Pine Butte Ranch

Pine Butte Ranch

Remembering Ray Van Steinburg

Ray Van Steinburg, Pine Butte Ranch (Photo by NCC)

Ray Van Steinburg, Pine Butte Ranch (Photo by NCC)

Rancher and grassland protector Ray Van Steinburg passed away in March 2017, after dedicating his life to transforming the hard-scrabble beaten-down East Kootenay grassland property that he purchased in 1952 into an ecologically vibrant ranch that works in harmony with nature.

Due to Ray's hard work over more than 50 years, Pine Butte Ranch is one of BC's best examples of working ranches contributing to conservation. The combination of native, productive grasslands and wildlife diversity is hard to find anywhere else in the province.

"Mother Nature is our manager," Ray once said. "This is one of the last remaining grasslands in the area and we want to see it continue in its natural state instead of falling victim to the increasing pressures of urban development. Pine Butte has always worked to maintain the ranch as a viable working operation, while still working with — and enhancing — what Mother Nature has given us."

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is proud to have partnered with Ray and his family to conserve more than 1,300 acres (525 hectares) of productive valley-bottom grassland in Wycliffe, BC. The Pine Butte Ranch conservation project was celebrated in 2006 as a gift to Canadians for the important contribution it makes to conserving habitat for species at risk, and for setting an example of conservation-ranching partnership.

NCC will continue to work with Ray's son Hugh to ensure Ray's conservation legacy endures.

In memory of Ray Van Steinburg, we are pleased to share this story written by a former conservation intern about a memorable day spent on Pine Butte Ranch in 2012.

Ray Van Steinburg and Hugh McKluckie: conservationists in ranchers' clothing

By Sonja Seher

Ray Van Steinburg of Pine Butte Ranch (Photo by NCC)

Ray Van Steinburg of Pine Butte Ranch (Photo by NCC)

I'm perched nervously on a sofa in Ray Van Steinburg's living room in Wycliffe, BC. The house oozes with such an intimate connection to the land it's situated on that I feel I'm disturbing something. A large sepia aerial of the Pine Butte Ranch homestead is among other telling photos of Ray's wedding day, his daughter Lynnette's graduation, Ray in military issue garb. Artifacts of Ray's service remain with him today. In this quiet house I speak decibels over my normal volume to overcome the muffle in his ears: a souvenir from a long-ago bomb blast. Ray has delicately unpacked some examples of the meticulous beadwork of Annie Joseph, a wonderfully wise and kind friend who would live with the Van Steinburg's when times were challenging on her St. Mary's Reserve home. The family has remained closely connected to the band and the chiefs that have guided it in the years since.

Ray tells me more about his efforts to restore the health and capacity of the dry grasslands on his ranch in the East Kootenay. Where restoration efforts elsewhere provide work for early season wildfire fighters and out-of-work loggers, Ray has targeted a different group of employees. The individuals Ray has working for him on the ground have four hooves and a serious appetite for grass. He argues that there couldn't be a better job suited to a herd of Hereford beef cattle

The education of a conservation rancher

Balsamroot, Pine Butte Ranch, BC (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Balsamroot, Pine Butte Ranch, BC (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Ray fell in love with this land when it wasn't looking its ecological best. Only sparsely populated with struggling non-native grass species, Pine Butte Ranch could support the health of few cattle and was undesirable habitat for wildlife species in the area. Undeterred, Ray saw potential for greater agricultural production and a healthier natural environment. He self-taught on progressive pasture practices and worked with range technicians to alter his range schedule for the better. In a number of years, the grasses and the cows were healthier by bounds. Native perennial bunchgrasses had been repopulating the landscape and continue to do so.

Ray presented his ranching methods to a roomful of doubtful ranchers years ago, who chuckled at photos of cattle ranging belly-high grasses in the fall. The grasslands needed the cattle, he said, to chew them to their tough crowns and trample their seed into the soil, where it would sprout the following spring. Fire had come to a halt on the landscape. The next best thing for it was a group of large animals with a collective appetite that could rival a wildfire.

Naturalists were not the only group to take notice of the land's restoration. This winter, a herd of over a thousand elk inhabited its pastures. I asked Ray if this would harm the field's production the following spring or threaten other agricultural values. He didn't appear worried.

Walking the ranch

Sonja Seher on Pine Butte Ranch (Photo by NCC)

Sonja Seher on Pine Butte Ranch (Photo by NCC)

Eventually I headed out with Ray's right-hand man, Hugh McLuckie, to inspect the pastures for invasive plant species, conversing the whole time about the changes they've made and how their land has responded. A small rocky pasture at the property's northwest corner, a crummy feed source for cattle, has been left fallow for a few years. Previously home to a few horses to the detriment of tender plants the natural vegetation has sprung back with vigour. A few weeks from now, the field will be flush with pink bitterroot: a culturally important species to area first nations.

Regrettably, we found a small cluster of invasive dalmatian toadflax on one of the pastures. The plants were situated on a recent footpath from the property boundary to the height of land. Cattle don't travel for a view, Hugh tells me, but water. This path was the result of human traffic, hikers eager to visit the site's natural amenities. Hugh wasn't embittered but understanding as we plucked the nasty plants. People come to this see this place for the same reasons the Van Steinburgs laid roots here decades ago. In the coming weeks he would put up a few more signs to warn of the land's sensitivity and keep an eye on the toadflax, but he wasn't about to call the bylaw officer.

Signs of progress

Pine Butte Ranch is by no means free of blemishes and Ray and Hugh are constantly adapting to new threats on the property. Management of this beautiful land is more than a full-time job for these ranchers, who do everything in their power to protect it for the mutual benefit of their cattle as well as its wildlife, plant and human communities.

Driving through aspen trees stunted by their naturally limited access to water, a Lewis's woodpecker (a blue-listed species in BC) curiously flits alongside the truck. Considered a bird with notoriously discriminating taste, the degree of care and service he has witnessed on Pine Butte Ranch is what has no doubt solicited his patronage.

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