A landscape like the Palliser Triangle holds its own challenges for raising livestock. These trials are well understood by those who make their living on the arid plains, shaping how they manage the native prairie to sustain their herds and the world around them.
But when an emergency protection order (EPO) under the federal Species at Risk Act was placed on Willow Creek Ranch in 2014, it presented an entirely new challenge to Randy and Terry Stokke. The EPO was meant to ensure the protection of the greater sage grouse, but it had the potential to threaten the Stokke family’s livelihood.
At the same time, it gave them an opportunity to tell the real story of their ranch, a story that highlights how they work with the land to ensure its sustainability as well as that of their cattle.
“I think it’s very important that we do share our stories now. Most ranchers were quite reserved and independent in the past,” says Randy Stokke.
These days, producers have to share what they’re doing and show people that they can can raise food in a way that supports species at risk and the environment, he adds.
This wasn’t a new concept for the Stokke family, who have ranched at Consul, Sask., south of the Cypress Hills, for three generations. In fact, they’ve been doing all the right things for decades, and their grassland conservation efforts have allowed them to continue raising cattle and lead the life they love.
Stokke’s parents started their ranch in 1943, buying land that had once been part of the vast holdings across the Palliser Triangle ranched by J.H. Wallace and William Inkerman Ross. The Stokkes raised sheep until cattle prices improved after the Second World War, then built up a herd consisting of Hereford and Shorthorn genetics. In the early 1980s, Randy and Terry bought the previous generation’s share and ranched with Randy’s brother and wife before buying them out in 1999.
Today, they ranch with their youngest son, Jay, and his family. Their middle son, Garrett, and his wife also have a small share in the ranch. Their eldest son, Monty, and his family ranch north of Maple Creek, and they’re in partnership in a small herd of purebred Black Angus.
The Stokkes introduced Black Angus genetics into their herd around 20 years ago, first crossbreeding with Hereford females and then raising their own Angus bulls. They presently run 400 head in total. Heifers begin calving around March 20, and mature females start in early April, which suits their conditions and the early native grass.
“Feed is the hardest thing for us to come by in this area, so the less we feed the better off we are here,” says Randy Stokke.
Their ranch encompasses 14,000 acres, 11,000 of which are Crown lease. Ninety per cent of their grass is native. This short-grass prairie on the eastern edge of the Wild Horse Plain is one of the province’s driest areas.
“The annual precipitation is less than 12 inches a year,” says Stokke. “But the grass is very nutritious, and under proper management cattle do very well here, well into the late fall and winter on this grass.”
Knowing the land has been vital to the success of Willow Creek Ranch from its establishment. “Being such an arid place in southwest Saskatchewan, we have to really look after our grass well,” he says. “We use tame grasses to try to give our native grasses a rest for the spring. We then try to rotate through our pastures.”
They have five pasture units, one of which is specifically for winter grazing. This is grazed as much as possible during winter, then left as soon as they can in spring, where they rotate pastures through to the fall.
“It’s pretty much been the same rotation for the last 70-some years.”
This philosophy is based on studies conducted in the area in the 1930s. When Stokke’s father started their ranch, he was involved with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Onefour Research Ranch in southeastern Alberta, which did plenty of research during the Dust Bowl era on grass management in this dry region.
“They came up with how much grass an acre of this would produce on average, and so we’ve used that research to plan our management of our grasses,” says Stokke. “A lot of research that was done in the ’30s is just as applicable today as it was then.”
Proving the benefits of grazing
As good stewardship has always been a priority at Willow Creek Ranch, the Stokkes were extremely concerned about the necessity of a severe measure such as an EPO being placed on their land. They contacted Environment Canada about taking a deeper look at the issue, which resulted in a two-year project monitoring the species count and grass on their ranch. This resulted in the identification of several species considered at risk, critical or endangered living in abundance on their land.
“We discovered that the mosaic that we’ve created on the grassland created habitat for the different species,” says Stokke.
This project illustrated just how beneficial the Stokkes’ ranching practices are to the species who call this land home. “By grazing these cattle, we’ve created biodiversity that’s healthy for all these species,” he says.
Species at risk on their land include the burrowing owl, swift fox, prairie loggerhead shrike, Sprague’s pipit, McCowan’s longspur, chestnut-collared longspur, northern leopard frog, ferruginous hawk, bank swallows and Baird’s sparrow. In addition to these, more than 50 species of birds were identified on the ranch.
Their experience highlights the necessity of communicating with groups that may not be aware of ranching’s benefits to grassland ecosystems.
“We’ve been doing this all our lives, conservation, but it never got to be an issue before the EPO came about for the sage grouse. So by providing this information, we were able to meet with several conservation groups,” he says.
They travelled to Ottawa to meet with the minister of environment, and have hosted directors at their ranch for tours. “We’re able to show them that the livestock industry is not a detriment to species at risk. So it changed a lot of their thinking, because at one time they thought grazing had to be removed to preserve pastures.”
