Inventory of Wetland Associated Wildlife and Examination of Landowner Perspectives in Southwestern Saskatchewan.
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The goal of this project was to utilize biodiversity as an indicator of sustainability for selected wildlife groups in wetland habitat in agricultural regions and to examine the socio-economic influences impacting wetland habitat through landowner interviews. This project was part of an interdisciplinary research project, the Prairie Ecosystem Sustainability Study. Species diversity of songbirds, small mammals, aquatic invertebrates and the adjacent vegetation was determined for five semi-permanent ponds and three ephemeral ponds in the Beechy and Couteau Hills. Landowner perspectives were examined through personal interviews. Fourteen owners were selected from the immediate sampling site area. The interviews explored the perceptions towards wetlands and wildlife, farming activities that affect wetlands and wildlife, and the influence of agricultural related policy. Species richness, especially that of endemic species (the core species which evolved in an ecosystem), can provide valuable information on ecosystem communities (Groombridge and Jenkins 1996). Overall, wildlife species diversity was the highest in habitat with the greatest composition of native vegetation and the lowest amount of disturbances. Endemic species richness was correlated to sites with native vegetation. Abundance and diversity of songbirds were related to the vegetation diversity, disturbance to slough and upland zones, and the presence of trees and shrubs. The highest species richness of breeding songbirds was nine species at a cultivated site that had large undisturbed margins with native vegetation, trees and shrubs. However, only sites in the native grassland had breeding records of endemic species. No trends were seen between mammal species richness and vegetation or disturbance. However the greatest numbers of mammals species were observed at two sites, one in native vegetation (eight species) and one in cultivated landscape (eight species). Endemic mammal species richness was higher at the sites in native grassland than at sites in cultivated areas. Aquatic invertebrate diversity was highest at a native grassland site with no margin disturbances (99 species). Aquatic invertebrate diversity is influenced by factors including waterbody permanence and margin disturbances. Interviews showed that landowners had strong environmental views and were cognizant of wetland functions and values. All landowners appreciated the hydrological functions and values of wetlands. Two thirds of landowners found aesthetic value in wetlands. However, 43% of farmers stated that wetlands are a nuisance. Most farmers stated that they appreciated local wildlife and showed knowledge of the species present on their farms. The three greatest perceptions of farming impacts on wildlife include the loss of habitat (43%), destruction of nests in fields (36%), and provision of shelter and food for some species (21%). Factors involved in habitat loss include converting wetlands into cropland for ease of cultivation (93%) and increasing cultivated acres (71 %). Many landowners recognized that farming reduces wildlife habitat (43%). This corresponds with current farming practices on upland margin habitat where 85% of landowners mow margins and 70% cultivate to the pond's edge. Interviews found that the greatest incentive to conserving wetlands is personal farm economics. Only 14% of farmers stated that they would conserve wetlands if recommended by governmental agencies. This illustrates the lack of the public will to conserve if the costs are borne only by landowners while the results benefit the wider populations. Wetland conservation and policy should be attentive to this cost benefit imbalance.