Conservationists and cattlemen join forces to save a rare species.

By Ron Reid

Grassland birds across North America are in big trouble, none more than the bobolink, whose rollicking songs once graced hayfields and pasture lands across southern Ontario. Since 1968, Ontario’s bobolink populations have plummeted by two-thirds (see “Songs of the bobolink,” Summer 2010), the worst declines having occurred in the past decade.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that, at its fall 2010 meeting, the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario declared the bobolink a threatened species. Under the provincial Endangered Species Act (ESA), the nests and habitats of this bird are now protected. But, as the implications of this designation began to sink in, organizations across Ontario emitted a collective chorus of “oh-oh.”

It’s no secret that many farmers, fearing potential restrictions on how they can use their land, are uncomfortable with having species at risk on their properties. For example, efforts to protect the loggerhead shrike, a critically endangered species whose presence affects only a few dozen farms, have triggered a high-profile demonstration and public vitriol in at least one farming community.

The bobolink’s designation will have a wider impact, as the ESA habitat protection measures for this species will apply to some 25,000 farmers. Since bobolinks depend almost entirely on hayfields and managed pastures for their nesting success, the livestock industry is crucial to their survival. And come early June, any farmer who cuts hay in a field inhabited by bobolinks will be breaking the law. The bobolink’s designation was a stimulus for discord. Fortunately, Anne Bell from Ontario Nature and Richard Horne from the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association teamed up to co-host an unprecedented series of meetings between provincial farming groups and environmental organizations. The farming leaders, much to their credit, chose to focus on practical ways to deal with their members’ immediate concerns, while also being part of longer-term solutions to restore bobolink populations to good health.

For Ontario Nature, bobolinks and farmers pose a particularly difficult issue. Recovery for bobolinks and other grassland birds depends on the voluntary participation and support of farmers willing to maintain their grassland habitats. A top-down regulatory approach is simply not going to work in this setting. But a blanket exemption from ESA regulations for farm operations would be at odds with Ontario Nature’s opposition to such exemptions generally.

Eventually, both sides agreed to a two-pronged compromise: a temporary exemption for farmers under the ESA, matched with a robust incentive and research program for grassland stewardship, to be provided by the provincial government.

During the three-year term of the proposed temporary exemption, farm and environmental groups will work closely with government and bobolink experts to complete a recovery strategy, a government response statement to that strategy, and habitat regulations under the ESA. To make these steps palatable to affected farmers, the incentive and research program would be crucial. Such a program would include funding for stewardship incentives, such as fence replacement to renew pasture lands, applied-research pilot projects to explore best management options, and outreach services for farmers and other landowners.

It remains to be seen whether the provincial government will respond with a meaningful funding commitment. Nonetheless, the consultation has been a very significant process. For the first time, Ontario’s senior environmental and agricultural groups sat down together to resolve a difficult issue, and they jointly produced a position paper, submitted to the provincial government, that addressed a range of concerns in the southern Ontario landscape. At least five major farm organizations and a similar number of environmental NGOs have endorsed the position paper, and more are doing so each week.

Most importantly, the process has helped build bridges and create ongoing relationships between the agricultural and environmental communities and has spurred a growing realization among people on both sides of the bobolink debate that the future of grassland birds is tightly linked to the future of grass-fed livestock, an industry facing severe economic challenges. Maybe someday the bobolink agreement will help lead to long-overdue discussions on how to manage the countryside more sustainably. And what an accomplishment that would be!

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Ron Reid, Carden Program coordinator for the Couchiching Conservancy and former director of conservation at Ontario Nature, enjoys birding in the rural countryside.