It’s on the network of narrow highways that snake through the rolling, grass-covered hills of southwestern Saskatchewan that you first notice the quiet.
You can drive for 50 miles at a time and only see the occasional farmyard off in the distance. In contrast to the busy Trans-Canada Highway to the north with its continuous roar of highway traffic, you might see one or two vehicles.
As they pass, you get the inevitable wave, usually just a single finger lifted almost laconically, a simple quick acknowledgment that there’s another person passing through this majestically isolated landscape of native prairie, cattle and not much else.
In a province most of us think of as an endless patchwork of wheat and canola, this outpost of traditional grassland ranching is often overlooked, sometimes utterly ignored, or even worse endlessly patronized as unproductive and empty flyover country.
Don’t tell that to the men and women who live and work here though. These are people with deep roots burrowed in this thin and arid soil with its covering of native grasses, flowering plants and stunted shrubs. Most of them are the descendants of American families that followed the grass north when railways and homesteaders displaced ranchers domino style up the spine of North America.
To them this land is home, their spot to stand. And their ranches are their own domains, a landscape that has formed them more than they’ve formed it, a place that one must adapt to and work with rather than attempt to bend to one’s own will, as the local ranchers say. If you don’t learn that lesson, sooner or later you’ll be swept aside, just another tumbleweed whose roots haven’t been strong enough to hold it in place.
When I arrive, it’s a rainy day in late July, the first rain for many a long month, and the parched prairie is drinking the water in. Doug Gillespie, a rancher from near Neville, Sask., has come a few miles out from his place to greet me. He’s concerned I might not have a vehicle up to the challenges of miles of a muddy grid road as a result of what he happily describes as “this beautiful rain” — he ranches at what he further describes as the end of “the longest 12 miles of grid in the world,” a spot he explains many have had trouble finding over the years.
He takes me on a quick detour through the yard, nestled in the bottom of a valley, up against the northwest side, just to give me a sense of the operation. I mention that I’ve noted most of the yard sites seem to be similarly located, and he cracks a broad smile and explains it’s just taking advantage of the native geography to find protection from the cold winter winds for his animals.
“God’s shelter is always going to be better than man’s,” he says with a characteristic chuckle.
Gillespie is animated, talkative and a passionate advocate for ranching in the region. With his battered hat and rough work clothes, he looks every inch the authentic cowboy. He’s also the head of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers’ Association, one of the ranching industry’s main lobby groups in the province. He’s agreed to meet and introduce me to the business, along with his friend and neighbour Terry Ostrander, of nearby Hallonquist, Sask.
We convene at the local farm supply Co-op outlet in the hamlet of McMahon, and in a quiet corner with a coffee pot and a few chairs, the pair attempts to educate a total neophyte on ranching in Saskatchewan.
My first question is what makes their business so unique — something that’s instantly apparent to even the most untrained eye. Both consider it, and it’s Ostrander who speaks first, in quiet and measured tones that complement his neighbour’s more boisterous way. It is, he explains, a business where the land and climate define exactly what you can do, and if you’re going to be successful you’ve got to respect that and adapt.
“You can’t expect nature to adapt to you, you have to understand what’s happening and be ready to make changes when you have to,” Ostrander says. For example, he explains that until this rain came, he and likely every other rancher in the region was preparing to cut his herd and send cows to market, rather than waiting and hoping for rain that might or might not come.
Failing to move quickly enough would result in a double blow — selling cattle into falling markets after depleting the delicate rangeland that could take years to recover if overgrazed. It’s a point Gillespie quickly agrees with, saying the lesson is one that’s been hard learned over generations.
It’s a delicate ecosystem that won’t stand mistreatment, and the most successful ranchers are the ones who have learned that lesson, Gillespie says. They’re ready to cut their stock numbers quickly when conditions turn dry and the grass stops growing, for example, taking that loss and surviving to fight another day, a strategy that makes both environmental and economic sense, he says.
“Your first loss might be a loss, but it’s also always your cheapest loss,” Gillespie says.
