Watershed Legacy Program in the Porcupine Hills

The Watershed Legacy Program supports the people who are doing good things on the land and we also feel it’s important to share those stories with the public.

Editor's Note: I almost feel like this blogpost deserves a subheading to the tune of: "What about the cows?!!!" since it's something I hear nearly every day, coming from both urban and rural folks. Whether you're a hiker, a quadder, a rancher or simply a water-bottle toting Canadian - there's something we ALL can do to improve watershed management and health. This is a story by Cody Spencer, our WLP Manager, about the OWC and - cattle.   

West of highway 2 from Fort Macleod, north to Nanton, the Porcupine Hills rise up off the prairie to provide some of the finest grazing lands in Canada. The native rough fescue grass cures on the stem, retaining its protein content throughout the winter, providing good quality winter forage for elk, cattle, and historically, the bison. It was here where the plains cultures gathered to run the buffalo down the drive lanes over Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, for at least six thousand years.

 Overlooking Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, with the Oldman River in the distance.

Overlooking Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, with the Oldman River in the distance.

Today, a strong ranching culture continues, and it is the reason the rangelands have been kept intact. The Porcupine Hills, or the “Porkies” as it’s affectionately known by many, lies within commuting distance of Calgary. This proximity has made it vulnerable to the fragmentation of residential development – it’s a beautiful place to live, and many people migrating out of urban areas want their own slice of paradise to build their dream home. It’s a case of “loving the hills to death” and these pressures will persist as our population grows.

Ranchers know the value of keeping these lands intact. The intact grassland is not only the economic foundation for their livelihoods, it’s essential to maintaining water quality, wildlife habitat, food for people, and even the postcard aesthetic views of southern Alberta that are a part of our heritage. For an emotional account of a rancher trying to keep his family ranch intact, check out Corb Lund’s song “The S Lazy H”.

The Watershed Legacy Program supports the people who are doing good things on the land and we also feel it’s important to share those stories with the public.

There were many projects throughout the Oldman basin that the WLP was able to support this year - 3 of these projects are within the Willow Creek - all of which are already benefitting water quality. On Lyndon Creek, Gerald Vandervalk has worked with Cows & Fish for years, gaining the knowledge to enhance the riparian area on his ranch. Gerald’s project involved adding a single strand electric wire on the upland above the creek, creating a riparian pasture which has allowed him to control the timing of his grazing.

 The single-strand riparian fence on the Vandervalk's ranch. Contributing to watershed health can be as simple as a straight line. 

The single-strand riparian fence on the Vandervalk's ranch. Contributing to watershed health can be as simple as a straight line. 

 The riparian area of Lyndon Creek is in good health thanks to Gerald's good management.

The riparian area of Lyndon Creek is in good health thanks to Gerald's good management.

Now, as you can see from the picture, this stretch of Lyndon Creek is by no means in bad condition. The new riparian fence is just one more tool to help the Vandervalk’s improve the creek better yet. Being proactive and planning for the future is essential in running a successful farm and ranch – by planning to give his grass the proper rest, Gerald is setting the ranch up to produce more grass in the coming years.

Just up the road from the Vandervalk’s, Reid Moynihan takes a similar view on the management of the land. He and his wife Heather ranch on East Sharples Creek, a tributary of Trout Creek in a beautiful montane valley – the montane ecoregion being a transition zone between the foothills fescue grasslands and the conifer dominated forests of the Porcupine Hills’ higher elevations. When I commented on the good condition of the pastures, Reid explained to me that he doesn’t view the land as a money making machine. Instead, he takes the long term view of managing this resource for health over the long term, and when you take this approach, you can weather the storm of the bad years and reap the benefits of the good ones.

OWC is happy to help Reid and Heather with a spring development on their ranch, on a hill that Reid has named “Coyote Ridge”. Groundwater springs are abundant in the hills, seeping out of the sandstone and providing water for wildlife and cattle. Problems arise when the spring head is trampled by animals, and sediment is carried by the stream further down the drainage. To avoid lowering water quality, the Moynihan’s harnessed the spring water by installing a tire trough about 30 ft. away from the spring head, which acts as a reservoir for the cattle and wildlife to drink from.

As the spring runs continuously from the hillside, there is excess water that is drained from the trough and flows into it’s former channel, feeding a wetland. Reid and Heather will plant willow and poplar around the disturbed area of the spring head, allowing root systems to take hold, and healing the disturbed ground.

 Reid & Heather are happy with their new watering system

Reid & Heather are happy with their new watering system

Just downstream from the Moynihan Ranch, Stafford Bezak was able to install an off-stream watering system with the help of WLP. It is now providing water for his 60 head of cattle, and has eliminated the need for the critters to drink from East Sharples Creek. With these 3 projects, we have helped improve water quality in Willow Creek, and in turn the Oldman River, as these two water courses converge just west of Fort Macleod.

I think it’s important to point out the close-knit community aspects of living and ranching in an area where space between neighbors is measured in miles, not city blocks. Gerald helped with the installation of both of his neighbor’s projects, not because of financial gain, but because he intimately knows how to best harness the water sources of these hills and likes to help his neighbors.

Water is something that connects us all who live in this watershed,
and I believe we have a duty to make sure it flows down the Oldman in a clean,
drinkable state for our neighbors downstream who depend on it.

 Happy heifers on the Lyndon Creek upland. 

Happy heifers on the Lyndon Creek upland. 

For more on the WLP Program (How you can apply for funding or become a sponsor yourself), please see this link >>>: