Conservation group protects endangered owls

Submitted photo. Burrowing owls at Jackson Pipestone.

Miranda Leybourne
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Brandon Sun

Burrowing owls, one of Canada’s most endangered species, have now been granted further protection in southwestern Manitoba thanks two new conservation areas announced by Nature Conservancy of Canada on Wednesday.

Representatives from the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) gathered in Melita, located 131 kilometres southwest of Brandon and known as the Grassland Bird Capital of Manitoba, to announce that they’d be protecting over 500 hectares of native prairie and wetland habitats near the communities of Broomhill and Sifton.

Significant and rapid habitat loss means that these lands now stand among the last bastions of native mixed-grass prairie in the province, an ecosystem which is critical for many at-risk species, including the endangered burrowing owl. In Manitoba, it is estimated that 90 per cent of native prairie grassland has already been lost, creating an urgent concern for the species, communities, farmers, producers, and people who rely on them, said Josh Dillabough, NCC’s natural area manager in Manitoba.

“We want to thank everyone who made these two important conservation projects possible. By working together, we can protect Manitoba’s natural gems and sustain healthy communities for wildlife, plants, and people,” Dillabough said.

The Jackson Pipestone Prairie and Wetlands project features almost 530 hectares of native prairie and wetlands, with Jackson Creek and its floodplain area making up the remainder. In addition to burrowing owls, also calling the region home are the chestnut-collared longspur, a threatened species; the threatened bobolink; and the Baird’s sparrow, which is classified as of special concern.

The project is located within two internationally recognized Important Bird Areas, and portions of the project are made up of sustainably pastured lands that support birds, such as the red-necked phalarope (which is also of special concern), lesser yellowlegs, black-crowned night herons, and tundra swan.

The NCC says the former owners of the lands the project is made up of are largely to thank for the vibrant diversity of birdsong and prairie species that can be observed on them today. The Gervin family has been involved in burrowing owl recovery since the 1980s, working with the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program (MBORP) since its inception in 2020 to protect habitat for the endangered bird species across their properties and support their reintroduction.

In 2019, the family was awarded the Prairie Conservation Award for Manitoba, in recognition of their dedication to the stewardship of their lands. Now under the stewardship of the NCC, the family’s love of the land can continue in perpetuity, the organization says.

Recently, MBORP has observed wild owls in the project area that are using artificial nest burrows that the program has installed for extra protection for nesting burrowing owls, said Alexandra Froese, founder and executive director of the program.

“Without people and organizations like the Gervins and NCC working to protect spaces like the Jackson Pipestone Prairie for species like the burrowing owl, the burrowing owl will disappear from Manitoba,” she said.

The NCC is also working with livestock producers who graze cattle across the Prairie grasslands, which helps support the health of the Prairies while also helping to create a strong livestock industry.

The new project is a part of the NCC’s Prairie Grasslands Action Plain, which looks to conserve more than 500,000 hectares by 2030, an area six times the size of Calgary. The organization has already raised 90 per cent of the funds needed to secure and steward the land in southern Manitoba. The conservation projects were supported through funding from residents and businesses, and additional support came from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Nature Fund and Nature Smart Climate Solutions Funds. Contributions were also made by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Manitobans understand the beauty and value of the native mixed-grass prairies that form some of the most iconic landscapes in the province, said Steven Guilbeault, federal minister of environment and climate change.

“Working in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, our government is helping to protect native mixed-grass prairies in Manitoba,” he said. “These investments are part of our national conservation campaign to protect 25 per cent of land and water in Canada by 2025, working towards 30 per cent by 2030.”