When this EPO came about, the Stokkes were involved in establishing Sustainable Canada, a rancher-focused conservation group, along with other land owners and stakeholders in the area. This organization was created to inform ranchers about this legislation and work together proactively in response to these measures.
“We knew it was wrong, a lot of the things they were saying,” says Stokke. “It’s a very dangerous thing, emergency protection orders on grasslands, and so we’ve tried to push that point and convince a lot of these conservation groups that that’s not the way to go, that co-operation is a whole lot better result than legal things. Conservation of land and species happens by people, not laws.”
Stokke is currently the chair of Sustainable Canada and continues to work with other environmental organizations to promote the role of ranchers in preserving grassland ecosystems, and he’s found they’ve made strides in shifting attitudes of conservation groups about livestock production. He does advise producers to be aware of what EPOs can entail.
“I would like to warn land owners, especially the ranching industry, to not take that (EPOs) lightly. Protection orders can basically shut your place down,” he says.
In light of this, he’s worked with Environment Canada to develop new conservation agreements to ensure participating land owners don’t have to worry about EPOs restricting their operations to the point where they can’t make a living.
“If you’re willing to sign an agreement to look after the species on your land, there should be some assurance that there would be no more protection orders put on it. It’s not a big stretch, but unfortunately they’re very afraid of being sued by conservation groups if they don’t have some way of legally protecting these species.”
This, he notes, has to do with how the greater sage grouse EPO came about in response to conservation groups suing the federal department of justice, setting a precedent.
The idea behind this agreement, he explains, is to be a more co-operative effort, compared to past acts that have relied heavily on regulation, and thus more encouraging to interested ranchers.
“It was fairly well-accepted all the way up to the top,” he says, noting that unfortunately the federal department of justice recommended the minister not take it forward.
Stokke was also part of a group of ranchers that used pastures previously managed by AAFC in the southwestern part of the province; they came together out of concern when it was announced the pastures were to be taken over by Environment Canada.
“Our group was concerned about being able to continue grazing this land as we had for over 70 years and the amount of complications that would go with it, having (Environment and Climate Change Canada) as managers,” he says. “After many months of negotiations over an grazing agreement, we reluctantly agreed to a grazing permit that hopefully allows us to maintain grazing there for a long term.”
Sharing the real story
Open communication is vital for producers to effectively convey their position on grassland conservation and environmental stewardship, Stokke says.
“We have to recognize that they’re going to be here. So we need to share what we know; they need to share what they know so we can accomplish something together,” he says.
Another key element he learned is to document all your efforts and results, as your experiences may appear anecdotal otherwise to outside groups.
“Everything they base their decisions on has to be science — the science may not be good science — and documentation. So when a rancher just goes into a hall meeting and tells them, ‘This is what it is,’ they’re probably not going to listen to us. But if we can go in there and say, ‘Well, we’ve been doing this for 70 years and I have these birds on my place and we’ve been grazing cattle in this manner for 70 years,’ then they have to listen.”
The value of a producer’s practices and observations is even greater when one considers their proximity to the topic.
“Ranchers are there 24/7, so we’re looking at this land over long periods of time, where most of these researchers are looking at snapshots. They’re there for a month or two, even a week or so, and they base a lot of their theories on short-term research,” says Stokke. “I think ranchers need to get involved. They need to know what these people are doing.”
Stokke is now working on a new pilot project with Environment Canada to bring local funding to counties and rural municipalities for producers who implement sustainable practices. “If you’re doing these things on your land to help species at risk, you should be able to get some sort of a tax break on your land.”
On their own ranch, the Stokkes have added water developments through dugouts in areas without water, and they’ll likely look at implementing different water pumping systems in the future. Their ranch was also recently certified through Verified Beef Production Plus.
The family’s advocacy efforts and sustainable practices were recognized when they received the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award in 2019.
“It was a very big honour for us,” says Stokke. “With all the difficulty over the last five years with the conservation people and trying to convince them that we’re doing the right things, it was a form of recognition that what you are doing was maybe the right thing.”
The Stokkes will continue to take good care of their grasslands as they transition the ranch to the next generation. “I would like to continue doing some more things that would improve the ranch for species at risk and the cattle. That’s first, making a living off the cattle. We have to figure out how we can do that and help the species at risk,” says Stokke.
They’re also happy to see how the land that’s supported their family will continue to do so in the future. “We just appreciate the life we’re leading here, and hopefully our children can enjoy it as well. Our grandkids, they all love the ranching industry, too. They’re all small, so it’s nice to see them take interest in it.”
For Stokke, his life-long passion for raising cattle also endures. “I’ve always enjoyed it,” he says. “There’s nothing like the new calves in the spring and improving your genetics and trying to always reach for better cattle. You fall in love with the land and the cattle.”