The Qu’Appelle Valley: Saskatchewan’s vital eco-network

The Qu'Appelle Valley. Photo by Paul Huber.
The Qu'Appelle Valley. Photo by Paul Huber.

Formed from ancient glacial activity, the Qu’Appelle Valley cuts through southern Saskatchewan, beginning near the lower banks of Lake Diefenbaker and stretching through to the Manitoba border. Its water, hills, coulees, forests, and farmlands are interspersed with historic sites, beaches and nature reserves.

The Qu'Appelle Valley. Photo by Paul Huber.

The Qu’Appelle Valley. Photo by Paul Huber.

“It really is the best of what’s left in [southern Saskatchewan]. It’s a vital corridor that maintains that connectivity for nature and wildlife, and ensures that the fabric on the landscape remains intact as much as still can be existing,” says Cameron Wood, Acting Regional Director of Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). NCC is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Canada’s most ecologically significant and at-risk ecosystems.

Part of this strategy is securing land directly and working with partners to make sure that what is remaining of natural areas remains intact. The native grasslands found throughout the valley are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. This landscape is an essential wildlife habitat corridor–in fact, the survival of more than 30 rare and endangered animal and plant species depends on the conservation of the valley. Loggerhead shrike, northern leopard frog, American badger, bigmouth buffalo fish and smooth arid goosefoot are found here.

With the growing pressures of expanded recreational and industrial development, conservation is key to preserving the grasslands, rivers, and lakes, while supporting the economic and recreational needs of the people of Saskatchewan.

NCC has 2,988 hectares of property throughout the valley that the organization has either purchased or that has been donated. As property owners, they are responsible for land management and ensuring that the condition of that habitat remains or improves over time. Easements throughout the valley are an essential “tool” in NCC’s toolkit. “When a landowner has an interest in conservation but wants to maintain ownership of that property, either for their own management or to be able to pass on to their own family, they approach an organization like NCC to register a conservation easement on their land,” says Wood. “The purpose of that easement is to keep the land in the condition that it’s in currently, to keep those natural habitats remaining by restricting cultivation or subdivision for a bunch of acreages, or really any kind of use that is not compatible with conservation. It still allows that landowner to maintain their current use, which is agricultural in nature, most often livestock grazing, but often with aspects of recreation and other types of use as well. It assures the landowner that regardless of when they pass on, they know that that land will remain protected. They can still benefit from the ongoing use of it, and it’s just an additional tool to help us achieve our conservation outcomes.”

Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), a non-profit conservation organization supporting wetlands and natural spaces for the past 80 years, has an agricultural producer program for landowners with parcels along the valley. Under this program, a financial incentive is provided for producers to return perennial or crop cover to natural landscape. Improved water quality and an improved environment for pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and other insects are just two of the benefits.

DUC’s easement program includes the Weston Family Prairie Grasslands Initiative, a five-year, $5 million effort to conserve 10,000 hectares of vital habitat throughout the valley. This contribution directly benefits agricultural producers while maintaining Canada’s biodiversity and providing habitat for various species, including waterfowl, songbirds, and pollinators. At the halfway point of the program, 125,000 hectares of cropland will be returned to grass and pasture by 2025, and the equivalent of 75,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide will be diverted from polluting the atmosphere.

Like the Weston Family Prairie Grassland Initiative with DUC, McDonald’s Canada and Cargill work with the conservation organization to expand grazing land and forages, thus protecting wildlife and reducing the impacts on the climate. DUC works directly with farmers and producers securing discounted seed to establish forage, while the landowner agrees to maintain the ground cover for a decade.

DUC is also in forage partnerships with Cowessess First Nation which boosts the community’s economic development and supports its agricultural pursuits with hay and grazing lands. Conservation of this unique landscape also supports carbon sequestration of native grasslands. Both NCC and DUC have worked with K+S Potash Canada (K+S) and other large corporations on habitat conservation initiatives, a trend that is expected to gain popularity in upcoming years.

“These programs we participate in with NCC and Ducks Unlimited are ways to compensate for the land we impact. We do this by working on projects jointly with them to provide conservation efforts in the province. Approximately $3 million has been invested in a wetlands project of Ducks Unlimited and we dedicated just under a million dollars to NCC’s Buffalo Pound project,” explains Brett Welder, manager, health, safety, security, environment and quality for K+S. “K+S wants to be good neighbours and good corporate citizens and an important part of that is working on these projects with valuable partners like NCC and Ducks Unlimited.”

The conservation and easement agreements NCC and DUC have established are key to the survival and preservation of the Qu’Appelle Valley’s unique ecosystem. Most important to these arrangements are the people involved and those just learning more about it. “Appreciate what we have, make conscious choices, and get involved in any way you can, whether volunteering or donations or talking to your circle about why it’s important and making sure that awareness [of this endangered ecosystem] exists,” says Wood. Grasslands and wetlands are essential to a resilient landscape, and the average citizen should care intensely about a resilient landscape.