Canada Day is almost upon us! In celebration of our awesome country we call home. I’ve drawn inspiration from our beautiful nation for the theme of this blog. It’s going to be about all things Canadian and how that relates to the work H2C has been doing!
First things first, what’s more iconically Canadian (besides hockey) then our national animal, the beaver? What a polarizing creature it is! Ask my directors (the Ag-fieldmen in the County’s of Barrhead, Westlock, and Athabasca) about beaver and they do not have many kind words. That’s because they get so many calls as soon as spring hits with complaints about beaver flooding agricultural land and causing blockages in culverts and flooding roads. However, if you talk to other people, some farmers included, they welcome beaver on their land for the way they expand and store water. I don’t envy my directors job, dealing with dams and flooding and upset landowners and conflicts between neighbours all because a beaver decided to move in.
I’ve had my own dealings with Castor canadensis (the scientific name for the beaver, which includes a shout out to our country). At two of my Riparian Improvement Program sites I’ve caught the little devils chewing through the remaining trees left on the landscape. One site I wrapped some of the mature trees with page wire and applied a mix of sand and paint to others. So far those trees have not been taken down. At the other site… well there isn’t many trees left anyway so I’m hoping they will just move to the other side of the bank where there is plenty of food for them.
I see both sides of the beaver debate. Obviously, a producer’s land is essential to their livelihood so when it is under water due to the beaver’s dam building that is not a good thing. Having to fix fences all the time from the beaver’s tree falling is also a great annoyance. They also cause so much damage to our infrastructure when they dam under bridges and plug up culverts under roads. A dam can be blasted, a culvert unplugged and the beavers trapped out, but that is no guarantee that another beaver won’t move in a week later and just rebuild. That being said, I can also appreciate the good things that beavers provide. In drought years, the water that the beaver store is important to not only wildlife, but also cattle in some areas. They also raise the water table, so in that forage and crops can grow during dry periods. Beaver ponds trap sediment, and the riparian areas created around the ponds filters excess nutrients coming off the land. They also mitigate flooding, increase local biodiversity, and provide good fish habitat.
A couple of years ago we asked our friends over at Cows and Fish (http://cowsandfish.org/) to come and give a presentation on “Beavers in Our Landscape” and it was there that I saw that there could be a way that would allow beaver to remain in an area, providing the ecological benefits, while mitigating the harm they can cause. The solution? Beaver mitigation devices in the form of pond levelers and exclusion fences. In 2017 we installed our first beaver mitigation device (an exclusion fence) in the County of Barrhead. The next year, we installed another exclusion fence in the County of Barrhead, and all my directors came for some hands-on training installing a pond leveler in Westlock County. After checking in on the sites this early summer we are happy to report that all the devices survived the winter and spring flooding and are working as promised.
This summer we have plans to double our efforts by installing two mitigation devices per county, with the possibility of more if the water levels drop. Are these devices going to mean the end to all the human/beaver conflict? No. But for certain locations, where historically beaver have constantly caused problems year after year and the area is suitable to have a mitigation device installed, it will. Farmers and the County’s staff will be happy, and Canada’s icon will continue on its industrious way, providing ecological benefits to the land. Win, win.
Moving on to another thing with Canada it its name...
Canadians are known for our politeness and welcoming nature. However, when it comes to Canada thistle those things go right out the window. We hate this plant! Despite its name, Canada thistle is not native to this county, it originates from Europe and like all invasive species we wish it would have stayed where it came from. It’s nasty. Thistle is very hard to control because it spreads by its roots (horizontally spread up to 4.5 meters and up to 6 meters deep) as well as by floating seeds that can stay dormant in the soil for up to 20 years. It tends to pop up in areas that have disturbed ground, in overgrazed pastures, and riparian areas. It is very detrimental to have. From an agricultural perspective, cattle rarely eat it and when it establishes it chokes out beneficial forages. From an ecological perspective it out competes native plant species and when it establishes dense patches in riparian areas it can lead to the loss of nesting habitat for waterfowl.
Normally control methods are chemically spraying the plants or mowing them down repeatedly. However, due to environmental concerns those are not options for when thistle infects riparian or other environmentally sensitive areas. This is where our little insect friends come into play. Highway 2 Conservation has been involved with biological control of Canada thistle since 2014. We have used two different insects: thistle stem mining weevil (Hadroplontus litura) and thistle gall fly (Urophora cardui). We currently have five trial sites to monitor the effectiveness of the biological control. Three are on pasture, one in a riparian area at one of our Riparian Improvement Program sites and one on a protected conservation site. We also sell the insects on a yearly basis to producers interested in trying them as an alternative control method. Biological control is not as affective as spraying or mowing in terms of the time it takes to achieve control. But if it is the only option and you can be patient, control is possible. Our gall fly orders for 2019 will be coming in from Montana shortly, hopefully by the second week in July. We are looking forward to adding fresh fly stock to our trial sites and providing 10 farms with flies to start controlling their thistle problem.
And finally, let’s talk about the image most people have of Canada; majestic mountains, wide open prairies, and rugged tundra. We don’t have any of those things in the H2C area. What we do have is a landscape that is primarily in the central parkland and dry and central mixed wood ecozones. What that means is we have gently rolling land with mostly aspen and white spruce forests with some plains and wetlands and rivers that wind through the whole thing. We also have vast amounts of agricultural land. So what we have is not exactly what people first think of when it comes to Canadian landscapes. But I think it is beautiful and special in its own right! In the H2C area there is a good balance between the natural vegetation and agricultural land. There are lots of trees, cows and crops. Our producers are the stewards of the land in our area and they do an awesome job of it. However, sometimes they need help remedying an environmental problem and that is where I come in to help, with trees! Not trees planted just anywhere though, rather along specific areas where they are most needed. The biggest environmental challenges we face are related to riparian health issues. Unfortunately, current landowners, or landowners in the past, did not implement the best management practices that would maintain a healthy riparian area. This has resulted in significant erosion and weed problems and a lack of biodiversity along waterways. This impacts water quality, fish habitat and the recreational value of our water. Our Riparian Improvement Program is designed to encourage significant riparian buffer adoption by crop and cattle producers into their operations, thus reducing the effects of inputs, erosion and habitat degradation within agricultural systems. We have seven Riparian Improvement Program sites that we have been working on since 2014. This year we added three new ones, one in each one of H2C’s Counties. Through this program we work with landowners to restore damaged riparian areas that have occurred as a result of unsustainable agricultural practices. For cattle producers this means restricting access through fencing and then replanting riparian vegetation. The livestock are fenced out of the riparian area for the time it takes for the land to recover, then in the future they can be allowed back in for grazing during certain times of the year. For crop producers this means establishing a buffer zone where no crops are planted directly beside the waterway, and then planting trees and shrubs in that area. When the ground is not longer in crop, deep rooted natural vegetation can regrow and erosion is greatly decreased. The new sites added this year are all awesome additions to the program. We have two pasture locations and one site on cropland. It’s a lot of work returning these areas to their healthiest form. From the start of site selection to completing planting can take thee to four years. Then for the plants to mature takes several more years. Hence why we also work to educate producers as it is a lot easier just to leave the riparian vegetation in place versus undergoing the monumental effort in restoring it! We do this work not only for the benefit of the agricultural producers, but also to keep a healthy environment and landscape. While it might not be the most common landscape people think of when they think of Canada it definitely is important to me and the producers in the H2C area and is worth working for.
If you want to know more about the programs I’ve discussed in this post, please feel free to email me at lisa.card@hwy2conservation, or call or text 780-674-8069.
Happy Canada Day everyone!