Grasslands: An Opportunity for Indigenous Engagement

By Carrie Selin, with input from Paul McLauchlin, P.Biol, MBA, Environmental Leadership Matters and Melinda McLauchlin, C.Tech, MCA Environmental Management

Native temperate grasslands are the most altered and endangered terrestrial ecosystem on the planet today and are underrepresented in protected land designations within the province of Alberta (less then 2%)[1]. Of the original grassland habitats remaining in western Canada, only 25-30% remain in a natural state in Alberta.

These grasslands are a natural asset that produce goods and services, referred to as ecosystem services (ES), which are the benefits that humans receive from nature. These benefits include provisioning services such as food and clean water, regulating services that affect climate, floods and water quality, cultural services that provide recreational benefits, and supporting services such as soil formation[2].

In concert with efforts currently underway to further define and determine the value of ecosystem services, there is an opportunity to increase the recognition of ecosystem services that grasslands provide, while also incorporating the value into policy and management frameworks and conservation market approaches.

Alberta has a significant and diverse Indigenous land base with 1.25 million acres of Métis settlements and 2.01 million acres of First Nations reserve land. First Nations lands in Alberta remain largely undeveloped and, unlike off reserve, have not been fully transformed into cultivated agricultural lands. As a result, reserves in southern Alberta have some of the largest tracts of contiguous native grassland and other undisturbed habitats.

Over 250,000 Indigenous people in Alberta have important contributions to make to the social, cultural, environmental and economic fabric of the province. EcoServices Network (ESN), a multi-disciplinary group of stakeholders working collectively to develop the knowledge and capacity required to implement conservation markets in Alberta, is building relationships and engaging with Indigenous communities in a dialogue on ecosystem services. Recognizing the value of Alberta’s grasslands, ESN is working with partners to develop the knowledge, tools, and skills for Indigenous communities to identify and capture the opportunities ecosystem services present on their lands.

ESN aims to work with Indigenous partners to create conservation market opportunities in which First Nations communities would receive an economic incentive or income for the ES their grasslands provide, including raising cattle for food production and other benefits such as habitat provision, carbon storage and water purification.

By inviting traditional knowledge and Indigenous perspectives to build understanding of opportunities and potential limitations related to ES on Indigenous lands, ESN is opening pathways for meaningful conversations and active participation in the creation of conservation markets in Alberta.