My name is David Bradbeer, from the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust. I'm here to bear witness before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development with regard to the proposed national conservation plan.
The focus of my witness testimony today is to discuss specific examples of collaborative conservation efforts being conducted on the south coast of B.C. To frame the context of these examples, I will quantify the ecological significance of the lower Fraser River delta, and within this context, I will discuss the specific actions taken by our local non-profit organization, Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust, to conserve wildlife species on a working landscape. I present these examples to you as a model for future collaborative conservation efforts and recommend that such models, in conjunction with habitat retention, be explicitly included within the national conservation plan.
B.C's largest river, the Fraser, travels 1,360 kilometres from its headwaters in the Rockies before reaching its outflow on the south coast of the province, where it forms the lower Fraser River delta. The lower Fraser River delta provides a mix of habitat for wildlife, including tidal marshes, sloughs, lowland shrub-tree communities, forested highlands, remnant grasslands, and intensively managed agricultural fields. These habitats are used by migratory birds, which travel from the Canadian Arctic, the interior of B.C., Central and South America, and Asia.
The diversity of migratory birds is represented by four species of loon, five species of grebe, five species of wading bird, eight species of owl, 25 species of waterfowl, 13 species of raptor, 29 species of shorebird, 15 species of gulls and terns, and over 70 species of songbirds. Of these wildlife species that rely on the lower Fraser River delta, several are listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act, including 12 that are listed as species of special concern, six that are listed as threatened, and seven that are listed as endangered.
The lower Fraser River delta is a critical migratory node for bird species. It supports the highest density of wintering raptors and the highest density of wintering water birds in all of Canada. For these attributes, it is recognized as a Ramsar site and a western hemisphere shorebird reserve, and is considered one of Canada's most significant, important bird areas. Without the lower Fraser River delta, the majority of birds using the area would not be able to complete their migration north and south.
Farmland on the lower Fraser River delta can support many of these migratory birds. The initial diking and drainage of the lower Fraser River delta, which began in 1868, would have impacted the capacity of the landscape to conserve wildlife. However, farmland has proven its capacity to retain some of the functional elements of wildlife habitat that existed beforehand.
Farmland can conserve wildlife species, because first, it is directly adjacent to other high-quality habitats, such as tidal marshes and mud flats. Second, the fertile soils are managed for high, primary production of cash crops, which in turn can be utilized by wildlife directly and indirectly. For instance, waterfowl feed on harvested vegetable crop residue. Third, agronomic grass crops can be managed to emulate historical grassland habitats and can thereby provide food, roosting, breeding, and nesting habitat for a myriad of grassland species. Fourth, field margins can be managed as shrub-tree habitat. Fifth, and most important, farmland can be managed to increase the capacity of the landscape to conserve wildlife, and this management can be actively incorporated into existing cash crop rotation.
The work conducted by the Farmland & Wildlife Trust is an example of farmland management that increases the capacity of the landscape to conserve wildlife, while economic activity within the region is maintained. The Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust has been working within the farming communities of Delta and Richmond since 1993 to provide wildlife habitat and to steward agricultural soil resources. Our mission is to explicitly recognize that wildlife conservation can be supported by farmland habitat and that management can be carried out by farmers in a manner that also improves soil fertility.
The primary method of implementing wildlife conservation on local farms is through the six stewardship programs administered by DF&WT. Through these programs, farmers enter into formal stewardship agreements with DF&WT. Each agreement specifies management goals. Farmers carry out the management defined by the agreement on their farm, the result of which is the improvement and/or creation of wildlife habitat. The management practices also contribute to long-term soil management and crop productivity.
The Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust raises funds to provide farmers with a cost-share payment through these stewardship agreements. The cost-share covers a portion of the cost incurred to manage farmland for wildlife.
There is an incentive for the farmer to share a portion of this cost because of the management benefits accrued to soil fertility. With this model, our non-profit bears a portion of the cost that would otherwise be too prohibitive for the farmer to incur. We get this funding from several sources, including endowment funds, other NGOs, private organizations, municipal governments, as well as federal sources such as Environment Canada.
