Saskatchewan’s Wetlands Conundrum

by Kevin Wilson

Suitably dubbed the Land of Living Skies, Saskatchewan is renowned for its world-class waterfowl hunting. In the heart of the central flyway, mind-blowing numbers of migratory birds – from gadwalls, mallards, and pintails, to Canada, speckle belly, snow geese, and more – pass over, stop in, and indeed nest in various wetlands throughout the province. Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) reports that there are as many as 60 breeding waterfowl pairs per square mile in areas like the Allan Dana Hills, southeast of Saskatoon. Nearly 70 percent of North America’s waterfowl traditionally migrate through the province, due to its rich Prairie Pothole habitat. Particularly welcoming for waterfowl, this region has forever been an oasis for ducks, geese and other non-game species like the rare whooping crane. Sound like a waterfowl wonderland? Absolutely. But over time, that could change. Unfortunately, trouble is brewing in paradise.

Urban populations are expanding and so is agriculture. In turn, Saskatchewan’s wildlife – and not just waterfowl – is in jeopardy. Farming is a way of life in the prairie provinces. Generations have made their living off the land, taking their crops to market, and feeding the masses. It is a necessary and integral part of who we are as Canadians. Unfortunately, many producers view wetlands as an inconvenience and, with ever-increasing input costs, many are driven to maximize productivity. To make the most of their land, too many are draining critical wetlands and clear-cutting woodlots – both of which otherwise provide vital habitat for waterfowl, ungulates, and other wildlife species.

As the province’s wetlands are drained to transform functional habitat into economically productive land, wildlife is disappearing. In some regions, as much as 90 per cent of wetland habitat is gone. Even where wetland mitigation is implemented, these strategies inadequately compensate for the loss. Furthermore, most of Saskatchewan’s municipalities do not yet have sound wetland policies in place to ensure sustainable growth.

Even though it is illegal to drain water from the land without a permit, unauthorized drainage continues to occur in most areas without penalty. Equally disconcerting, landowners who are suffering from increased water downstream – often flooding – receive no compensation.

“Herein lies a monumental dilemma in areas like the Quill Lakes region. Due to immense wetland and other habitat loss, run-off into this drainage creates an unimaginable amount of flooding, which in turn has a domino-like affect on the surrounding landscape and ultimately downstream within that watershed,” says Michael Champion, Head of Industry and Government Relations for DUC in SK. He adds, “the Quill Lakes highlight the complexity with water management and the need to strike a balance between development and conservation. Upstream water storage is the most economical man made solution we have seen to date.”

The Quill Lakes are saline, which means fish can’t live there. As the overflow drains downstream, interconnected creeks and lakes in the watershed are adversely affected. This domino effect begins with producers draining wetlands and the cumulative effect is catastrophic.

In a day and age where wildlife and wild spaces are constantly at risk, outdoorsmen and women face the daunting task of working feverishly to counter the negative effects of what we typically call progress. Aside from hunters and anglers, the general public is mostly unaware of these and many other detrimental effects caused by our progressive practices. Saskatchewan’s epidemic loss of wetland and surrounding habitat is one of the most pronounced environmental fiascoes occurring on the prairies today – and it is especially pronounced in the Quill Lakes and interconnected watersheds.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news – and you can help solve the problem. Ducks Unlimited Canada, for instance, is working hard to conserve wetlands, restore many that have been drained or damaged, and responsibly manage the projects that they are undergoing. Today more than 2,900 Saskatchewan DUC projects provide habitat for wildlife, and recreation areas for people, especially in the Prairie Pothole Region. They have secured 1.8 million acres and positively influenced 5.4 million acres of Saskatchewan land and water across the province.

Plain and simple, DUC works to secure land and water that waterfowl and other wildlife require to survive. Their programs restore drained wetland basins and seed nesting cover for waterfowl and other wildlife. Once they have secured land or restored wetlands, they manage it through maintenance, tendering of hay and cooperative relationships with long-term partners to steward the habitat. To learn more, go to www.ducks.ca or call
1-800-665-DUCK (3825).

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