by Art Jones
We in Saskatchewan have the privilege of living in one of the world's most diverse environments. We have thousands of lakes, rolling sand dunes, forest, parkland and prairie. One of the special places in the province's southwest is called the Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area. It's part of what's left of one of North America's major ecosystems.
The semi-arid mixed grass prairie originally spanned three provinces and five states and covered more than 160-million acres. Most of the mixed grass prairie was broken for farmland; now only about 30 per cent of what was originally found in Canada is left. In Saskatchewan, large unbroken areas of mixed grass prairie can be found in southwestern and south-central
Sweeping vistas of open prairie, incredibly beautiful sunsets and sunrises and abundant wildflowers are just some of the attractions of this remarkable area. The area is also a haven for wildlife rarely seen by most Canadians. Herds of pronghorn antelope roam the hills and there may be sightings of imperiled birds such as the burrowing owl and the long-billed curlew. It is also the area where efforts to re-introduce the swift fox into the prairie landscape have been made.
One of the best examples of the mixed grass prairie in Canada can be found in the 5,302 hectare Old Man On His Back Conservation Area, which is part of the Old Man On His Back Plateau.
The Old Man On His Back Conservation Area has its roots in 1989 when Peter and Sharon Butala approached the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Saskatchewan Environment about buying their ranch as a way to conserve the native prairie in the area.
Money for the project was donated by several organizations including the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Saskatchewan Environment through the Fish and Wildlife Development Fund. The Fund contribution included nearly half the value of the ranch and close to $70,000 to help cover the cost of restoring more of the native prairie and to re-introduce bison to the area.
"The money in the Fish and Wildlife Development Fund comes from 30 per cent of hunting and fishing licences," says Conrad Olson of Saskatchewan Environment. "The Fund was set up to conserve and improve habitat. The Old Man On His Back Conservation Area is one of the largest projects the Fund has contributed to. We are delighted to be involved in this project which goes a long way to conserving part of our environmental heritage. Now the next step is already underway. Last December a small herd of bison was reintroduced to the area."
Bison, often called buffalo, are in the same family as cattle, sheep and goats. True buffalo are native to Africa and Asia but the first frontiersmen thought the bison looked like oxen and called them Les boeufs, which later became buffalo.
First Nations people used bison for meat and other things such as tallow, grease, medicine, blankets, clothing, boats, rope, shelter, glue and twine.
Before the European settlers arrived on the prairies in large numbers the bison population was estimated at about 50 to 60 million. Herds were reported to take five days to pass by a given point. But by 1884 over-hunting had driven the bison close to extinction.
"At one time bison filled an important ecological niche as the natural grazers of the mixed grass prairie and were important to the diet of several predators," says Saskatchewan Environment's Don McDonald.
"Although cattle have replaced bison as the main grazers in the Old Man On His Back Conservation Area, having a herd of bison there will contribute to the efforts to preserve as much of the natural ecosystem as possible. The 50 animals that were reintroduced to the area last winter came from a purebred herd from Elk Island National Park in Alberta. I must applaud the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the other partners for their role in the reintroduction. Those involved are clearly demonstrating a commitment to conservation."
Future plans for the Old Man On His Back Conservation Area include returning cultivated land to natural prairie, restoring the Butala homestead, working with other landowners to conserve and restore native prairie, doing an archeological and biological inventory and building a visitor centre.
For more information contact:
Habitat Protection Manager
(306) 536-8452 (cell)