Thanks for the memories: Reflecting on a career in conservation almost four decades in the making

Riding horses at Old Man on His Back Ranch (Phto by Bob Santo)

Riding horses at Old Man on His Back Ranch (Phto by Bob Santo)

November 7, 2013 | by Bob Santo

There are some moments in life that are remembered by their sights, sounds and smells. For me, one of the most memorable moments in my 10-year career at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is defined by the sound of dozens of hoofs drumming the prairie at Old Man on His Back (OMB) and the sight of hair flying in the wind.

On that day in early spring 2004, the weather had cooperated with us as several dozen guests and members of the media traveled to OMB for the historic release of a herd of plains bison originating from Elk Island National Park. Close to 40 of us had huddled behind a series of hay bales near the bison enclosure, not wanting to scare the herd off by our presence.

Sitting there, waiting for them to emerge from the enclosure where they’d spent the winter, a hush came over our group. First, a couple of bison came through, and the rest of the herd bolted back.

They came through the gate all of a sudden, towards our group. You could hear their hoofs and see their hair flying in the wind. It was magical in some ways — it all just happened in a moment.

Plains bison (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

Plains bison (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

Then, the herd stopped about 200 yards from us and started grazing — the first time plains bison had grazed on these lands for almost a century. Some members of our group became very emotional and started crying tears of joy. The fact that the bison were free here for the first time in 100 years — it all came together at once. That moment was the crowning achievement of the dream of a dedicated rancher, conservationist and someone who I’d come to call a friend — Peter Butala.

Every time I come back to OMB, I feel the same way and I remember that day. And just because I’m retiring from NCC doesn’t mean I can’t go back and enjoy these places.

As I get closer to my last day of work at NCC and begin thinking about my life, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am thankful for many things over the previous 10 years as an employee at NCC.  How do you say thank you or come close to giving appreciation to your family, your colleagues and donors?

Thank you to my wife for being my biggest supporter when work and other challenges took me away from home. Thank you to my colleagues for giving me confidence to face some of the challenges.

And thank you to NCC’s many generous donors and supporters for believing in our worthy cause. Many of my fondest memories have come from donor relationships that have been cultivated during property tours and other events.  Those encounters have led to personal friendships and visits while my wife and I are away on vacation and whether we are travelling close to home or in Ontario, BC or the U.S.

Thanks for the experience of being present for the release of the plains bison at Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in 2003. OMB is home to over 250 different species of flora and fauna, including globally and nationally recognized species at risk such as burrowing owl, swift fox and ferruginous hawk. Old Man on His Back is one of the best of the last — where the least common grassland birds are the most common birds. Sprague’s pipit, McCown's longspur, chestnut-collared longspur and horned larks (among others) can be seen and heard in the surrounding natural prairie landscape.  To hear the wind blowing through the grasses here just takes you back in time.

Thanks for the friendship of Peter and Sharon Butala and the opportunity to fulfill their conservation dreams. Old Man on His Back will always be a flagship property. Hopefully, Peter is looking down on us and thinking we are doing a good job with his property.

Sharon and Peter Butala at Old Man on His Back, Saskatchewan (Photo by Todd Korol)

Sharon and Peter Butala at Old Man on His Back, Saskatchewan (Photo by Todd Korol)

Thanks to NCC for the opportunity of working on the many conservation properties that we have protected for future generations and that we get to walk on every day. Thank you NCC, for giving our staff a “Time out for Nature” in 2012 to celebrate our 50 years of conservation!

Lastly as I prepare to retire, I am thankful that I had a chance to contribute to making a positive change in the world while working at NCC and in a previous 27-year career with Ducks Unlimited Canada. I hope the small influence I may have made will carry on in those whose paths I have crossed along the way.

Thanks for the memories!


Bob Santo

About the Author

Bob Santo worked as the natural areas manager for NCC in Saskatchewan from 2003-2013

Read more about Bob Santo.

More by this author »