Wildfires and drought choke Canadian summer


It is mid-summer and since the start of the season the effects of extreme weather conditions in Western Canada have been relentless. Devastation in British Columbia and the Prairies, including raging wildfires and extreme drought, threaten lives and livelihoods.

In June, we covered the heatwave that ravaged the Pacific Northwest. Conditions exacerbated the wildfires that ravaged the interior of British Columbia and left the village of Lytton, the town with the hottest temperature on record in Canadian history, to ashes.

Recently updated figures from the BC coroner show the service responded to 569 sudden deaths – the cause of which has now been confirmed to be heat-related – between June 20 and July 29. Almost 80% of those people died in the last week of June, when Lytton broke her own heat record for three consecutive days.

Scientists are working to count the large number of wildlife deaths in British Columbia. But as extreme drought grips parts of the Prairies, Manitoba cattle ranchers are grappling with a different math: how long they can keep their cattle.

Photographer Brett Gundlock, on assignment for The Times, traveled to Manitoba in July and visited several farms and an emergency livestock sale at Ashern Auction Mart in the Interlake area. According to its longtime auctioneer, this was the first cattle sale this auction house has ever seen in the summer.

[Read: Farmers Race to Save Their Cattle From Canada’s Drought]

I spoke to eight Manitoba farmers and a handful of scientists for our story this week, cataloging the effects of drought on farm families and the province’s farm economy.

The ranches, already cooked by the heat, were also besieged by grasshoppers eating the crops.

“A lot of guys say it’s almost biblical how bad they are,” Joe Bouchard, a farmer and cow-calf owner, told me. “There are swarms of them, the ground is swarming with them. “

But the infestation is currently not considered an epidemic given the geographically varied grasshopper population levels, said John Gavloski, entomologist at Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, a provincial government department.

Dan Johnson, a grasshopper specialist and professor at the University of Lethbridge, Alta., Said that like other cold-blooded insects, grasshoppers depend on the environment to regulate their body temperature.

“They’re in control in part, but in a larger way they’re at the mercy of weather and climate, so as we get warmer weather – and we probably will have it more and more often now – they are doing really well., “he said. Grasshopper levels have recently been low, but the current heat will allow them to maximize their survival and reproduction, Mr Johnson added.

A third generation farmer I spoke to, Stuart Melnychuk, sells most of his herd of 250 cows due to dry pastures and lack of food. He also runs a grain farm and tries to rid his grain crops of grasshoppers, to no avail.

“I tried to control them in my barley field which I was going to end up baling to feed the cattle. I mean, between the drought and the grasshoppers, it’s only valued at 30 bushels an acre of barley, ”said Melnychuk, where it would typically produce at least three times as much.

[Read: The Western Drought Is Bad. Here’s What You Should Know About It.]

“Heat domes,” hot air trapped in atmospheric conditions at high pressure, contribute to drought. The worst heat dome was in June and they persist over Manitoba, a meteorologist told me, preventing precipitation. A team of scientists say the extraordinary heat would not have been possible without the influence of man-made climate change.

Michael Duguid took a new approach to farming about five years ago by embracing regenerative agriculture on his cattle ranch, with techniques that help prevent wind erosion of the soil and keep prairies that are a habitat for animals, including the burrowing owl, an endangered species in Manitoba.

“And if you take the cattle out of the landscape, we go backwards,” he said.

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Vjosa Isai joined The New York Times as Canada’s News Assistant in June. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.

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