Zen-Ridge a sanctuary of sorts

A Swainson's hawk on the Zen-Ridge property.

There is a new conservation site in southwest Saskatchewan where species at risk can find a home in native grassland and wetland habitat.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has cooperated with several partners to acquire the Zen-Ridge property near the village of Consul. 

The property consists of 195 hectares (483 acres) of grasslands, rolling hills and seasonal wetlands. NCC Program Director of southwest Saskatchewan Michael Burak said this is an important acquisition.

“We've been working in the Milk River basin of the southwest part of the province since the early 1990s, and it's also where our Old Man on His Back ranch is located, which is our largest property,” he noted. “We've been working in the area for quite a while, but haven't really had any recent land acquisitions for quite a few years now. So it's the first one in a number of years. The Milk River basin has some of the largest tracts of intact grassland left in the province. Every little bit that we can secure and protect is important, and with the case of the Zen-Ridge property that fact that parts are designated as critical habitat for species at risk is just an added bonus for us.”

Grassland habitat is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Saskatchewan has lost over 809,000 hectares (two million acres) of native grassland during the past 25 years, and less than 20 per cent of native grassland are still intact.

“The fact that the majority of this property is native grassland that has never been broken or altered is definitely a bonus for us,” he said. “It has historically been grazed and will continue to be by the previous landowner who sold us the land. So it's been well managed for a few years now and we will continue to do that, which is why it does have quite a few species of risk that we did observe this summer when we did spent some time out on the property.”

The area where the property is located provides habitat for a variety of plants and animals, including species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act. Portions of the Zen-Ridge property is designated as critical habitat for endangered greater sage-grouse and threatened chestnut-collared longspur.

“There’s quite a few grasslands songbirds that are listed as being at risk that we did see when we were out there,” he said. “That would include chestnut-collared longspurs, which the property is designated as critical habitat for them. We kind of anticipating we would encounter them out there. We actually found a surprising number of McCown's longspur, which is another at risk listed songbird species similar to the chestnut-collared longspur, but it was definitely in higher numbers than we were anticipating.”

They did not see any greater sage-grouse on the property while they were doing their inventory work this past summer.

“I don't think there have been any reported from the general area for quite a few years now, just because of the population decline, but for us to secure a piece of property like this that does have a portion of it designated as critical habitat is just an important piece to future recovery efforts,” he said. “So if and when those numbers are able to rebound, there are areas that are important to them that we have set aside in our protection for them into the future.”

Ferruginous hawks, which are listed as a threatened species, are nesting in the surrounding area near the Zen-Ridge property.

“There are no structures for them to nest directly on the Zen-Ridge property itself, but because we do have them in the area and there is a fair number of Richardson's ground squirrels, which is one of their main prey items, we may look to put up an artificial nest platform in the future to provide an actual nest structure for them on the property,” he said.

The landscape on the Zen-Ridge property is very diverse and the wetlands provide an important water source for wildlife in this arid area.

“Some of those wetlands are less permanent and only hold water for a few weeks or a month of the year,” he said. “When those edges drain down, that provides habitat for a federally listed species at risk plant called a dwarf woolly-heads, which has been found close to the property. None of our staff know exactly what we're looking for in terms of that plant. So this coming summer we're hoping to hire a contractor with better knowledge in that area to actually go out to the property and look to see if we do actually have dwarf woolly-heads on the property. The area is also designated as important habitat for other species like northern leopard frogs.”

The NCC did a detailed baseline inventory of the property this past summer. Staff collected information about man-made features and structures such as fence lines and dugouts, they did a full biological inventory, as well as a full rangeland and riparian health assessment to provide a snapshot of how healthy the grassland and wetlands are.

“Now through the fall and winter we're preparing the actual report for the baseline inventory and once that is done and approved, then we move on to the next phase, which is to take that report and distill it down into a five-year property management plan,” Burak explained. “Those plans will include any specific actions that we identify that we think will be beneficial to the property and the conservation of biodiversity in the long-term or at least in that five-year term that we planned for. Any kind of grazing management plans that we develop based on the results of the health assessments will get included in that plan.”

This management plan will include future species survey activities such as the planned survey to look for dwarf woolly-heads on the property as well as plans for habitat enhancement. A portion of the property was seeded with tame grass in the past, and the long-term intention beyond the next five years will be to restore that area back to native grass.

The Zen-Ridge property in itself is not very large as a habitat for species at risk, but it is well located in association with surrounding grassland.

“There is a lot of existing ranch land around it and a lot of that is protected through the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act, because it is Crown land,” he said. “In addition to that, there are the three large former federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act pastures that are right there to the south of it. That includes the Nashlyn, Govenlock and Battle Creek pastures, which are now being designated as a national wildlife area by the federal government. So between the Zen-Ridge property and those three pastures that now form a national wildlife area, there is a lot of land that connects it all together in a bit of a corridor.”

Several NCC partners provided financial support for the acquisition of the Zen-Ridge property. The Canadian government contributed through the Natural Heritage Conservation Program, which is part of Canada’s Nature Fund. The Saskatchewan government contributed through the Fish and Wildlife Development Fund. Individual donors also supported this conservation project through the NCC’s grasslands campaign, which is an ongoing initiative. People can learn more about the campaign or make a financial contribution by visiting the website at www.conservegrasslands.ca

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