Sandstone Ranch, Alberta (Photo by Karol Dabbs)
Conservation region: Prairie Grasslands
Natural area: Milk River Ridge
The Milk River Ridge natural area is located in the Foothills Fescue Natural Subregion of the Grassland Natural Region of Alberta, where only 16 per cent of the native prairie remains. It is rich with natural and cultural heritage and was established to protect a large contiguous tract of intact fescue grasslands and many natural features, including sandstone outcroppings, hoodoos and fossils. Archaeological artifacts provide a glimpse into past First Nations communities and the early prairie homesteaders.
The Sandstone Ranch is situated within the Milk River Ridge natural area, and encompasses 4,143 acres (1,677 hectares) of native grasslands, which provide grazing for livestock and support a wide diversity of wildlife. Since 1960, 111 wildlife observations have been recorded at the ranch. Some have included species at risk like the ferruginous hawk, peregrine falcon, prairie falcon and pronghorn. The North Milk River flows through the ranch providing important habitat within its riparian borders and is home to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada-designated threatened eastslope sculpin.
The deeded portion of this property is jointly owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), the Alberta Conservation Association and the Alberta Fish and Game Association. NCC is the lead manager for the deeded portion and works (with its partners) alongside Alberta Environment and Parks - Public Lands and the Sandstone Ranch Grazing Co-operative to manage the Crown Lease Lands as a unit with the deeded portion.
The Sandstone Ranch has also participated in the MULTISAR Program: a collaboration between the Government of Alberta, non-government organizations and landowners to manage habitat for multiple species at risk. As part of this program, a Habitat Conservation Strategy was developed in 2008 to help guide the management of this working ranch for both wildlife and cattle.
The Sandstone Grazing Co-operative consists of five members who graze 1,810 acres (733 hectares) of deeded lands owned by NCC and its partners, and 2,333 acres (944 hectares) of Crown lease land. Under the agreement, NCC mortgaged the purchase of the grazing lease by the Sandstone Grazing Co-operative. In return, NCC developed a stewardship credit program that provides ranchers the opportunity to earn credits by implementing beneficial management practises (BMPs) on their own properties. These credits partially offset the fees of their yearly mortgage.
This provides incentives for the leaseholders to maintain or improve stewardship of the fescue grasslands and riparian areas beyond the borders of the Sandstone Ranch. Rotational grazing is an example of a BMP that has been implemented by some of the leaseholders; this rotation allows native plants and riparian areas a chance to recover, creating healthy, sustainable grassland habitat that both cattle and wildlife species depend on.
This project was made possible with the support of the Government of Canada through the Natural Areas Conservation Program.