Alberta ranch reaches conservation agreement

A 3,950-acre ranch nestled in the southern Alberta foothills along the scenic Castle River is the latest ranching property to enter a conservation easement agreement with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Riverside Ranch, owned and operated by the Zoratti family, was established in 1914 and has been a working cow-calf operation virtually ever since. It is located between Lundbreck and Beaver Mines, Alta.

The agreement with NCC ensures ranching will continue on the property but it restricts recreational development.

Berny Zoratti and Mark Zoratti, Berny’s son, run about 300 cow-calf pairs of Gelbvieh and Black Angus on their property, which is a combination of riverfront land, native grassland and rolling hills that are home to a variety of wildlife.

“It took a while to come to,” Mark Zoratti said about the decision to sign an agreement with NCC.

“We’ve always thought about it. I guess my father and I just really wanted to preserve our ranch … and the ranching history, the grasslands mostly, the river. There just seems to be a lot more pressure, I guess, in the last generation or two, with ranchlands disappearing. We kind of wanted to preserve that.”

Riverside Ranch was founded by Peter Zoratti, Berny’s grandfather, when he came to Canada from Italy. Mark said family lore has it that Peter left Coderno, Italy, when very young, visited South America for a time, then returned to Europe for blacksmith training.

After that, he came to Alberta and worked as a blacksmith, established himself in the hotel business and bought the first piece of the ranch in 1914.

Its location along the Castle River provides habitat for many wildlife species, some of them species at risk. The river has west slope cutthroat and bull trout, both designated as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC.) On that same list is the Limber pine, a long-lived tree that is an important food and shelter source for wildlife.

According to the NCC, Riverside Ranch is home to some Limber pines that are more than 500 years old.

White-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, grizzly and black bears, cougars and other mammals also frequent the property, as do grouse and wild turkeys.

Mark said he thinks pressure to create acreages in the corridor might increase since the Alberta government established the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Park last year. Those parks are within a few miles of Riverside Ranch borders.

Mountain and foothills scenery and proximity to recreation opportunities tend to be attractive to those seeking acreage living, second homes or recreational properties. Mark said he understands the attraction and thus the importance of preserving what the family holds.

“We’re so lucky. We know we’re lucky. You know, I think sometimes you realize it when you get a little older. As a kid, I enjoyed it a lot but I don’t think I realized how lucky I was until you sort of get out and see other places, see the world.

“I tell my kids now, too, the same sort of thing. ‘Someday you’ll realize how lucky you are.’ ”

Now 48, Mark’s own memories of growing up on the ranch include exploring the river bottom, building forts, fishing and riding horseback.

Official announcement of the deal was timed to nearly coincide with World Wetlands Day Feb. 2, which fit with the ranch’s location in the headwaters region of the South Saskatchewan River.

Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips acknowledged that in the NCC release.

“I can’t think of a better project to mark World Wetlands Day than the protection of Riverside Ranch,” she said.

“Alberta ranchers recognize the need to preserve critical habitat and safeguard the foothills for future generations, and I would like to thank the Zoratti family for their generosity in supporting this conservation effort on their property.”

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