“The link to climate change is these grasslands that are being plowed up have a massive store of carbon in their soils,” said Lamb. “When we plow intact grasslands, we are releasing soil carbon, so that’s the climate change angle is that these habitats are holding massive amounts of carbon and with good management they can hold more. When they are lost to crop agriculture, it releases enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But, if they are maintained as range intactlands, they are very resilient to climate fluctuations.”
Another important aspect of Lamb’s grassland conservation work that also supports wildfire prevention, by using “controlled burns to help lower the risk of devastating fires” resulting from climate change causing more frequent drought conditions that create the tinderbox for disaster. Lamb said introducing fire in the form of controlled burns not only help to refresh grassland species, but can also serve as a firebreak that can help contain wildfires that are becoming a more frequent occurrence throughout the Prairies.
“When you get extreme weather conditions, high temperature, high wind, and drought-type of conditions, those are particularly challenging for wildfire management,” said Lamb. “When it’s hot and dry and the wind is blowing at 80 kilometers per hour, fires are effectively unstoppable. So one of the things that we have been finding is with judicious use of prescribed fires, you can help prevent wildfire spread.
“A couple of years ago, a wildfire that was encroaching into the Cranberry Flats area just south of Saskatoon became controllable because it moved up to the boundary of a prescribed fire set by the Meewasin Valley Authority a couple of years earlier and that patch became an anchor point from which they could control and divert the wildfire. So, it is a technique that can be really valuable.”
Lamb’s research group works with the Meewasin Valley Authority and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (Saskatchewan Office) as well as other organizations like the Canadian Prairie Prescribed Fire Exchange, to reintroduce fire in the form of controlled burns to help restore degraded grasslands and help lower wildfire risk.
“You don’t want to sit around and wait for a catastrophic wildfire, so under carefully controlled circumstances you can re-apply fire to the landscape to lower risk and help with grassland conservation,” said Lamb, whose controlled burn research brings him back to connecting with ranchers, helping to revive grassland grazing areas affected by wildfires.
“In 2017, there were those terrible fires in west-central Saskatchewan, thousands of hectares burned, hundreds of dead cattle, entire ranches burned,” said Lamb. “So I have had a research program in the last five years looking at how those grasslands recover following fire, with the goal of being able to better inform cattle producers on the recovery rates that they should expect following fires… The ranching industry is basically holding and protecting these grasslands. I would say that generational ranching families are hands-down some of the best stewards of the land that we have in the province.”