by Ruiping Luo, GPCN Steering Committee
In early December, the Transboundary Grasslands Partnership (TGP) workshop brought together interested individuals and organizations from across the Northern Great Plains to discuss and support native grasslands.

The TGP is a collaborative effort across the prairie regions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana, in recognition of the environment transcending arbitrary boundaries on the landscape. The purpose of the TGP is to form partnerships and facilitate communication and cooperation across these boundaries, with an annual workshop supporting the goals of information sharing and connection. This year’s workshop theme was Culture, Carbon and Conservation, held in Swift Current on Dec 6-7.

Nearly 100 people gathered in-person this year, with another dozen watching the livestream online. Presenters and panelists spoke about their work on grasslands, covering a variety of topics from grassland biodiversity to carbon storage to prairie restoration.

Increasingly, we are learning how important the prairies are for biodiversity and carbon storage. The prairies contain a variety of insects, many of which are important for pollination or to sustain bird populations. Native plants also have deeper roots than introduced species, such as bluegrass and smooth brome, and decompose slower, keeping carbon belowground for long periods of time. They are worth maintaining for these benefits alone, and integrating grassland management into agriculture can bring even more economic advantages.

The two panels invited settler and Indigenous ranchers to discuss what conservation meant for them, and to talk about their experience with different management techniques. Culture was a consistent topic in the Jurisdictional Transboundary Grassland Partnership Producer Panel, along with the importance of involving children and preserving the land for younger generations. For Living Labs, an initiative by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to collaborate with farmers and test practices on farms, the panelists spoke about progress and improvements in sustainability, and that it is better to do something, even if not perfectly. Both panels spoke to the economics of grassland management, and the need for financial support and incentives to protect grasslands or incorporate more sustainable practices.

There are still many more questions about the prairies to answer. For instance, we have little understanding of many of the plants, and the chemical compounds they contain – compounds that could lead to medical breakthroughs, and will be lost once the prairies are gone. We are only beginning to recognize all the impacts of grazing on native plants, and while there is growing recognition of the role they could play in mitigating climate change and providing drought resilience, there are still challenges in restoring native prairie ecosystems, and working collaboratively with producers and land managers to incorporate biodiversity indicators. As with any conference, these questions were captured as much in the formal presentations as in conversations with attendees during breaks.

The workshop brought together many differing perspectives, including academic research and modeling, government policy, Indigenous and settler ranching, and collaborative efforts to incorporate results into management. Still, a common theme emerged: North America’s prairies provide many benefits, and are worth preserving for future generations.

Click here for slide decks from the presentations