Canadian Forces Base Shilo recognized for prairie conservation

Members of 38 Canadian Brigade Group participate in the final attack scenario during Exercise BISON WARRIOR held at CFB Shilo, Manitoba, on August 21, 2015. Photo: MCpl Louis Brunet, Canadian Army Public Affairs AS01-2015-0023-002 ~ Des membres du 38e Groupe brigade du Canada participent au dernier scénario d’attaque dans le cadre de l’exercice BISON WARRIOR tenu à la BFC Shilo, au Manitoba, le 21 août 2015. Photo : Cplc Louis Brunet, Affaires publiques de l’Armée canadienne AS01-2015-0023-002

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Shilo, Manitoba — Environmental stewardship is an ongoing priority for Canada’s military. While that often means cleaning up the effects of activity on its many training grounds, the situation at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Shilo in Manitoba is quite different.

According to base biologist Sherry Punak-Murphy, roughly half of its approximately 40,000-hectare training area consists of prairie, which actually benefits from the more destructive aspects of activity on the base.

“We cause fires, we trample, and prairie needs disturbance,” she explained. “A good example of this is here in Shilo, we’re right beside a provincial park and they don’t do any burning and all their prairie is disappearing. If certain plant species, like aspen, encroach on a prairie, it’s no longer prairie.”

“It’s not logical,” she added, “but any scientists that have come out here to do research, and quite a few have, they’re always amazed at how natural it is.”

First Canadian military base to be recognized for conservation

As a result, CFB Shilo is the first military base in Canada to be recognized as an Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measure (OECM) by the World Commission on Protected Areas, a part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

An OECM is defined as a geographical area that is not legislatively protected but “is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes” for conservation.

IUCN was founded in 1948 and currently has 1,300 members in 170 countries, including Canada, as well as government agencies and various non-governmental organizations.

“I was excited by the recognition,” Ms. Punak-Murphy said, “because a lot of people don’t understand that we don’t just go out there and blow things up. Until somebody’s been here, they don’t realize that.”

Three kinds of prairie at CFB Shilo

The area in question consists largely of mixed-grass prairie – one of three types seen across the prairie provinces.

“There’s also tallgrass prairie, which is an endangered ecosystem,” Ms. Punak-Murphy explained. “That’s out in the Winnipeg area. It has much better soils so it’s good farmland. It’s all been tilled under. Mixed grass prairie is the transition zone between tallgrass and shortgrass prairie.”

The path to this international recognition began more locally with the province of Manitoba. Officials took a helicopter flight over the training area in 2015 as part of a separate initiative and were impressed by what they saw.

“One of the people from the province was amazed. He sits on the committee that was coming up with these OECMs and recommended Shilo just because of what he’d seen. If you look on Google Earth you’ll see it: all around us is agricultural land. You’d be able to find the prairie. It’s the only place that doesn’t have circles around it because the rest has pivot irrigation. And they dug up native prairie to do that.”

Home to 17 species at risk: plants, birds and insects

Keeping tabs on the animal, insect and plant species that populate the prairie is also part of Ms. Punak-Murphy’s work. The Shilo training area is home to 17 species considered at risk, which the federal Species at Risk Act defines as in danger of extinction or extirpation. Extirpation refers to species that disappear from a particular area but continue to exist elsewhere.

“We’ve got insect species that occur on the base in our sand dune areas,” she said. “It’s shocking to people that insect species are considered at risk but we are, as a world, seeing a decline in insect species so the fact that we’ve got areas for them here is nice. And our grassland bird species have a sanctuary here. We have Sprague’s Pipits, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, and Baird’s Sparrows, which are listed under the Species at Risk Act.”

Manitoba’s only lizard lives here

Then there is what Ms. Punak-Murphy calls CFB Shilo’s “cornerstone species”: the prairie skink, which is Manitoba’s only lizard species.

“We don’t know how it got there but it’s only in parts of the U.S. and the Assiniboine Delta Aquifer area, which includes the base. A naturalist from the Shilo area created research plots in the 1960s and those very same locations are still currently monitored by a Brandon University biologist. So there’s a long-standing history of monitoring the skink here.”

Describing herself as an “old-timer” at CFB Shilo, Ms. Punak-Murphy first worked there as a summer student after completing her undergraduate degree in Geography at Brandon University. She returned for several temporary positions until 1996 when she became a permanent employee.

The military is a champion for environment and biodiversity

“I’ve been here long enough to see a change in the military’s attitudes to environment but also changes in society’s perception of the importance of the environment and biodiversity,” she said.

“And the base is actually really good habitat for biodiversity because of the training. I’ve always been one to say, ‘the military is not the bad guy here.’ It’s a real champion for the environment and biodiversity in Manitoba.”

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