Large swaths of Canada's prairie region are facing drought conditions that are hampering the economic prospects for an unusual spectrum of industries – everything from trucking companies that serve uranium mines to livestock operations scrambling to secure bales.
The dry spring and summer in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba has allowed wildfires to burn while crops wilt. Much of the country's prime farm and ranch lands have received less than 60 per cent of the average precipitation for the period between April 1 and July 14, 2015, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
The precipitation shortfall is so severe that the Saskatchewan government is allowing ranchers to graze cattle on land the province owns as part of its effort to protect habitat. Alberta's Parkland County on Tuesday declared a state of agricultural disaster and others are considering following suit.
The pain is particularly acute in northern Saskatchewan. Wildfires have forced thousands of people to evacuate, shuttering businesses and putting people out of work. Smoke and fire in northern Saskatchewan, for example, forced Cameco Corp. to stop shipping packaged uranium from its milling facilities late last week. This, in turn, could hurt local service firms that depend on companies such as Cameco for business.
The Lac La Ronge Indian Band's business arm, known as Kitsaki Management LP, is among those preparing for an economic pinch.
Kitsaki has invested in seven companies, including Northern Resource Trucking LP and Athabasca Catering LP. The firm collectively employees between 9,000 and 1,000 people, and 70 per cent of those are First Nations or Métis.
"Certainly it is going to affect our businesses in terms of revenue, in terms of the amount of people working," Russell Roberts, Kitsaki's chief executive officer, said. "It will be significant."
The conglomerate's annual revenue ranges between $120-million and $180-million, he said. Kitsaki has yet to pinpoint the severity of the economic damage, in part because some of its companies are doing surprisingly well despite the logistical challenges. Athabasca Catering's employees, for example, have been able to get to work and keep the business running well. But others, such as the trucking division and Kitsaki Projects LP, which does everything from clearing brush to building and maintaining power lines, will be under pressure.
For northerners, the drought's fallout extends beyond raw economic numbers. Residents fill their freezers with game such as fish and bears during the summer, but the wildfires are making this impossible, Greg Poelzer, a political studies professor specializing in northern politics and development at the University of Saskatchewan, noted. "This is pretty close to our Hurricane Katrina for northern Saskatchewan in terms of the impact of these fires," he said. "The drought is obviously not good news for the agricultural sector, but it is even worse news – if that's possible – for northern Saskatchewan."
There were 126 wildfires burning in Saskatchewan as of July 16, according to Saskatchewan's Environment Department. There have been 630 fires so far this year, compared with 222 over the same period last year. There were 101 wildfires burning in Alberta as of Thursday morning. The province has hosted 1,440 wildfires this year, compared with the five-year average of 911.
Some pockets in Western Canada have received record-low amounts of precipitation, or levels considered "extremely low." A large swath of southern Manitoba, however, has received between 85 and 115 per cent the region's average precipitation since April 1, considered the beginning of the agricultural growing season.
The "majority" of Saskatchewan's crops were in "poor to good condition" as of July 6, according to the provincial Department of Agriculture's most recent crop report. Hay, needed to feed livestock, is in short supply and the majority is considered to be either fair or poor quality. Some farmers are sacrificing any chance at harvesting grain in order to feed hungry cattle. "The area that is hurting the most would be our livestock producers," Shawn Jaques, Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. CEO, said.
The Saskatchewan government on Tuesday made 36,421 hectares (90,000 acres) of Fish and Wildlife Development Fund grassland and native prairie available to cattle producers grappling with dry conditions in their pastures and a shortage of feed. Producers must pay grazing fees and that cash will be used to pay for new conservation efforts.