Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation area (Photo by Alan Dyer)

Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation area (Photo by Alan Dyer)

Sharon Butala reflects on donating Old Man on His Back 20 years ago

“This is the kind of giving that is not easy to do, except out of love,” Butala says

Sharon Butala and her husband Peter donated Old Man on His Back ranch to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Sharon Butala and her husband Peter donated Old Man on His Back ranch to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Not a day goes by that Sharon Butala doesn’t think about the Old Man on his Back Ranch in southwest Saskatchewan. It's at this an amazing place that she fell in love with the rolling hills and grasslands.

Peter and Sharon Butala donated the ranch to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in 1996. It now spans 13,095 acres (5,300 hectares) and is home to a herd of genetically pure plains bison. This year NCC celebrated the 20th anniversary since the ranch was donated. 

Peter died in 2008, but not before getting the chance to see big changes come to the property. Up until his passing, he was the volunteer interpreter, taking people on tours around the property almost every day during the summer months.

“He was so proud,” Sharon said. “The land was his life blood.” 

At the celebration 20 years later, reflecting on the ranch’s developments, Sharon said she felt “a bit awestruck that Peter had succeeded at pulling off his dream…and that 20 years later it was still a real thing.”

Changes on the ranch turn dreams into reality

Peter got to see one of his dreams come to life when a herd of genetically pure plains bison was introduced to the ranch in 2003. The bison grazing helps encourage the biodiversity and health of the land. The herd of 50 has since increased to a herd that’s kept at 75 head. 

A bison roams on NCC's Old Man on His Back Ranch. (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

A bison roams on NCC's Old Man on His Back Ranch. (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

When the bison were introduced, Peter would drive out to the ranch and just watch them, trying to learn as much about them as he possibly could.

In 2015, the 13,095-acre (5,300-hectare) ranch was designated a nocturnal preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Its large swath of land without light pollution means stargazers can get the best view of the night skies.

Sharon, an esteemed writer shortlisted twice for the Governor General's Literary Award, has written multiple times about her experience under that night sky.

“Seeing the stars, I’m almost at a loss for words,” she said. “It was a spiritual thing to see the night sky there.”

Giving the land out of love

Sharon and Peter Butala were not wealthy people when they donated their land, where the majority of their wealth was located.

“This is the kind of giving that is not easy to do, except out of love,” Sharon said.

They wanted to see the land conserved, and also had big ambitions for what it could become, such as the home to bison.

“He succeeded in doing it against all odds,” she said. 

A plow wind sweeps through the 20th anniversary

Most people can’t bring up the 20th anniversary of Old Man on His Back without mentioning the plow wind that swept through the festivities. The wind started picking up around 6:30 p.m., just as people were sitting down for supper. It lifted the tent out of the ground as staff ran to try to catch the tent poles. People rushed to grab their belongings. One woman grabbed her dessert to take inside, started walking in, and when she looked down again it was gone. The rest of the event was held inside the cozy interpretive centre.

Some might have been discouraged to see food flying off the table and into the air — but Sharon says she felt exhilarated.

Twenty years earlier, on the same summer day in 1996, NCC had held a celebration of the land. Many people came to celebrate, including Peter and Sharon, and aboriginal people set up a sweat lodge on the property.  

Just as the last prayers were said and the last song was sung, a wind came over the prairies, hit the sweat lodge, and blew up the blankets and hides covering the sweat lodge.

Twenty years later, the same weather happened, only stronger weather and heavier rain. 

“Both times it was nature saying, ‘and never forget that I’m still in charge’,” she said. “Real rural people never forget who’s in charge.”

If you would like to know more about opportunities to donate land, visit this web page, or email saskatchewan@natureconservancy.ca.

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