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'Darn hard to study, the little beggars' Add to ...

"The ideal is to get the win-win, where you can promote people making a living off the land and keeping it as livable for skinks too."

The critical thing, he says, is to involve the landowners without triggering concerns that saving the skink will cost them their livelihood.

Over the past half-century, the cattle industry became less profitable and many farmers turned to grain and potatoes. About 7,000 hectares of mixed-grass prairie were converted to potato farms from 1961 to 2000, and the area is now known as King Spud Country. The region's 24-hour McCain Foods potato-processing plant, with 500 employees, is by far the biggest player in the local economy.

On the surface, the two appear to be mutually exclusive: Potatoes grow best in soil too heavy for skink habitation. But there's a mixed-soil zone between the two types of terrain that skink boosters say could be crucial to the animal's survival, and they want to get

landowners onside before more habitat is lost.

Carberry Mayor Wayne Blair, who wants the town to erect a skink statue as a tourist attraction, says it will be difficult

to persuade potato growers

to relinquish the crop, but

landowners who haven't made the switch to potatoes might yet be open to choosing mixed grasses instead.

"I think the potato growers would be a hard sell, to take land out of production right now, but in some of the cases where the growers aren't potato growers, I don't think it would be nearly as tough," Mr. Blair says. "A lot of them would say, 'We can live with what we're doing right now.' "

LOCAL CHAMPION

Much of what is known about skinks is thanks largely to one man who has been chasing them for 47 years.

As a typical boy growing up on the Shilo military base, Errol Bredin spent his summers pocketing frogs, scrutinizing rocks for fossils and mastering the art of catching the small lizards darting around the sand hills. It's a tricky skill: A skink can drop its tail and regrow it later, so it's best to lay an open, gentle slap over the lizard's body and scoop it up, lest you are left with just a twitching tail.

For decades, Mr. Bredin, 58, felt like the only one interested in skinks. Even today, lifelong locals can be surprised to discover that they have a lizard in their midst.

But as the years passed, the field naturalist became increasingly concerned at what he was seeing. Sandy, open sites where he used to study skinks as a teen now lie deep in aspen forest. The march of the trees happened before his eyes.

"In a lot of ways, it's a natural succession, or they say it is. I don't necessarily agree with that," Mr. Bredin says from his home near the Carberry Sandhills, south of Austin. "They [skinks]are threatened, and it's going to go beyond that relatively quickly if we let things go the way they are."

Though he has no formal science training, Mr. Bredin has written numerous scientific papers on the northern prairie skink and has become the

go-to man for everything skink-related.

He penned the report that prompted the Canadian government to list the northern prairie skink as threatened in 1989 and it was his fieldwork that helped to raise their federal status to endangered in 2004. (In Manitoba, the species is listed as threatened and its status is under review by the Endangered Species Advisory Committee.)

"For a long time, I was like a voice in the wilderness, and when that paper came out 'endangered,' that kicked in the federal guidelines. ... It was like passing on the torch. I knew they would be protected," Mr. Bredin says of his "little skink friends."

Now, he hopes to see others champion the cause to implement serious management measures. "If they're very tardy on that," he acknowledges sadly, "then I don't hold a lot of hope. Thirty, 40, 50 years from now, they could be gone."

It's not the end of days yet. The skinks emerged late this year because of a spring cold snap, but they did emerge, and skink supporters believe that there is still time to turn things around.

If they succeed, their efforts will reach beyond these native lizards and into the sandy hills they call home.

"The mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, there are some very, very serious threats to it," Dr. Rutherford says. "I don't want to call them an indicator species. I don't think that's the right language." But their habitat is disappearing, she says.

"Saving a skink isn't going to cure cancer, but they're an important part of an ecosystem that is declining and I think that has some important consequences."

Tenille Bonoguore is a writer for Globe T.O.

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