As far as the eye can see, Alberta’s McIntyre Ranch reaches out across the prairie, rolling across the grasslands, dipping into thousands of wetland basins, rising into ridges and cliffs. The Rockies loom in the distance. Blue skies stretch above.
It is a vast, thriving ecosystem and, at 22,000 hectares —which is 220 square kilometres — one of the largest blocks of unbroken prairie left in Canada. It sustains not just 13 endangered species, but also the icons of prairie life: migrating pronghorns, elk, mule deer, great blue herons, yellow-headed blackbirds and northern pintails, as well as the grasses, sedges and wildflowers that make up the native plains.
This landscape also supports cattle, the hoofed grazers that help keep the grasslands healthy by encouraging plant growth and mixing the soil. The property has been a work-ing ranch since 1894, when Canada was only 27 years old and the province of Alberta was just the glimmer of an idea.
Now, the ranch’s owners, Ralph Thrall III and his three siblings, have collaborated with two of Canada’s largest environmental organizations, Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC), to protect the property. They have signed the largest private conservation agreement in Canadian history: a conservation easement that will keep the ranch in its intact state forever.
“Some things deserve to stay the way they were. I think that’s the essence of what our family believes,” says Thrall. “McIntyre Ranch is one of those spaces.”
Under the agreement, the property south of Lethbridge, is still owned by the Thrall family and can remain a working ranch, but it can never be cultivated, drained, developed or, say, turned into a golf course under their conservation agreement.
That matters because temperate grasslands are considered the most endangered land-based ecosystem on the planet. In Canada’s prairie provinces, less than 20 per cent of intact grassland is left, says Thorsten Hebben, manager of provincial operations for DUC in Alberta. Much that remains is fragmented.
“To get a contiguous piece of this size is pretty unusual,” says Hebben. “I honestly do not think we will have another opportunity like this in North America, if not the world.”
That means the property is significant in global terms. But had it been sold for cultivation, like most of the surrounding landscape, this rich ecosystem and all the marks it carries of 10,000 years of Indigenous culture—including tipi rings, rock cairns and an ancient buffalo jump—would be gone.
“It would not be difficult for a good crop producer to convert it,” says Hebben, adding: “And we know full well that if we didn’t put that easement on there, it’s very likely that at some point in the future, we will see the conversion.”
McIntyre Ranch was famous long before this momentous conservation collaboration. The legendary William H. McIntyre, a rancher in Texas, bought the first parcel of land in 1894 from the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company and eventually assembled one of the earliest and largest ranches in Canada.
His son, William H. McIntyre, Jr., known as Billy, recounted in a history of the ranch that the original fences each enclosed about 200 hectares. But he also wrote about the value of native prairie grass, quoting John J. Ingalls, a Kansas senator: “Grass is the forgiveness of nature, her constant benediction.”
That sentiment has underpinned the operation at McIntyre Ranch since the beginning. The senior McIntyre had seen ranches in the U.S. Midwest devastated by overgrazing and was determined to avoid that possibility on his lands in Canada. He developed the strategy of keeping only a sustainable number of cattle and moving them at the right times to different pastures. The practice mimics the movement of bison, the original grazers that thundered across the plains.
“I’ve said it many times, we would not have had this conservation opportunity if it wasn’t for the mentality of the original landowner, William H. McIntyre,” says Hebben, noting: “He knew that he had to treat that land with respect in order for his operation to be successful.”
It’s a tradition the current owners cherish, says Thrall. His grandfather, Ralph Thrall, was a close friend and employee of Billy McIntyre and bought the land after McIntyre died, determined to carry on the same practices. The elder Thrall passed them down to his son, Ralph Thrall, Jr., which are now embodied within the current generation.
“One of the phrases my dad would say from time to time was: ‘No tracks and leave things better than you found them,’” says Thrall.
For Thrall and his three siblings, preserving the ranch felt like a continuation of the ranch’s legacy. But Thrall has come to realize through the journey of putting together the historic conservation easement that the move affects more than the fate of the ranch itself.
“I didn’t necessarily appreciate the magnitude of how it is part of something bigger,” he says. “And yes, it is a contribution to the planet, I think we all recognize that. We just feel it’s the right thing to do.”
The remarkable new agreement enlarges the concept of environmental protection. Here, the main players are agricultural producers and the landscape is prairie, not the big charismatic mammals or forests that are often the focus of the conservation movement.
That makes the easement on McIntyre Ranch a superb addition to Canadian conservation efforts, says Tom Lynch-Staunton, NCC’s Alberta regional vice-president. When unbroken grasslands are cultivated, they release carbon into the atmosphere, adding to the dangerous load already there. Intact grasslands are like an upside-down forest, storing as much carbon in the soil and roots as trees in a temperate forest do.
“We know these healthy, well-managed, well-stewarded landscapes are essential to helping mitigate the effects of climate change, with greenhouse gases but also with things like resiliency to drought and flood,” says Lynch-Staunton.
In fact, the benefits of intact grasslands are so extensive that scientists are still trying to catalogue them and figure out how to restore those that have been lost.
“We are trying to learn what the true value of a healthy grassland ecosystem is to society,” says Lynch-Staunton.
Both Lynch-Staunton and Hebben hope the success of the conservation easement on McIntyre Ranch will open the door to more landmark partnerships across Canada.
“We’re trying to make a difference. And we couldn’t do that without the producers,” says Hebben. “They are the ones who create the opportunities for conservation by virtue of their stewardship of the lands that they own and their willingness to partner with us. And the McIntyre is just the crown jewel in that conversation.”
Some things deserve to stay the way they were. I think that’s the essence of what our family believes. McIntyre Ranch is one of those spaces.
Ralph Thrall III
Grasslands are vital hotspots of biodiversity, offering valuable ecosystem services. They provide wildlife habitat, store carbon, support large animal grazing, naturally control crop pests, facilitate pollination, reduce erosion and flooding, and offer medicines and foods. Grasslands and wetlands fit together in a beautiful mosaic to provide complementary habitat for hundreds of wildlife species—including species at risk.
We are deeply concerned about the rapid loss of grasslands. An estimated 74 per cent of Canada’s native grasslands have already been lost. Since 1970, more than half of the country’s grassland birds have disappeared. Many waterfowl species successfully nest in grasslands but there may not be enough nesting habitat for the declining population of northern pintails. The urgency to address this crisis cannot be overstated.
As a national conservation organization, DUC recognizes the important role of temperate grasslands in maintaining ecosystem health. We’re working to conserve and restore native grasslands across Canada.
Learn more at ducks.ca/grasslands
Donate now to help DUC raise $1 million to support the ongoing conservation of McIntyre Ranch, ensuring it remains healthy and productive for generations to come.
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