FIR MOUNTAIN, Sask. — Miles Anderson would tell you he’s a rancher.
But he’s also an historian, biologist, paleontologist and all the other things that come with spending his life on the family ranch in southwestern Saskatchewan.
It’s clear there is no place he would rather be than on the land his great-grandfather and grandfather settled in 1911 after emigrating from South Dakota.
It’s where he and his wife, Sheri, now run about 600 Black Angus cows with the help of several hired women, often from other countries.
“They’re interested in this type of work, and the oil patch kept the men away,” said Sheri.
The two met through a mutual friend while Miles attended Olds College. Sheri was born in Nebraska but raised on her family’s ranch in British Columbia.
The couple raised four daughters, Quinn, Carlee, Tori and Kacy, and now welcome visits from grandsons, Anderson and Abel.
Extended family are the closest neighbours, except for one significant exception: the east block of Grasslands National Park. Previous generations once ranched on what is now park land, discovering dinosaur bones and fossils as they rode the unglaciated badlands.
As important as the Anderson Ranch is to the family and its history, its place in conservation and environmental integrity is now more widely recognized.
In June, the family received the provincial Environmental Stewardship Award at the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association convention. In August, they won the national award at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association meeting.
Miles is a bit mystified by it all.
“We’re just doing things the way we always did,” he said during a drive through the ranch and park.
They graze in large sections of their 23,000 acres of deeded and leased native prairie, rather than smaller rotational paddocks that others have adopted, and allow their stock to drink directly from the Rock Creek that winds through the area.
They’ve purchased all the lease land they could. The remainder isn’t for sale because it is protected under wildlife habitat restrictions. The ranch runs to the U.S. border and is surrounded on three sides by the park.
They grow oats, triticale, barley and some durum on farmland closer to the home place.
Calving begins in late April on grass. Calves are generally fence line weaned, backgrounded and sold in the fall through Spring Creek Premium Beef, an Angus program that fit their already naturally raised beef.
The formation of the park has driven much of what the family, and Miles in particular, has done for the last 25 years or so.
“I got involved in stock growers in about ’88,” he said. “There was a movement in the States to remove all cattle from public lands.”
Slogans like “Cattle-free by ’93” and “Not a cow alive by ’95” worried him.
Grasslands National Park was established around the same time and adopted a no-grazing policy.
“During the ’80s, we thought we were doing everything wrong, because our grass kept getting shorter and shorter and shorter,” Anderson said, referring to the drought during that decade.
“Then it rained and, the park, their grass stayed the same.”
It rained more in the 1990s and he says park staff began to see that good things happening on the Anderson Ranch weren’t happening on the ungrazed park land.
The benefits of grazing native prairie are now well recognized.
“I didn’t think we should be embarrassed by anything that we do in grazing land,” Miles said. “If you do it properly, we could graze livestock and have the park. We could complement each other.”
That philosophy has now been adopted when it comes to species at risk.
The woes of the greater sage-grouse have been well documented the past several years. As the number of counted birds on public land dipped to about 30, the Andersons still had a healthy population on their ranch.
When federal scientists came calling, they found numerous other threatened species on the ranch as well.
Robin Bloom, species at risk co-ordinator with the Canadian Wildlife Service, said the Anderson ranch was among the last privately-managed areas where sage-grouse were found in Saskatchewan.
It became obvious that if species were to recover in the park, that recovery would have to begin at the Andersons, he said.
Bloom said he now understands that the Andersons’ management practices are the reason more than a dozen federally listed species at risk are surviving.
“There’s a strong relationship between Miles’s grazing practices and the sage-grouse,” Bloom said. “There’s a reason they’re still there.”
That’s a far different view than the idea that grazing is bad for the sage-grouse because it disturbs their nesting habitat. Adjacent park land hadn’t been grazed in 30 years before officials took notice of what the Andersons were doing.
Miles and Sheri were willing to share their knowledge and are using 30,000 acres from the park in a non-typical lease arrangement to help the sage-grouse recovery efforts.
The idea is that the patchy landscape that cattle provide by grazing helps the birds at different stages of their lives.
Nesting cover is important, but what happens after the chicks hatch.
Grass that isn’t grazed would resemble a jungle for the tiny chicks, leaving them unable to find the insects and forbs they need to survive. The birds need both dense cover and more open areas where they can forage.
“That isn’t documented anywhere in the scientific literature,” Bloom said.
“Everybody’s focusing on the nesting cover and potentially dropping the ball on the importance of livestock grazing providing these other resources.
“So the big experiment on the Anderson ranch is to provide this patchy grazing.”
Miles also noticed sage-grouse would often be killed when they struck the wires on the park’s fence. That fence separated the park from the ranch, but it also separated the birds from their important lek, where the males court the females.
He put clips on the fence posts for the wires, then dropped the wires to the ground and left them so the birds could move easier.
It might not have been park-approved, but photographs of hens and chicks provide evidence that local management and knowledge have a role to play.
Miles’ original concern about the movement to stop grazing pushed him into many other things. He was the stock growers’ president from 1996 to 1998, a founder of Red Coat Cattle Feeders at Hazenmore and chair of the Prairie Conservation Action Plan.
The ranch is certified under the Verified Beef Production program and they’ve been honoured as the Saskatchewan Angus Association commercial producers of the year.
“Twenty-five years later, there’s cattle in the park. So I’m happy,” says Miles.