This theme resonated through our conversation, one that spanned several hours. Again and again the two spoke in terms of understanding and respecting their land, of working tirelessly to maintain its productivity and of not abusing it. Care for the land, they explain, and the land will care for you. In particular they point out that, unlike a lot of other sectors, their primary concern can’t be simply maximizing production year after year — the key is to leave about 50 per cent of the available grass still standing at the end of a grazing season, setting the range up for a quick recovery the next spring.
Gillespie’s family arrived in the early part of the 20th century from South Dakota, and settled just north of the international boundary in a corner of what’s now the west block of Grasslands National Park. It was a land of rattlesnakes and arid grasses, a harsh land that even the most optimistic homesteader instinctively understood couldn’t possibly support cereal grain production.
Ranching in this area was hardly a get-rich-quick scheme, with stocking rates of around four cows per quarter section, and the Gillespies were running around 300 head on about 20,000 acres. He says it’s a reality he’s had trouble at times explaining to other cattle operators who were used to far different numbers. He recalls discussing his operation with someone from the Edmonton area who insisted that what he really meant was he was running 300 cows on 2,000 acres.
“He just couldn’t believe those stocking rates,” Gillespie explains.
The area was also isolated — driving through it later that week, it really hit home, as miles flew by without a sign of human habitation beyond the odd abandoned building and teepee rings from the days the First Nations roamed this land. Gillespie says during the same conversation he was asked about his nearest town and said it was 47 miles from the ranch house.
These days Gillespie ranches in a less isolated part of the province, about 30 miles southeast of the city of Swift Current, after moving in the early 1990s when the federal government formed Grasslands National Park. He says he fought the formation of the park “tooth and nail” but realized he had to act when it became reality.
“I decided I wanted to be one of the first people to move, not one of the last,” Gillespie says. “I didn’t want to be out there all alone after all the neighbours had left.”
Ostrander still ranches on his family’s original operation, as does his brother, though the two operate separately. It’s the Turkey Track Ranch, one of the province’s earliest ranches, having begun as an extension of a historic U.S. brand that arrived from Texas by way of the historic cattle trails in 1900. His grandfather bought the Saskatchewan operation in 1917, after also arriving from the U.S. as part of that northward migration.
“They were looking for grazing land, as homesteaders displaced cattle in the south,” Ostrander says.
The cattle of the time were primarily Texas longhorn, large-framed and smooth-coated animals that proved poorly suited to the harsher climate. A hard winter in 1906-07 without a warm chinook wind caused the Big Die-Off. Even today, when people say its name, you can hear the capitalization. Cattle were lost in the tens of thousands, causing many of the large U.S. operators to lose their appetite for northern ranching and leaving a group of smaller operators to pick up the pieces and figure out a way of ranching that worked in the north — a way that eventually centred around smaller-framed heavy-coated animals.
At roughly the same time the industry began to feel pressure from homesteaders who were hungrily eyeing grazing land. At times this meant land was broken that was poorly suited for grain agriculture. It was farmed for a few years and then abandoned during the dust bowl of the 1930s, only to later become cattle country again, as the resilient local ranchers filled the gap left by abandoned homesteads.
Ostrander says if he has a concern today, it’s for the future of the business. Over the years it’s survived a lot of challenges, but these days it faces two major challenges, all related to people. First, few of the young people show much appetite to live the same lives as their parents and grandparents, preferring instead to pursue careers in urban centres. Secondly, the industry is under a lot of scrutiny on the environmental and consumer side, with criticism that he views as unwarranted, such as the recent A&W move to hormone-free beef, or organic products being marketed as more wholesome.
“I don’t honestly think that most people care, until it’s marketed to them as somehow safer, which just isn’t so,” Ostrander says. “That’s where I have a problem with it.”
At times ranching has been painted as an environmental disaster unfolding in slow motion. However, this rhetoric ignores the very nature of grasslands and how they evolved, says one geographer who’s worked extensively in the region.
