Guardians Of The Grasslands
Canadian Geographic|Best of Canadian Geographic, 2019
How conservationists and ranchers in Saskatchewan are working to slow the loss of an endangered ecosystem
Karen Pinchin

FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, Brenda Peterson, the daughter of a rancher, didn’t want Grasslands National Park to exist. In 1975, standing at a packed community hearing in Mankota, Sask., the petite, just-married university student studying education, her hair a mop of chestnut curls, spoke passionately against the park. The Saskatchewan Natural History Society first proposed the preserve in the mid-1950s, and, two decades later, the provincial and federal governments were finally considering it. “I said, ‘My family has looked after this place since 1911,’” she recalls. “‘You think I’m just going to give it to the park? We’re doing a fine job.’” But her group’s protests failed. In 1981, Parks Canada and Saskatchewan signed an agreement to establish the park, and Parks Canada subsequently bought two ranches totalling 140 square kilometres in the Frenchman River area. But when conditions in the agreement about oil and gas exploration and water resource management proved to be unworkable, the acquisition of additional park lands stopped. It wasn’t until 1988 that Saskatchewan and Parks Canada revised their agreement and proceeded with establishing the park, which today is divided into the East Block and West Block and encompasses about 900 square kilometres. Almost overnight, it seemed to Peterson, parks staff posted DO NOT ENTER signs, outraging locals. “One time, they stopped my brother and said he was trespassing — on his own land,” says Peterson. “The park people didn’t know where the border was.”

Now, sitting comfortably on horseback, Peterson, 62, overlooks her family’s historical ranching lands from atop a massive ridge, the wind-whipped grass peeling down along the hillside. She squints into the sun, the horizon a sweep of greys and greens, browns and tans.

Grasslands National Park, on the west side of Saskatchewan’s southern edge, represents one of the most threatened terrestrial ecosystems on the planet. For millennia, northern mixed-grass prairie grassland, a perfectly evolved balance of short, mid and tall native grasses, banded a sweeping swath of North America, running from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba down to eastern Wyoming and northern Nebraska. But since Confederation, grasslands ecosystems in Canada have plummeted to an estimated one-quarter of their former range. It’s even worse in the United States, where all but five per cent of native grasslands have been lost to agriculture and residential or commercial development. Today, 98 per cent of Grasslands National Park is critical habitat for imperilled species, including sage grouse, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls and the tiny swift fox.

For decades, community groups, biolo­gists, researchers and park employees have raced to save this region’s threatened wild­ life and delicate ecosystems, claiming that human meddling — including agriculture, oil and gas development, and the introduct­ ion of invasive species — is the root of the problem. At the same time, ranching fami­ lies such as Peterson’s, whose cattle have grazed these rambling fields for more than a century, are frequently credited by ecolo­gists for saving and protecting these lands.

Standing alone on the aptly named Million Dollar Viewpoint later that day, overlooking undulating grassy mount­ ains and seemingly endless plains afire from the setting sun, I find myself wonder ing: once the land is broken, what does it take to fix it?

BUMPING ALONG a camel­coloured road, Samantha Fischer’s pickup truck kicks up a plume of dust. Before becom­ ing a resource management officer at Grasslands National Park, Fischer worked as an oil and gas consultant, doing envi­ronmental assessments in Alberta. In 2013, she started a master’s degree in natural resources management at the University of Manitoba, specializing in prairie birds and grasslands. She met her fiancée, a fourth­generation rancher, while working at the park, and the couple now live in nearby Val Marie.

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