Environmental award winners ‘walk the talk’

MOOSE JAW, Sask. — Randy Stokke didn’t want to say it too loudly, but the ranch he runs with wife, Terry, and their family had good moisture this spring even though it’s located in one of the driest parts of Saskatchewan.

The Stokkes run their cattle on about 14,000 acres of mostly crown lease native grass in the Consul area of the southwest. The operation was established by Randy’s father 76 years ago and recently was honoured as the Saskatchewan TESA winner (the Environmental Stewardship Award) at the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association convention.

Robin Bloom from Environment Canada said the Stokkes “walk the talk” when it comes to effective conservation on their land. He described their operation as an environmental science project that spans three generations in one of the harshest grazing regions in Canada.

They run about 400 cows plus yearlings on grass, and some horses.

They also have nine species at risk on their land including swift foxes, burrowing owls and the chestnut-collared longspur.

“We don’t have the greater sage-grouse, which we’ve become famous for,” Randy said. “Hopefully someday they’ll return; we have the habitat.”

By famous he means the establishment of Sustainable Canada, an organization he led after the imposition of a federal emergency protection order for the birds under the Species At Risk Act in 2013.

There were greater sage-grouse on Willow Creek Ranch until about 20 years ago and the disappearance of the birds has been a contentious issue.

“We know that it was all predators and that’s why we started this group, Sustainable Canada, because we knew some of the things they were telling us weren’t right,” Randy said. “They were blaming grazing and different things and we knew that wasn’t right so we spent the last five years basically trying to change a lot of people’s minds about what ranchers do and how it affects the species at risk on the ranches.”

The effort was successful and the Stokkes credit others who stepped forward, too.

“There was a lot of other people saying the same things but it had to be said because the people that brought these things in trying to save species at risk didn’t really have an understanding of what was going on on the ranches,” Randy said. “With many other people and groups like the stock growers, that message is starting to get out there that we are doing the right thing.”

Stocking rates in the Stokkes’ part of the world are four to five head per quarter. They do have some creeks through the land but still developed water systems to ensure supply. Large fields and good water are good for wildlife, too.

“Even before species at risk became a hot topic they learned to take into consideration the needs of what would become the species at risk,” noted Tom Harrison, executive director of the South of the Divide Conservation Action Program.

The Stokkes were involved in the release and monitoring of the swift fox reintroduction program and in several community organizations.

“Never have they suggested their operation is special,” said Bloom. “On the contrary they have argued that ranches like theirs are the very reason we have many of the species of wildlife the public is interested in.”

He said ranchers like the Stokkes give government staff like him the evidence they need to advocate for new and innovative environmental policy positions that could be more effective for ranchers and the environment.

Bloom said there is tension between locals who have knowledge and the science being interpreted by people who may never have set foot on a ranch. The Stokkes used the opportunity to help educate, he said.

Randy and Terry’s three sons are all involved in the ranch and have bought their own land, too. Randy said he hopes future generations will be able to sustain what previous generations started.

“It’s an honour to be recognized for something that we’ve been trying hard to persuade the rest of the world we’re doing right,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been doing for 70 years.”

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