Joe Piwowar of the University of Regina has a special interest in the mixed-grass prairie of the region, where he’s been researching the effects of climate change. He says when you contrast this landscape against the rest of the Prairies — a region that less than 150 years ago was all covered with similar vegetation from Winnipeg to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains — the contrast is stark. Where farm fields have long displaced waving grasses in other places, here those grasses survive.
“That’s a big part of the experience of visiting this place,” Piwowar says. “It’s not been broken. It’s the way it’s been for thousands of years, since the end of the last ice age.”
That evolution depended, in no small part, on the presence of a large grazing animal to disturb the sod with hoofprints and fertilize it with dung. Take that out of the equation and the system begins to become less productive, slowly at first, then more quickly as the cumulative effect begins to take hold.
“I’m not a rangeland manager, but it’s pretty clear that without grazing, this land begins to suffer,” Piwowar says. “Cattle don’t perfectly replace bison, but they do perform many of the very important functions bison once did.”
To understand how this balance works, you need to know the land, and the best place to see that is Grasslands National Park, one of the lesser-known jewels in the national park system. It’s comprised of two blocks of land, covering roughly 900 square kilometres in the southwest corner of the province, bordered to the south by the international boundary. Looking at it on a map, it’s a part of the world where the road network slowly fades out, first to narrow secondary highways, then to winding grid roads and finally to rutted paths across the Prairie. Here we meet Heather Facette, a resource management officer with Parks Canada, for a tour of the park.
As we drive through the landscape, it’s hard to imagine a lonelier place on the face of the planet, a landscape of grassy plants, wildflowers and other broadleaf plants and small shrubs, all on rolling hills and valley bottoms. It’s so isolated that the region is a light preserve where stargazers can see the stars like few other places.
We stop at a black-tailed prairie dog colony to have a look at the activities of the small rodents. Amidst their bird-like chirping as they communicate to each other about these strange intruders, Facette opens up about what makes this mixed-grass prairie landscape so special in her mind.
“It’s a beautiful place — it’s the only mixed-grass prairie park in all of Canada, and I think it should be something all Canadians can see and enjoy,” she says. “It’s very unique and we only have it because the ranchers who lived here did such an excellent job of protecting it.”
That might sound like heresy to an urban environmentalist, but in no small part it’s one of the truest statements I’ll hear during this visit. Contrast the environmental footprint of a farmer and a rancher. Where a vast swath of native grassland used to run up the spine of the continent from north Texas to Edmonton, are now fields of corn, soy, cotton, and wheat and canola, just to name the major crops. That’s not to cast shame on farmers — the world needs that food and fibre — it’s just an observation.
You can still walk the landscape here and find needlegrass, bluegramma, western porcupine grass and shrubs like silver sagebrush. The native birds, insects and animals all still thrive on this landscape. And cattle grazing has played a key role in keeping the ecosystem healthy.
When you stop to think about it, this is hardly surprising, says one local rancher. Miles Anderson ranches near the hamlet of Fir Mountain and during our conversation he explains that this lesson was one Parks Canada had to learn from scratch, after coming in during the early 1980s with the perception they were going to somehow “save” the range from the ranchers.
“They were bullies, to be perfectly honest,” Anderson says. “They came in and God help you if one of your cows strayed onto their land… it was like they thought a cow or a horse was a plague.”
Initially the park completely excluded any grazing livestock, until they began to run into some of the expected problems of ungrazed land. They also came to the realization that the local ranching community was a valuable source of information and most importantly, the park wouldn’t thrive without the support of its neighbours.
“They’ve changed their approach a lot over the past six or seven years,” Anderson says. As that’s happened he and the park staff have found common ground and he’s now widely noted among park staff as a landowner who understands the ecosystem he manages, and actively shares information with park staff and researchers working in the area.
A conversation with him is interesting and unexpected, as he speaks plainly as you’d expect a cowboy to — all the while peppering the conversation with words like ecosystem and other terms that an outside observer might find funny to be coming from his mouth. When I point out an urban environmentalist eavesdropping on our conversation would probably be pretty surprised, this is met with a wry chuckle.
