For the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), conservation is literally in their name. The private, non-profit organization is committed to preserving the country’s at-risk environmental regions. In Saskatchewan, the NCC is working on protecting grasslands, one of the rarest, most at-risk ecosystems in the world. “In Saskatchewan, less than 21% of native grasslands remain intact,” says Michael Burak, Program Director for Southwest Saskatchewan. “Grasslands are important for carbon storage, with intact native grasslands proving to be particularly effective at sequestration and long-term storage in their deep and extensive root networks. They are vital to the health of our environment as a whole.” Grasslands also allow for cattle to graze, much like bison did for generations long ago. Grazing is important to the ecosystem, providing important support to vegetation.
The NCC made a major step in preserving these significant lands in southern Saskatchewan not long ago. After learning of an impending land sale, Burak made arrangements to purchase 2,240 acres of land consisting of over 2,000 acres of unbroken native grasslands and 180 acres of wetlands in the Big Muddy area. This large block of land, is located along the western edge of a beautiful coulee known locally as ‘Hole in the Wall Coulee’ which is where the Property got its name. The Hole in the Wall Property is home to many species at risk and is part of the largest expanse of intact native grasslands in Saskatchewan which connects the Big Muddy Valley and surrounding area all the way to the west block of Grasslands National Park and the Val Marie Community Pasture.
“This area is not only significant because of its natural history, it’s also important in our cultural history,” says Burak. The region is home to the Outlaw Trail, a major part of the Big Muddy’s history. During the late 1800s, the area was popular with cattle rustlers. During its heyday, the Outlaw Trail had rested horses every 10 miles as rustlers stole and sold cattle and horses between Saskatchewan and the Northern U.S states. The area is also important in Indigenous history, with tipi rings and a turtle and buffalo effigy still present in the area today. Sitting Bull also spent time in the Big Muddy after the Battle of Little Big Horn. “This land is very special for ecological and cultural reasons, and we’re thrilled we were able to preserve it for generations to come,” says Burak.
The Nature Conservancy has other significant land holdings across the province, many of which can be visited on foot. Just 36 kilometres north of Regina is Fairy Hill. The Fairy Hill Complex includes 493 acres of seasonal wetlands and 3 acres of permanent wetlands. Its nearby marsh is the home of several shorebirds, a stop for migrating ducks and geese, and species such as Northern leopard frog, Sprague’s pipit, yellow rail, porcupine sedge and bigmouth buffalo fish have all been spotted in the area. 210 kilometres southwest of Swift Current is The Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area. This 13,000-acre property is home to a herd of around 80 genetically-pure plains bison which were reintroduced in 2003, and now roam its semi-arid grassland. Many other species live in the area including the swift fox, burrowing owl, Sprague’s pipit and pronghorn. A number of tipi rings and other cultural sites are also found throughout the property.
“Our natural heritage is important for both environmental and historical reasons,” says Burak. “The Nature Conservancy is proud of the work we do to conserve our important natural areas.” Getting involved and supporting the work of the NCC is easy. Direct donations and sponsorships are always welcome, and the organization can provide any level of assistance to individuals and organizations interested in becoming involved. “Financial support helps us purchase more lands like Hole in The Wall,” says Burak. “And, donors get leave a legacy behind for decades to come.”
To learn more about the Nature Conservancy of Canada and their work, visit natureconservancy.ca/grasslands.