Opening of the Shell Buffalo Hills Conservation Ranch, September 4, 2013. © J. Ashley Nixon
Wetland and native prairie grassland conservation have made a step forward in Alberta with the launch of the Shell Buffalo Hills Conservation Ranch. The property, which will be managed by Ducks Unlimited Canada, is their biggest and ecologically most important acquisition in their 75 year history of working to conserve critical waterfowl habitat and wetland ecosystems. Funding support to the tune of $3 million came from Shell Canada, with the balance coming from Ducks Unlimited and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) partnership.
The ecological values of the site are impressive. Almost 6,000 acres of grassland, of which over two-thirds is pristine, native grasslands in one block, together with tame hay lands.
As I did last year to promote fuel efficiency, anyone driving through the Canadian Prairies, stretching out across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, will attest to the fact that there is a lot of grassland here. Trouble is, European settlement of Western Canada resulted in the conversion of this natural ecosystem to grain crops and tame forage/hay. Today, only about 26% of native grassland remains in Alberta.
Shell Buffalo Hills Conservation Ranch is located in the Prairie Pothole Region, the core of what was once the Great Plains of North America, the largest expanse of grassland in the world. The name “pothole” should not be confused with the potholes found in limestone “Karst” landscape in places such as the Yorkshire Dales that I used to explore back in my Scouts and student days. Rather, its name comes from a geomorphological feature that has been on the landscape for 10,000 years when glaciers from the last ice age scraped across the continent, leaving behind shallow depressions that now contain either permanent or seasonal water depending upon their depth.
These potholes, with their rich aquatic plant and invertebrate life support globally significant populations of breeding waterfowl. They are, according to Ducks Unlimited, top of the list in terms of the most important and threatened waterfowl habitats on the North American continent. Around 800 of these wetland basins exist in the Shell Buffalo Hills Conservation Ranch, which support the breeding, migration and wintering of 159 bird species.
Wetland protection not only serves well for waterfowl. They work within the landscape to provide much needed alleviation to flooding and its damage, a rather poignant note given that the original date for the launching of the Shell Buffalo Hills Conservation Ranch on June 21 had to be cancelled due to the flooding that severely impacted Calgary and southern Alberta.
One of the bird species attracted to the site is the Northern Pintail, one of the first ducks to arrive from California, Texas and Louisiana for the Albertan spring, and one of the first to depart again in autumn. Over half of this pintail population in North America migrates through California. Most of the others travel along the Central Flyway from their wintering grounds in the Texas Panhandle and on the Gulf Coast of Texas and western Louisiana.
Partnering in conservation
Shell Canada’s conservation partnering with Ducks Unlimited Canada builds upon some earlier partnering, since 2007, with the Alberta Conservation Association and Tree Canada, through which the Shell True North Forest and other former agricultural properties in the southern zone of the Canadian boreal have been purchased and managed. That now extends to 8,908 acres of ecologically valuable land, equating to about 35% of Shell Canada’s oil sands mine disturbance footprint and demonstrating action now, ahead of the reclamation work that will follow in later years.