Using a conservation assessment as a springboard

Program offers a check on wildlife and ranch health, and works with ranchers to make improvements

The SHARP program is a way to know your land better, improve management practices and demonstrate stewardship efforts, says Melissa Downing, pictured with husband Murray and their children Colten and Rayna.
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Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got until you have a wildlife habitat assessment done.

That was the case for Melissa and Murray Downing, who were among the first to participate in a relatively new initiative by the Alberta Conservation Association.

“We learned a lot about the different species that exist here,” said Melissa who ranches with her husband near Metiskow, a hamlet in east-central Alberta.

“We have over 60 species of pollinators on our ranch — and I never realized we had that many.”

The program is called SHARP (short for Species Habitat and Ranch Partnership) and is similar to the MULTISAR program. But the latter only operates south of Calgary while SHARP is open to producers from Calgary to Peace River. Launched three years ago (jointly with ALUS Canada and the province), SHARP also has a wider focus, not just on assessing species at risk, but looks at all wildlife species on the land.

“We’re always looking for additional partnerships and relationships as the years go on,” said Brad Downey, senior wildlife biologist with the conservation association. “We’re slowly developing and working with producers and getting our boots on the ground.”

When Downing met Downey in 2018, there were no rangeland assessment programs for central and northern Alberta.

“I was telling him how I wanted to do a baseline assessment of our ranch so we can know going forward, what improvements have occurred and how we can measure things in the future to know that we’re improving things” said Downing, the provincial co-ordinator for Verified Beef Production Plus.

“He called me a few months later and asked me if we wanted to be pilot leaders for SHARP in the rest of the province. We jumped on that.”

The couple received a baseline health assessment of their pastures, wetlands and riparian areas.

“It was good to give us an indication of what areas were considered healthy and which ones had opportunities for improvement,” she said.

Some of the results surprised her.

“Our ranch is very diverse in types of species composition. There were some areas that we didn’t consider very healthy, but were healthy for the type of soil that they are, or the type of plant community that existed there,” she said.

“That changed our thinking of what was healthy and what was not within our own management.”

Following an assessment, the conservation association works with the landowners on an enhancement plan and provides some funds for improvements.

A solar-powered mobile watering system is one of the improvements that Murray and Melissa Downing have made since participating in the Species Habitat and Ranch Partnership program. photo: Supplied

The Downings chose to dig new dugouts to maintain the water quality and preserve riparian areas.

“We did see that our water sources had degraded over time from animals accessing them,” said Downing. “We wanted to try and improve those riparian areas so we fenced off some of those, and we added wildlife-friendly fences, so wildlife could still come in and access water.”

The couple practises rotational grazing management and this year seeded more pasture.

“We have a small section that we seeded this year to create more pasture to put cattle on in the spring, when the native grasses are just growing on our other pastures. So we can keep them off of those native pastures in early spring and allow them to grow long enough so they can be grazed without being damaged.”

The Downings also purchased a solar watering system and have installed ‘oilers’ used for parasite control. Cattle like them because the oil helps to keep flies away and so the Downings can use them as part of their grazing management.

“It improves the health of the cattle,” she said, adding minerals and salts are kept nearby. “They look for it and it gets them walking to an area they wouldn’t use otherwise.”

The SHARP program is a little like that — a win win for both producers and conservationists.

“We know that landholders play a critical role in maintaining the habitat for all this wildlife,” said Downey. “We want to look at ways to give back and work with them and assist them in maintaining that habitat and further enhancing that habitat.”

SHARP has collaborated with six producers so far.

“All the information goes to the producers so they can make informed decisions about what they’d like to do on the property,” said Downey. “They remain in the driver’s seat so they can make decisions about what they would like to do. That can be a lot of different enhancements.”

Two producers have already approached him for 2022, but Downey said he’s willing to talk to any interested producer between Calgary and Peace River.

“Ideally, we prefer to have producers within two to 2-1/2 hours of Edmonton because that’s where staff is based,” he added.

Producers with a ranch of 3,000 acres or more will need about two years in the program, while operations smaller than that can complete the project in about a year, he said.

The program ties into the environment and animal care aspects of the Verified Beef Production program, and Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef protocols, added Downing.

“The SHARP program is a way to prove what you’ve been doing to gain consumer trust,” she said. “I encourage producers to look at this so they can see where they are.”

Even those “doing great things” can aim higher, she added.

“That’s the goal for the beef industry: to show continuous improvement,” she said. “This is one way we can do that quantifiably on the environmental side.”

Interested producers can contact Downey at 403-382-4364 or [email protected].

Funders for the project include Canadian Agricultural Partnership, the Alberta Fish and Game Association and the Climate Change Canada’s habitat stewardship fund.

About the author

Reporter

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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