Flights Through History

Written by Joe Sands
Friday, May 13, 2016

Photo of Joe Sands.Alberta comes in large doses. To the west, the Rockies reach above the imagination. To the east, the expanse of prairie meets the horizon in a conflict of beige and orange as the sun rises. When you fly across the province you cut across history at two scales. The first is the geology that carved the landscape: rocky mountain uplifts; remnants of the last ice age, granite rocks deposited across the short grass steppe; and the features that we are here for, the ice-scraped potholes that when full, provide some of the most productive waterfowl habitat on the continent. In 2016 many potholes are empty, even those that have not been purposefully drained, and there is a foreboding sense of drought. Whether or not a long term drought is on the horizon is tough to say. All I can say is that wetlands (and thus waterfowl) are intimately connected to precipitation. The abundance of each have oscillated together for millennia and will continue to do so, so long as wetland basins remain intact and capable of producing adequate broods in wet years.

The second scale of history is human. We fly across a mix of old and modern. A 1930s structure sits next to a new ranch house; an 1860s stone foundation and wall stands alone in the grass. Old equipment often sits in a front yard, rusty testaments to the old days. Embedded within a human history of our surveys are 100 years of migratory bird conservation. In 1916 the United States and Britain (on behalf of Canada) signed the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds- the first international treaty written with the intention of conserving wildlife. The treaty protects nearly all migratory birds in North America and was written in part because of rapid declines in waterfowl populations. In a sense, it is the reason why we are here counting ducks: we have a trust responsibility to manage the resource responsibly for the American people. In the hundred years since the Treaty was signed, waterfowl have endured droughts and dustbowls, as well as periods of wet cycles. These events are a fact of life on the prairies. However, as a result of the Treaty and Migratory Bird Treaty Act that followed, the careful management of waterfowl with international partners was possible, and nearly all species of waterfowl in North America are now thriving. The Treaty was instrumental to this conservation success and they continue to drive strong international commitments to conservation that were so badly needed a hundred years ago, and remain necessary today.

This photo was taken about 10 miles to the north of Empress, Alberta, along the Saskatchewan border. As we continue our surveys to the north, the wetland and upland habitat conditions are improving, from the much drier conditions further to the south around the Lethbridge and Medicine Hat areas. Photo Credit: Jim Bredy, USFWS.

This photo was taken about 10 miles to the north of Empress, Alberta, along the Saskatchewan border. As we continue our surveys to the north, the wetland and upland habitat conditions are improving, from the much drier conditions further to the south around the Lethbridge and Medicine Hat areas. Photo Credit: Jim Bredy, USFWS.