Update on the Watershed Legacy Program (WLP)

Timber Ridge Conservation Site OWC Watershed Legacy Program past project

By Cody Spencer

When I was invited by the OWC to start doing work with their Watershed Legacy Program, I jumped at the opportunity. It is a way for me to experience, first hand, the tangible effects a conservation program can have on the landscape. For my first assignment, I was to choose a past project and follow up on the impact it has had on the watershed after several years. The project that piqued my interest was Timber Ridge.

The Timber Ridge Conservation Site is an 800 acre tract of foothills grassland and mixed forest on the northeastern corner of the Porcupine Hills, southwest of Nanton, Alberta. Its stewards, Glen and Kelly Hall, have owned the property since 1985. Running a 150 pair cow-calf operation, they are bonafide ranchers, but with a land ethic that most others should strive to achieve. They look at their land from the big-picture perspective of sustainability and treat it like the fully-functioning foothills ecosystem that it is. By keeping an open mind about how a grasslands system can be managed optimally, the Halls have developed a relationship with both ecology and progressive grazing practices.

Like the majority of North American rangeland, parts of the Timber Ridge pastures have been infiltrated by stands of tame or “modified” grasses. These exotic grasses have been introduced to our lands sometimes accidently, other times intentionally, under the guise of “improving” our grasslands. While often these introduced species can produce quality forage that is suitable for livestock, what has been overlooked is the nutritional value and resiliency of our native grasses and other plants. In the case of the Timber Ridge grass, the culprit is timothy-grass (Phluem pratense). This is a very common tame grass species introduced from Europe in the early 18th century.

Glen and Kelly use their cattle as tools to try to transform the pasture composition to promote native plant species such as the coveted foothills rough fescue (Fescuta campestris). They do this by allowing their cattle to graze the timothy a little longer than they normally would, giving room for the slower growing native plants to return. The cattle also harvest more of the timothy-grass seed, preventing the spread of the less desirable species. I’ve quoted Kelly’s words of wisdom - “The best way to take care of your grass, is to eat it. While it is a little early to see the results, it seems to be working.

Another grazing tactic used by the Halls is the concept of rotational intensive grazing, or “mob” grazing. It is an idea that mimics the patterns of ancient herds of bison, concentrating a large group of cattle in a pasture for a short period of time before moving them on to another area. This is contrary to the more frequently used method of fewer cattle in a pasture for longer periods of time. The effects of the mob grazing method are a more uniform harvest of the grass and even the grazing of certain weeds. It trains the cows to be less picky in their food selection. I was very impressed by what they’ve been able to accomplish.

The Hall’s conservation ethic doesn’t end with their grazing interests. They are determined to preserve some of the most eastern lying populations (in Alberta) of the cherished limber pine. This remarkable tree can live to over 1000 years old, withstanding some of the harshest conditions southern Alberta has to offer. With the help of students from Lethbridge College, they have planted around 40 limber pines, most of which seem to be taking hold.

Equally, or more important than the health of the grass and trees, is the health of the water sources on the ranch. There are several sources of water on Timber Ridge. Creeks, wetlands and underground springs provide the lifeblood for many different species of wildlife like moose, elk, bear, cougar, both species of deer, as well as the cattle. Glen and Kelly have realized that keeping the critters out of the ponds and wetlands is essential to the wellness of both the land and the animals. What they have done with the help of several different organizations such as OWC Watershed Legacy Program, Alberta Conservation Association and Ducks Unlimited, is develop the water sources into low-impact watering holes.

The OWC's Watershed Legacy Program helped finance one of these projects in 2011. Fencing off wetlands and using solar powered pumps to fill troughs keeps the health of the ponds intact and concentrates the water source to a single source for the animals to take turns drinking. They use rubber mats made from recycled tires to surround the troughs and limit the damage the cows do to the surrounding ground.

The positive effects of fencing off ponds and wetlands are undeniable. Deep-rooting vegetation returns to the banks, helping to prevent against slumping and erosion. Water quality improvements are easily visible to the naked eye. The cattle also benefit from their restricted access. Glen and Kelly report a substantial decrease in cases of foot-rot. They even say that the calves gain more weight by drinking the clean and channeled water, up to 20%! 

There is a certain hill on the ranch where several springs run out of the side and form a creek. The previous owner had left this site degraded, so the Hall’s have harnessed this water source using weeping tile funneling into an artisan tire-trough, with the excess water running down the hill through a pipe to the neighbor’s property into their own trough. This is a perfect example of their healthy watershed practices spilling over and influencing others to follow suit.

Below is a small pond that splits between a neighbor’s lease land and a quarter section of the Hall's. The neighbor lets his cows drink directly from the pond and it is easy to see the negative affects it has on water quality and the surrounding land. They hope to convince the fellow rancher to develop a watering system that keeps the cows out of the pond entirely.

The Halls are passionate about their land and it’s easy to see why they feel honored to be the caretakers of such a special place - a slice of heaven in the headwaters of our watershed. While 800 acres might not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of the 6,597,700 acres of the Oldman watershed drainage, what sets this place apart is the sustainable land management practices being applied here. They are looking toward the future - to a place where water is scarce and our natural landscapes are shrinking at an alarming rate. As a future land steward myself, I look to these kinds of people for a model of sustainability to create the tomorrow we need.

The OWC will be opening applications for the 2015 - 2016 WLP season in November.

Watch this space!

The OWC would also like to extend its sincere thanks to Cody Spencer who took time away from his own ranching operations at Sweetgrass Bison to volunteer for the OWC. Thanks also go to Glen and Kelly - and all the other organizations and individuals mentioned in this article. Together, we make the watershed great!