It is not hard to pick Mert Taylor out of a crowd: white Stetson, square jaw, weathered skin and hundred-mile gaze – he looks to be a cowboy straight from Central Casting.
With more than 40 years in the saddle, Mr. Taylor is one of the longest-serving of the 300 managers and range riders who care for the 85 community pastures run by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA).
Among the few remaining public servants to work on horseback, these cowboy conservationists keep an eye both on cattle and the many species whose survival (31 are already at risk) depends on their good stewardship.
Mr. Taylor has worked at several PFRA sites, and these days is the last word on grazing and conservation at Bigstick Community Pasture, 24,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie and saline wetlands northwest of Tompkins, halfway between Swift Current and the Alberta boundary.
"Growing up," he says, "I never wanted to be anything else but a cowboy."
However, having been with the PFRA more than half of its lifespan, he worries that when it is discontinued, there will be no one to carry on his work.
Mr. Taylor is well aware that so far the government agencies involved in the pasture transition seem to see no need to continue the PFRA management programs that have protected the grass and endangered biodiversity, and kept invasive plants at bay. He also knows, perhaps more than anyone, just what is at risk.
Initially silenced by his superiors in Agriculture Canada, he recently heard from his union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, that he could safely express his opinion on certain topics if he became a shop steward.
"I'm covered now." he says, "I've been deputized."
Asked how the land will be managed once it has been sold or leased, provincial officials in Saskatchewan point out that ranchers already manage their own range: Why would these pastures need professionals?
That sounds reasonable, but people like Mr. Taylor know that running a ranch is not the same as running a 20,000-acre conservation area being grazed by cattle with 20 or 30 different owners.
"We are there to manage resources that belong to the citizens of Canada so that they will be there for future generations," he says.
Why can't the owners of the cattle do the job?
"The patrons we serve often live miles away from the pastures," Mr. Taylor says, "and, besides, they have a lot of other concerns that keep them busy in the grazing season. … The bottom-line pressures of needing to get more income from their herd are always going to drive their decisions.
"For us, it's different. The health of the grass, the wildlife and livestock is our full-time job. We look at the longer term."
Resource extraction just ups the ante, he says. "With oil and gas, there is more pressure than ever on these pastures, and we have to be more diligent …
"No one can eat a gallon of gas or a quart of oil. But if things keep going this way, Canadians will be getting all of their beef and everything else on their plate from other countries."
Once decision-making control is disconnected from federal programs and resources, is it fair or realistic to expect local cattlemen to shoulder the burden for protecting species at risk and the other public benefits the PFRA system provided to Canadians?
In the past two weeks, 32 conservation groups from Canada, Mexico and the United States have endorsed a set of six principles to guide the transition of these internationally recognized grasslands.
These principles say that, for a leaseholding model to work, there must be a way to carry forward the knowledge base and authority of the independent pasture manager. The last principle states that, no matter what governance model controls the pastures, it must "sustain the investment in the public benefits provided by publicly owned community pastures."
If that investment is forsaken, Mr. Taylor says, "I don't want to see what it may look like here in a few years.
"I might come back to visit once – but, if it's as bad as I think it will be, I won't come back for a second look."