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Producer Profiles

Anderson Ranch

Anderson

Ranchers and Sage-Grouse Share Common Ground

When you picture an environmentalist, a cowboy peering out over range that has been in his family for generations might not be the first thing you think of. However ranchers work closely with nature in order to manage their grass and cattle herds and this stewardship ethic is important for wildlife and species at risk.

An organization called the South of the Divide Conservation Action Program (SODCAP Inc.) recently established in southwest Saskatchewan in an effort to enable species at risk in the Milk River watershed to thrive on working and agricultural landscapes. “The South of the Divide area is a haven for many of Canada’s threatened and endangered species,” describes Tom Harrison, the Executive Director of SODCAP. “Species are here because of the good things that are happening and have been happening for generations on these lands,” Harrison adds. “SODCAP was created to deliver extension and species at risk programming on the ground to the people who are managing the habitat,” he says.

An example of such habitat can be found on the Anderson Ranch, located south of Fir Mountain, Saskatchewan and operated by Miles and Shari Anderson. While there aren’t a lot of people who call his part of the province home, Anderson does provide habitat for one of the few remaining populations of greater sage-grouse left in Canada. He has spent a lifetime working alongside the endangered birds, who have established dancing grounds known as leks on his ranch. The leks are critical to the birds’ survival and the grouse return to them every spring for their mating ritual. “The birds nest under sage brush so the predators can’t see or smell them,” he adds. As soon as the chicks hatch, they enter the brood-rearing phase and are unable to crawl through thick grass. Anderson explains that his goal is to manage grazing so the grass is a suitable height to facilitate brood rearing yet still provide enough sage brush cover for nesting.

One lek happens to land on a fenceline that he shares with his neighour, the Grasslands National Park. Together, they have been working to reduce fence collisions with the sage-grouse, preferring a common sense approach that wouldn’t get tangled up in red tape. “We were talking about what we were going to do and I just walked over and pulled the staples out the fence,” notes Anderson, explaining that he lays the fence down for all but six weeks of the year. “[Parks Canada] said if you’re willing to do that than it looks like we’re going to have to step it up a little, and they have,” Anderson says, who also provides cattle grazing in the park to help manage grass and bolster bird populations on the federal property.

This type of collaboration is exactly what SODCAP is interested in promoting. “Producers and researchers exchanging information and solutions for species at risk is ideal,” says Harrison, who adds that SODCAP is involved in conserving at least thirteen species listed under the Species at Risk Act. “Managing for multiple species at risk can be tricky,” Harrison explains. “The species each have different needs, and managing for just one could cause trouble for another,” he says. Anderson agrees. “What makes one more important than the other? They both have the same piece of paper hanging beside their names,” Anderson states.

After working with Parks Canada for the past two years, Anderson says it’s still too soon to tell if the management is working for the sage-grouse or other species. “I don’t know what the long term answer is going to be but we’re working on it,” Anderson says. “I’m not sure if I’m the most researched place in Canada but I’ve got to be right close. I don’t want to mess up too bad,” he jokes. More seriously, he says “I want to be able to do this for a long time.”

While some producers are saddled with the responsibility of providing critical habitat for Canada’s species at risk, organizations such as SODCAP are making sure that conservation can be a two-way street. “We want to highlight that having species at risk is a positive thing, and that agriculture plays an important role in conservation,” Harrison adds. SODCAP is currently piloting results-based agreements for producers, providing incentives for to farmers and ranchers who are making management decisions that support particular species at risk. The first of its kind in Saskatchewan, SODCAP is hoping to bring species, producers and biologists together for a common goal of conservation.

- Written by Tara Mulhern Davidson