggestion that the sage grouse’s immune response is reduced when stress levels caused by chronic noise are elevated, making it more susceptible to West Nile virus.
The order also prohibits disturbing sagebrush, native grasses or native forbs.
Under the act, those found not in compliance with the rules can be fined up to $1 million or receive five years in jail.
“Enforcement officers have access to all your land without a warrant,” Ronda said. Stokke stated the only defense is due diligence.
“You have to prove you did everything you could to prevent killing sagebrush,” he explained. “Everyday you have to go out the door and have a plan as to how you’re going to defend yourself if something like that should happen. Anybody can bring an accusation against you. You’re at their mercy when an (emergency protection order) is put on your land.”
In November, Stokke and his wife Terry, along with the Reesors were part of a round-table discussion in Ottawa regarding environmental stewardship. They met with MP David Anderson – who has previously called the act “coercion rather than co-operation” – as well as Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq and several other ranchers and representatives.
“From every voice at that table came back the repetition of the fact that land use policies and stewardship plans would only work if they were driven and managed by people who make their livelihoods from these lands,” Keith said, adding the federal minister understands these issues.
The Stokkes and Reesors created a petition to be sent to Ottawa calling for the emergency protection order to be rescinded. They want to see an order established that encourages voluntary implementation, and ensure that orders are “created in a long-term adaptive management structure that includes formal collaboration with landowners, land users and all stakeholders using an open and consultative process.”
Sustainable Canada would like to have a representative from each RM in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan join them.
“We need to push back and change these laws,” Ronda said. “We need to get back to the basics of common sense conservation.”