Anderson says he’s willing to talk to the park staff these days because they’ve in turn begun to understand and respect the local ranching community more, adding that the park-ranch relationship is significantly less rocky than it was.
U of Regina’s Joe Piwowar says in part the problem was academics like him who didn’t always acknowledge or even understand the depth of the knowledge of local ranchers. For example he cited a study done by researchers from another institution looking at stocking rates and how they affected the rangeland.
“I shouldn’t be bad-mouthing other academics, but I always chuckle at that a bit,” he confesses. “I bet if they’d just asked the local ranchers about it, they all had a pretty good idea what the optimum stocking rate was.”
Bridging the gap
If there’s one person who can honestly claim to have a foot in both camps, it’s Jody Larson. He still runs cows on part of his family’s ranch near Val Marie, though a good portion of it is now owned by the park. He also has an office in town at the park’s visitor centre, where his job title is “realty program officer” a nod to his role in negotiating land purchases from ranchers still operating within the park’s designated boundary. When I suggest to him that the title probably doesn’t cover off all his duties, he grinned.
“I tell people I translate,” he says. “Because really, that’s what I do. I translate between the local ranching community and Parks Canada staff.”
At times it can be challenging, but less so lately. In the early years he concedes the relationships between the Parks people and the local community wasn’t always great.
“I think there’s an idea where this land can somehow be ‘saved,’” he says. “With farmland, it’s been changed so much for food production, I don’t think there’s that same sort of thought.”
The attitude that their land needed to be saved from them went over with the locals about as well as you could imagine, and park staff are noticeably cautious about how they speak of the legacy of ranching these days. They are also quite candid about how the park itself has begun to use grazing to manage their own range, including some cattle grazing, as well as a bison herd. Having more than one type of grazing is actually seen as a positive by Parks staff these days.
“It’s important that we have a range of habitats to support wildlife,” Heather Facette says. “The habitats that are created by bison grazing and cattle grazing and ungrazed land are all different, and they support different wildlife, such as species of birds.”
She adds that those habitat types can be both within the park and outside of it, and all combine to contribute to a healthy ecosystem for wildlife in the area.
This growing mutual respect is also a natural product of the passage of time, Larson says. “Our kids go to school together, they play hockey together, we’ve got to know each other… as that’s happened, I think we’ve found we actually have a lot more in common than most of us would have thought.”
An old sense of community has even reasserted itself, Larson says. In a land that seems almost empty, the few people who do live here tend to form meaningful relationships that span many miles.
“I admit to him that in a small way I may have got a glimpse of this when I told Doug Gillespie that one of my next stops was to visit him at the park, and Gillespie explains that prior to his move, the two families were neighbours.
“His dad was the best cowhand I ever knew,” Gillespie had told me.
When I tell Larson this, he pauses, obviously touched by the tribute to his late father.
I mention to him that this sort of sense of community is one of the things, along with the raw beauty of the land, I had noted on this trip, and wondered what his impressions were. He says to him it boiled down to people looking out for each other, something that could be seen in the way children were raised in the area, working alongside their parents and neighbours at events like roundup and branding, almost being raised by the community as a whole.
Preserving that is going to be a challenge as young people move away, ranches become larger, and perhaps the park begins to attract more visitors, instead of the few thousand folks who make the hours-long trek to an out-of-the-way corner every year.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Larson says. “You want to do your job with integrity and be a good employee, and showcase the land — it’s a sense of pride that the early settlers and First Nations were stewards of it. However, you wonder what effect a lot of visitors may have on the land, the people and the communities.”
Larson concedes he has mixed feelings about how things have gone at times, especially how his family’s ranch is now largely part of the park. I ask him if that bothered him when it happened, and his answer is forthright and candid.
“It still bothers me today, sometimes,” he admitted. “It’s not the same, being one of the people who manages it for the new owners, the government of Canada and the people of Canada. It’s never going to be the same as managing it for yourself and your own family.”