Film celebrates not just grass, but a special, overlooked habitat

Documentary shines a spotlight on grasslands and why they need to be protected and cherished

Ben Campbell, a rancher from Black Diamond, appears in “Guardians of the Grasslands,” which was filmed at the Waldron Ranch.
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Not all superheroes wear capes — some put on work clothes and graze cows.

Ranchers are the stars of a new mini-documentary called “Guardians of the Grasslands” and their mission is to protect this fast-disappearing habitat.

Three-quarters of the country’s native grasslands have already been lost, and cattle are key to protecting those that remain — something that surprises many, even those raised on a ranch.

“Growing up on a farm myself, I didn’t recognize the important role that cattle play in the grasslands and where we sit as Canadians in terms of using them,” said Sarah Wray, a rancher and filmmaker with Story Brokers Media House who made the 13-minute film with Ben Wilson.

“It was the first time that I was introduced to the idea that in Canada, we have one of the most endangered ecosystems. And I had absolutely no clue.”

Wray and Wilson were inspired to make the documentary by ranchers they met filming other projects for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and Canada Beef. They were impressed with the passion these cattle producers had for this critical, but largely ignored, habitat.

During the filming of the documentary, they also met conservationists who feel the same way.

“There is only one Canadian prairie, and we understand that we have to share that one landscape — there is room for cattle, and crops and wildlife,” Manitoba rancher and Ducks Unlimited agrologist Kristine Tapley said at the film’s premiere here earlier this month.

“But it’s important that the public understand what is at stake, as we see the continued land use change, and the loss of grass and water.”

About 115 ranchers, conservationists and invited guests attended the premiere, whose trailer has been watched 15,000 times since it was first shown at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in August.

It’s estimated that 74 per cent of prairie grasslands have been lost and in the film, Tapley talks about how cattle are the solution to preserving those that remain.

“At Ducks Unlimited Canada, we view the beef industry as one of our best allies when it comes to conservation work,” she told the audience at the premiere. “The thriving beef industry that can compete on that landscape will keep wetlands and grass on the landscape. We also see that this message and that relationship between conservation and cattle that we think is so integral is only missed by the public.”

The documentary was filmed in June at the Waldron Ranch, 65,000-acre grazing co-operative near Longview that has established a conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

“There was just something about this summer that triggered us to capture the right footage and to capture the right message through these interviews to tell this story, not of one particular farm, or one particular region, but of the grasslands as an ecosystem, which we felt we hadn’t done before,” said Wilson.

The primary goal was to showcase the value of grasslands, he added.

“There’s a lot to be concerned about climate change, but we hope that this film is not about scaring people or screaming that the sky is falling,” he said. “It’s a film about celebrating the grasslands, and celebrating the good work that ranchers like Kristine and (Waldron manager) Mike (Roberts) and (Black Diamond rancher) Ben (Campbell) do,” said Wilson, who also narrates the film.

The film, which is intended for both rural and urban audiences, tells the importance of conserving and preserving Canadian grasslands. There was no script — people in the documentary were asked to speak from the heart.

“Here in Western Canada, we have less than 20 per cent of our native grasses left,” Mickenzie Plemel-Stronks, cattle industry liaison with Ducks Unlimited Canada says in one scene. “In some areas, that number is as low as 13 per cent, which is really sad.”

She talks about the importance and biodiversity of this habitat while Campbell describes the root system, and the critical role that grazing plays in sustaining the land.

The film will be screened at upcoming events in Toronto and Ottawa, and anyone who is interested can visit and request to host a screening. Since the film is short, filmmakers and staff from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said it would pair well with an existing meeting or speaker.

“Guardians of the Grassland” will eventually be available on YouTube, but its makers are first trying to distribute it to film festivals, to attract a wider audience outside of ranching.

“There is a lot of excitement about this film,” said Wilson. “We won’t make people wait too long. We promise.”

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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