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What is Critical Habitat?

By Rachel Turnquist PAg, Forage Extension Specialist

March 2019

Ranching in Saskatchewan is a compatible activity with maintaining and enhancing critical habitat for species at risk. Large ranches in the southwestern part of the province are home to many species at risk including the greater sage-grouse, burrowing owl, and swift fox. Other species at risk like Sprague’s pipit can be found throughout the southern part of the province to north of Saskatoon. Even further north, another species at risk, woodland caribou, unobtrusively roam the boreal forest.

Every species at risk has unique habitat requirements that are necessary to its survival or recovery. This is its critical habitat. For instance, a burrowing owl co-exists with black-tailed prairie dogs in their colonies and also lives in other similar habitats. Burrowing owls need pastures that have a combination of short and tall vegetation but are free of woody vegetation. They use the prairie dog burrows in the ground to mate, live and seek protection.

After the critical habitat is identified, human activities or natural events are assessed for their impact on species at risk critical habitat requirements. For example, loggerhead shrike critical habitat is large natural grasslands that are close to shrubs like thorny buffaloberry. These shrubs may be surrounding a wetland, or planted in a shelterbelt or yard site. Some examples of activities that reduce loggerhead shrike habitat include removing shrubs from shelterbelts and yard sites, converting native prairie to annual crop production and overgrazing to the point that prey habitat for the shrikes is reduced.

Ranching practices can enhance critical habitat; consider Sprague’s pipit, their critical habitat is large areas of healthy, upland native prairie, with limited woody vegetation and limited invasion of exotic grasses. Planned grazing management is a tool a rancher can use to ensure their rangeland is healthy. Planned grazing management advises providing adequate rest for recovery of the pasture in the growing season, balancing livestock demand with forage supply, managing timing of grazing and animal distribution as well as managing intensity frequency and duration of grazing. Planned grazing management also includes infrastructure planning for livestock water, fences, and buildings. Determining the species at risk, its critical habitat and human activities that interact with the habitat prior to implementing infrastructure changes can help prevent inadvertently harming critical habitat.

Many species at risk can be found in Saskatchewan. Identifying each species critical habitat and planning to maintain and enhance it will help sustain species at risk populations.

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