John Ross was the first rancher to sign on to the MULTISAR (Multiple Species At Risk) program 15 years ago, when no one else wanted to sign up to the conservation initiative.
Now, there’s a waiting list of ranchers signed up to make their grazing land more suitable for wildlife and native species.
“We worked with them (MULTISAR) at the very beginning to make sure that it was something that we could live with and they could live with — and that it was something that would be good for both of us,” said Ross, a fourth-generation rancher who runs 800 to 900 cows and backgrounds calves on 52,000 acres near the town of Milk River.
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The program began as a collaboration between the Alberta Conservation Association, the provincial government, and the Prairie Conservation Forum. Last year, Cows and Fish, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef became partners, which increased both funding, and the territory served. The program initially operated in the Milk River watershed but now extends to Nanton, around the Medicine Hat area, and west to Brooks and Bassano. Since 2002, more than 34 participants (individual ranchers and grazing associations) have undertaken detailed projects on 320,000 acres, while 70 producers have had quick, one-day assessments on 140,000 acres.
“It’s a big collaborative approach,” said Brad Downey, senior biologist with the Alberta Conservation Association and one of the program’s co-ordinators. “Most of the program is habitat stewardship programs that collaborate with producers on the ground to look at win-win situations and ways to not only benefit wildlife or species at risk, but also cattle operations.”
The program is voluntary, grassroots, and producer driven, said Downey. It helps producers make enhancements such as upland watering sites and water wells. Producers have also been assisted with riparian recovery and improving grazing lands to help bring back federally threatened wildlife species like Sprague’s pippit and chestnut-collared longspur. Through the program, producers have restored native grasslands and invested in wildlife-friendly fencing, removing page wire that inhibits the movement of pronghorn.
“Some producers have installed hawk poles,” said Downey, noting a single ferruginous hawk can eat up to 500 Richardson’s ground squirrels in a single breeding season.
“It is an endangered species they want on their land.”
Producers have also installed portable water units, windbreaks, and calf shelters.
“We’re an open book on any innovative ideas that producers may have that can directly relate to wildlife habitats as well,” said Downey.
The program starts with an initial assessment, which includes range health maps, detailed wildlife information, and an evaluation of riparian areas. The assessment is then provided to the producer.
“That’s critical — in a lot of cases, people go out and do surveys, and producers never know what happened on their land,” said Downey. “We share it and then share different ideas about what people can do to improve their habitat as well as cattle operation and then we take that information back and put it all in a report.”
Along with the baseline assessment, MULTISAR provides in-kind support or funding for projects, as well as monitoring of the habitats.
‘A good learning curve’
For the initial assessment at Ross’s ranch, program officials sampled the soils and grasses and monitored animal and bird populations.
“For the most part, we were mostly healthy and then we came up with some projects that would help with other areas where we could use some assistance,” said Ross, chair of the Milk River Watershed Council Canada. “It was a good learning curve along the way. Some places, you realize the grass wasn’t growing as well as it could be. But when they sampled the soil, that’s the best it could do.”
Some spots on the ranch were grazed down a little more because they were calf-weaning areas, but those spaces turned out to be a perfect habitat for burrowing owls.
“You can’t really treat the whole ranch the same,” said Ross. “That’s something I learned along the way. Diversity on the ranch is a good thing and not a bad thing.”
Over the years, Ross has placed new water wells on his property and used salt to get his cattle to graze underused areas. By using water wells and a solar pumping unit on one area of the ranch, he’s kept the cattle out of dugouts without using a fence.
The program is also useful whenever Ross makes changes on his property.
“In today’s day and age, before you put in a fence or watering site or whatever, you need some kind of assessment,” he said. “Basically, all that has been done with the MULTISAR assessment.”
The assessment also helps when doing an Environmental Farm Plan and participating programs such as Verified Beef Production or McDonald’s verified sustainable beef pilot. Ross, who has done all three, said McDonald’s auditors “were really impressed with the report I had from MULTISAR.”
“MULTISAR goes out and does all the documenting. And then you sit down with them — they don’t force you to do anything, but you look at things and say, ‘Yeah, if I did this better, then it would be good for the environment or myself.’ Most of the time, it works better for both of us.”
Some of the changes have had economic benefits, and participating has both improved his management practices and benefited wildlife species.
“MULTISAR has been a fantastic initiative and ranchers are learning about it through word of mouth. And they’re learning about it and actually want in,” he said.
The program is full through to 2018, but producers can put their names on a wait list. For more info, including numerous fact sheets on best management practices, see www.multisar.ca.