Under the federal Species At Risk Act, provinces are required to protect federally-designated species at risk and their critical habitat. At the SSGA semi-annual general meeting in February, Kelsi Christopher of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture Lands Branch gave a presentation on how the province is working with Crown land lessees to make this happen.
There are 1.3 million acres of provincial agricultural Crown land with critical habitat in Saskatchewan.
The province’s approach, rather than identifying specific pockets of land as habitat for specific species, has been to develop a multi-species strategy for habitat protection.
Christopher says the ag ministry has sent letters to lessees advising them that the Crown land they lease is designated as critical habitat.
The province has developed a Multi-Species Critical Habitat Assessment and Management Tool that will provide baseline information on how lessees are protecting the land, and possibly guide future stewardship efforts.
“It was developed to help us source and document existing industry requirements that protect critical habitat for those federally designated species at risk, and also identify where protection of that critical habitat could be enhanced,” Christopher said.
“It takes a look at the lease level and helps us identify background information on how the lease has been managed. Our lessees are the stewards of Crown land, and the critical habitat that has been placed on there as well, so having an understanding of their management practices will help us develop that overall approach.”
This tool will be part of a 2022-23 research project that will look at how existing lease requirements protect critical habitat, and how the ministry might address gaps in protection.
“We have hired two rangeland habitat researchers, and they have put together a list of potential participants for the Critical Habitat Research Project,” Christopher said.
The researchers will identify 20 lessees who are willing to volunteer for the project.
“What we would be expecting from the lessees would be an interview to discuss their current management practices, as well as a field tour of their Crown lease,” Christopher said. “And then at the end of the project our rangeland habitat researchers will be providing a summary to the lessee of what they identified using the tool on that lease.”
SSGA president Kelcy Elford voiced his support for the project at the semi-annual general meeting and encouraged members to participate.
Christopher said the ministry also wants to hear from lessees above and beyond the scope of the formal study.
“In conjunction with the research project, engagement with our lessees is one of the ministry's priorities—to hear their feedback on critical habitat and any of their concerns,” she said.
“We have hired a facilitator to get those engagement sessions. We had planned to host larger in-person meetings in February and March, but due to the spike in COVID at that time, we had to re-evaluate and look at a different format. So we have had the facilitator conduct telephone interviews as well as virtual meetings, and we'll be looking at having smaller, targeted in-person sessions in March just to gather additional feedback.”
This will be followed up in the fall with larger in-person engagement sessions.
“We are also in the process of planning Indigenous engagement on critical habitat, and stakeholder groups will be a separate engagement session,” Christopher said. “The Crown lessees are our first priority, but we'll be consulting with other groups as well.”
The research project and engagement will provide information on the province’s multi-species approach for critical habitat protection.
“The provincial approach is important because we are responsible for documenting effective protection of that critical habitat,” Christopher said. “And it is a shared responsibility because our lessees are the stewards of those agricultural Crown lands.”