I'll briefly discuss two stewardship programs that DF&WT uses to cooperate with wildlife conservation. They're the grassland set-aside and the winter cover crop programs, and both programs provide grass habitat for wildlife and improve soil fertility.
Through the set-aside program, farmers plant agronomic grasses and leave them to grow for up to four years, allowing the fields to quickly become tall grass habitat that emulates historical grassland ecosystems that were present prior to the diking and draining in 1868. This dense vegetation provides shelter for small mammals, which in turn are food for raptors, owls, and wading birds, and is also a good habitat for grassland songbirds. This kind of management is specifically targeted as well to conserve four species listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act.
Farmers can also use the set-aside program in their crop rotation because it breaks pest cycles and increases soil organic matter. It can be difficult for farmers to take land out of production like this, but the cost-share provided through the stewardship program helps cover the costs of seed, equipment, time, labour, and in some cases, rents on the field. After four years, the field is returned to cash crop production, and the grassland set-aside program affects over 500 acres of farmland annually on the lower Fraser River delta.
I'll talk briefly of the winter cover crop program, another one of our programs that's targeted at migratory waterfowl conservation. Cereal grasses and clovers are planted after cash crop harvests in the late summer and early fall. This vegetation protects the soils from heavy rains. In fall, as populations of migratory waterfowl build, the winter cover crop fields provide feeding habitat for ducks, geese, and swans. The waterfowl feed on the winter cover crop through the winter.
The benefit to the farmer occurs when he ploughs the winter cover crop into the soil in spring, just before planting a cash crop, thus improving soil tilth. An average of 3,000 acres are planted on an annual basis on the lower Fraser River delta. The ability of winter cover crops to provide feeding habitat has made them an important tool for conserving migratory waterfowl populations. They have also helped mitigate conflict between waterfowl and farming operations, because waterfowl can drastically impact the viability of hay production by overgrazing the crop. The cover crops lure the waterfowl away from the more economically important hay and pasture crops, and this reduces grazing damage to the hayfields.
Currently, it's important to note that farmers on the lower Fraser River delta are compensated through the federal safety net program for damage caused by waterfowl.
In closing up here, DF&WT has conducted research studies to validate the efficacy of these practices for conserving wildlife. Research has assessed the abundance of small mammal prey in grassland set-asides, and the extent to which different winter cover crops support migratory waterfowl. Assessments to date have confirmed that these stewardship programs are contributing to wildlife conservation by functioning as high-quality habitat.
The kind of landscape level management carried out by the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust must be considered in the context of challenges to conservation. Presently, industrial, commercial, and residential developments and the associated transportation corridors are being developed and expanded on the lower Fraser River delta farmland. The landscape changes associated with converting farmland to other uses diminishes its capacity to conserve wildlife and ecosystem function within one of Canada's most significant, important bird areas. To conserve populations of migratory birds and species at risk, farmland habitat must be retained.
The DF&WT model can be emulated in other regions of this country where landowners are equipped to enact conservation practices, but have been given no incentive to do so. When combined with habitat retention, this model can conserve wildlife. Providing cost-share funding can ensure farmers are not bearing the full cost of conservation management, and thereby have incentives to carry out management that conserves wildlife and ecosystem function.
The main point I must make here is that when there's a cost associated with managing a landscape for wildlife conservation, that cost cannot be placed solely on the landowner. The value of the environmental goods and services must be recognized and paid for by society so that those goods and services can be realized.
From this specific example of the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust, I will comment on the proposed national conservation plan. The purpose of the NCP should be to retain the existing ecological function of Canada's ecosystems, especially those that are critical to the conservation of a wide array of species.
Within this context, the NCP should explicitly recognize the ecological function of the lower Fraser River delta, including its critical importance as a node for wildlife migration. Furthermore, a specific objective of the NCP should be to retain the existing ecological function of this delta by preventing the further development of farmland.
Another specific objective should be to support conservation models that engage private landowners in the management of existing farmland habitat, similar to the work conducted by the Farmland & Wildlife Trust. This kind of collaborative model ensures that managed private lands can connect protected habitat, thereby increasing our capacity to conserve Canada's wildlife.