IBA Ellice-Archie and Spy Hill Community Pastures
St-Lazare, Manitoba
Site Summary
MB103 Latitude
50.446° N
101.403° W
300 m
583.16 km²
Arable land, Improved pasture land, Temperate deciduous forest, Northern temperate grassland, Scrub, Rivers, Streams
Land Use:
Agriculture, Nature conservation and research, Energy production and mining, Other, Rangeland/pastureland
Potential or ongoing Threats:
Oil and gas drilling, Mining and quarrying, Utility & service lines, Fire and fire suppression, Invasive alien species
IBA Criteria:
Conservation status: Nature Conservancy (owned by), Wildlife Management Area
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Site Description
Ellice-Archie and Spy Hill Community Pastures (former PFRA: Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) straddle the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border near the towns of St-Lazare in Manitoba and Spy Hill in Saskatchewan. The Assiniboine and Qu'Appelle Rivers meet in this area, carving deep river valleys. The lower shelf of the river valleys has large and tall riparian deciduous woodlands, the steep slopes contain scrubby oak and aspen and the ridge opens up into open grassland. Most of the area is native mixed-grass prairie, although some has been seeded to non-native grasses such as crested wheat grass and alfalfa.

The federal government established these community pastures in the 1930s following largescale crop failure during widespread drought. These lands were managed under the PFRA system until 2012, at which point the federal government divested responsibility to the respective provincial governments. The pastures are currently managed by the Association of Manitoba Community Pastures (AMCP), which is overseen by a larger group (to ensure the principles of ecological integrity), the Range Implementation and Management Group (RIMG). RIMG is comprised of government agencies (Manitoba Agriculture and Manitoba Sustainable Development), a crown-corporation (Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation) and non-government organisations (Nature Conservancy of Canada and Bird Studies Canada).

The actively managed community pastures around Ellice-Archie and Spy Hill are probably the most important areas in Manitoba for threatened grassland songbirds. These pastures are large and road access is limited, therefore it is logistically hard to get accurate songbird totals for a single day. The globally vulnerable Sprague’s Pipit is present in high densities in both pastures. A total of 146 calling males was recorded in these pastures in June 2017. Another declining songbird, the globally Vulnerable Chestnut-collared Longspur is also present here, 230 being counted in June 2015. Indexes of abundance from point count surveys at Ellice-Archie in 2016 and 2017 were 1.1 individuals per point count for Sprague’s Pipit and 1.4 for Chestnut-collared Longspur. This is almost undoubtedly the highest density of these species anywhere in Manitoba (Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas data show densities across southwestern Manitoba of 0.04 and 0.02 individuals per point count for example, although atlas points cover more habitat types; and relative abundance analyses also put this area in the zone of highest abundance of 0.7 and 2.0 individuals per 15 point counts), This is also a significant area for the nationally listed Baird’s Sparrow - 12 calling males were recorded here in 2017. Grasshopper Sparrow (provincial status rank of S2B) also breeds here in good numbers. This is one of the very best places in Manitoba to see Mountain Bluebirds which is becoming increasingly rare in Manitoba (eastern portion of their range).

Other Species At Risk such as Burrowing Owl and Ferruginous Hawk have been recorded here in the past and could occur again in future if these pastures are safeguarded. Short-eared Owl, Common Nighthawk and Bobolink are also present. Other woodland Species At Risk recorded here in 2017 included Canada Warbler, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-Pewee.

The steep forested river valleys regularly host Spotted Towhee, a rare breeding species in Manitoba, and Eastern Towhee, a rarer breeding species in Saskatchewan.

IBA Criteria
SpeciesT | A | I Links Date Season Number G C N
Chestnut-collared Longspur 2017 SP 88
Chestnut-collared Longspur 1989 - 2018 SU 69 - 230
Sprague's Pipit 1988 - 2018 SU 23 - 146
Note: species shown in bold indicate that the maximum number exceeds at least one of the IBA thresholds (sub-regional, regional or global). The site may still not qualify for that level of IBA if the maximum number reflects an exceptional or historical occurrence.
Conservation Issues
Prior to the federal government divesting responsibility for these pastures, conservation threats were relatively few. The PFRA system has provided ideal conditions in which grassland birds thrive and maintenance of such grazing systems would only be beneficial in the future. Different provinces have chosen to divest of their PFRAs in different ways. In Manitoba, these community pastures converted directly to crown land under the auspices of Manitoba Agriculture which has an agreement with the Association of Manitoba Community Pastures to manage the pastures under the auspices of a pasture manager. Ecological monitoring and reporting is managed by a Range Implementation Management Group. In Saskatchewan the more ecologically significant pastures will be retained as crown lands and the those considered less so will be sold to private interests. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture has stated they will not be selling any of the former pastures and patrons have been incorporated so they can continue leasing the pastures.

These pastures are subject to a number of ongoing threats from industry. The subsurface geology of this area includes mineral and fossil fuel reserves making it an attractive, attainable proposition for developers. This has already led to the establishment of a major potash mine on the northwest corner of Ellice-Archie. The presence of potash reserves is leading to greater interest in the area from mining companies in both provinces. In addition, subsurface oil and gas exploration is increasing. In total, 50% of the subsurface right is in the control of the crown and 50% under private ownership and a series of permit requests have been made over the past 12 months. There is strong interest within Manitoba Sustainable Development and Manitoba Agriculture to ensure the pastures remain intact; however, there are currently no guarantees this will happen due to subsurface rights. The demand for extraction activities makes it very difficult to guarantee the extent and quality of the mixed-grass prairie expanses on these pastures.

Manitoba Hydro wish to export power generated by northern Manitoba’s hydroelectric dams to Saskatchewan via the Birtle Transmission Project. One of the proposed routes is across the native mixed-grass prairies of Spy Hill, effectively splitting it into two component areas. Fragmentation of native grasslands is one of the greatest threats to grassland birds. The relative unfragmented nature of these pastures is one of the primary reasons for high concentrations of breeding grassland songbirds. Fragmentation reduces the carrying capacity of a patch of habitat, especially for Sprague’s Pipit, an area-sensitive species and the presence of a powerline will likely lead to increased edge effects with their associated negative connotations (higher predation, higher parasitism and lower productivity).

In addition to loss of habitat, all the above industrial threats may lead to other negative impacts such as loss of active pasture management, pollution of waterways and wetlands, increased encroachment by invasive species (native and non-native), noise pollution and human disturbance. In Manitoba and elsewhere, mixed-grass prairie is now a highly fragmented ecosystem and in this province tracts of native grassland greater than one section (one square mile) are now rare. The various Threatened grasslands birds mentioned above have lost thousands of square kilometres of their former range (all used to breed as far east as Winnipeg until the early 1980s) and are now dwindling to a mere handful of sites, precisely because of extensive fragmentation and habitat loss. These two pastures, each with >150 km2 of mixed-grass prairie (currently largely intact and not subdivided except for a single highway) represent the last intact "sea of grass" in Manitoba. In addition to the higher density and productivity of Threatened grasslands species these pastures support for that reason, their value as a landscape cannot be understated.

The IBA Program is an international conservation initiative coordinated by BirdLife International. The Canadian co-partners for the IBA Program are Birds Canada and Nature Canada.
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