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Farmers grapple with balancing agriculture and protecting the bobolink

By Mary Riley,

March 15, 2012

An information meeting about the impact of the bobolink recovery program on area farmers will be held at the Lindsay Fairgrounds on Sunday, March 18 at 1 p.m.

(KIRKFIELD) Lessons learned from the loggerhead shrike are helping a ‘round table’ to protect a small grassland bird and make better decisions on how an endangered species and agriculture can co-exist.

Beef cattle farmers David Jewell and Andy MacDougall, dairy farmer John Willemse and sheep farmer Glenn Campbell met with This Week on March 9 to discuss their concerns about the bobolink, a small member of the blackbird family that likes to nest in tall or medium-high grass, preferably in the middle of a field.

Both Mr. Jewell and Mr. MacDougall, like many farmers also raise cash crops such as hay, corn and soybeans.

The bobolink is protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). There is currently a three-year moratorium on enforcement of the Act, but only as it relates to agriculture. It is in place to allow the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to compile public input and studies to draft the policy for categorizing and protecting bobolink habitat under the Act.

The moratorium is due to end in 2014. When that happens, the farmers are worried about that it could seriously affect how and when they cut their hay.

“What are farmers supposed to do - wait until the birds have fledged and left the nest before cutting hay?” asked Mr. Jewell. “What if that’s not until mid-July? A lot of farmers have to cut hay before then.”

Because there are limited pastures where tall grass grows, the men noted, hay is the next best choice of nesting site for bobolinks. Mr. Willemse noted they “don’t like alfalfa,” which is what most dairy farmers grow.

Mr. Campbell, who is also City of Kawartha Lakes Ward 4 councillor, has heard concerns from many of his farming constituents and friends. He said having the bobolink on the Endangered Species list (a ‘step up’ from the Species at Risk list, which has more than 190 plants and animals) could affect an estimated 30,000 farms across the province, especially in southwestern Ontario.

“We’ve been warning about this for a long time,” he said. “No one cared when it was a few people in Kirkfield talking about the loggerhead shrike. Now, people are paying attention, because the bobolink could be found on farms across southern Ontario.”

All four men feel agriculture is being threatened by the continual additions of different species of plants, animals and birds to “endangered” lists.

For several years, people living near the Carden Plain in Kirkfield have taken sides on the shrike issue. The bird, which impales its prey on thorns, prefers hawthorn bushes as habitat; bushes that are commonly found on many properties in the area.

How to farm (often beef) without disturbing shrike habitat has pitted farmers against naturalists. Mr. Jewell said tempers flared in 2007 as landowners and nature conservancy groups squared off. The Carden Alvar is already a protected area, and a conservation group also purchased property there to protect the bird, Mr. Jewell noted.

“Do people want to eat or not?” he said. “That’s what it is coming down to. They’re legislating farming right out of existence.”

Mr. Jewell says what bothers him most is the “veil of secrecy” surrounding legislative changes that could affect farmers.

“We’re kept in the dark. No one knows what’s going on,” he said, adding his family farm was established in 1867. He said that in the past, if there were agricultural issues that farmers and legislators had to deal with, “we got together and worked it out. But, we knew what it was about.”

The other three men have also farmed for at least 20 years; their parents and grandparents even longer.

Mr. Jewell produced an article in the March issue of Ontario Farmer, which quotes Ron Reid, a grassland bird authority with Couchiching Conservancy in Orillia who has a special passion for the bobolink. (This Week contacted the Conservancy but Mr. Reid was not available.) In the article, he noted the bobolink population in Ontario has declined by 77 per cent since 1970 and that there are about 275,000 pairs in the province. The article states the birds are either crushed by machinery or killed by predators.

The article also noted Mr. Reid is working to extend the 2014 deadline by “at least an additional 10 years.”

“What about other predators that prey on them, like coons and skunks?,” he asked. “Why are they treating the farmers as the predators? Farmers don’t go out of their way to kill wildlife. Are we supposed to just stop farming; not cut any hay until all the bobolinks are gone? Do we walk through the fields looking for the birds before we cut the hay?

“In the history of farming in Ontario, we’ve never faced anything like this.”

Mr. Willemse said, “We need to know about what affects us. But, I don’t know how we’d comply with something like this. As far as bobolinks go, a lot of people have never heard of them. You don’t see them in the trees.”

Mr. Campbell pointed out that the Act is very specific. “You can’t kill, harm or interfere in any way with a specie on that list.” He added for every creature on the list, a recovery plan is supposed to be completed within two years. “But, they are so far doesn’t happen.”

Mr. MacDougall said he resents nature enthusiasts who show up at his farm with binoculars, looking for loggerhead shrikes or other wildlife or infringements on their habitat. Many, he noted, come from urban regions.

“It’s an invasion of privacy. How would they like it if I went to their homes with my binoculars and spied on them in their backyards?” As far as government legislators go, he noted, “We pay their wages...and we get no respect.”

Detailed reports on the Ministry’s website show that the number and diversity of species at risk in the province, their habitat needs and the different ecology in the province could mean determining whether a proposed activity will impact those species will likely need to be done on an individual case basis.

As well, the Ministry “is able to issue specific permits to authorize certain activities; for example, one that will result in significant social or economic benefit to Ontario, but will not jeopardize the survival or recovery of species at risk.”

Bob Mitchell of Dairy Farmers Ontario sits on the round table. He said there is broad representation of farm and conservation groups along with many other stakeholders. The round table was created specifically because of the bobolink, he said, to help find ways that agriculture can co-exist with the birds’ recovery program.

He noted no one knows for sure why the bobolink population crashed so badly. “We don’t know why, but we know it isn’t from cutting hay,” he said.

What is positive about the round table, he added, is that “we learned from the loggerhead shrike” debate. “We realized we needed much more consultation with the public and other groups. A recovery plan has to be effective for both the species and the landowners, and you don’t reach a solution if you have one group against another.”

The job of the round table is to coordinate research and come up with viable recommendations for the MNR that will help farmers continue their livelihoods while helping to save the bobolink.

“But, farmers have always tried to accommodate [endangered] species. It might be as simple as leaving a field where the birds are nesting as the last to be cut, giving them a few more days (to leave the nest). The most encouraging sign is that everyone on the round table is working together to find answers; it’s been very positive. We need to make sure we have good communication with affected farmers, so people know what’s going on.”

Anne Bell of the conservation organization Ontario Nature said it’s important to realize there are many different stakeholders at the round table, not just agriculture and conservation groups. She said the primary aim of the round table discussions is to find a solution that works for agriculture.

“The great thing about the Endangered Species Act is that it has a fair bit of flexibility,” she said. “The focus for us (Ontario Nature) is research and best practices, such as are there ways to manage hay fields...but, the key to the round table is that whatever the solution, it has to work - for the farmers and the birds.”

On Sunday, March 18 Mr. Campbell will chair an information meeting for the public to learn more about the proposed changes. Local MP Barry Devolin and MPP Laurie Scott are expected to attend, along with other stakeholder groups.

The meeting runs from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Lindsay Fairgrounds.

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