Gifts for the Prairies

Gifts for the Prairies

How corporations, individuals, and conservation groups are joining forces to save unique and vitally important landscapes

By Leigh Patterson, Ashley Lewis, and Wayne MacPhail

When Alberta rancher Jim Randle looks out onto the rolling prairie of the Shell Buffalo Hills Conservation Ranch, he sees both the past and the future. A portion of Randle's herd of American bison - a species that was near extinction a century ago - roams the ranch's undulating hills.

In 2013 DU Canada, in partnership with Shell Canada, purchased the 6,238-acre ranch in southern Alberta to conserve its wetlands and unbroken native grasslands. The property, along with adjoining public land, serves as a working ranch. About 800 natural wetland basins dot the landscape. Those water-filled potholes and depressions, along with native grasslands, make this land a natural fit for bison, cattle, and nesting waterfowl.

Randle signed two leases with DU Canada. Under one, he runs 225 of his 600 bison on the north half of the ranch. Under the other, Randle's yearling cattle graze the south half. It's a partnership that bodes well for the future of the ranch. "Protecting the grass and the wetland areas and managing how it's grazed is a top priority for us, so working with DU has been great. They've been a good partner," Randle says. "The plan is to have something that is sustainable for our children, for the bison and cattle, and for the wildlife and waterfowl for years and years to come."

This unique project is just one example of how partnerships are helping to conserve the expansive landscape of Canada's Prairie Pothole Region, which is home to thousands of shallow wetlands that provide crucial habitat for North America's migratory birds. But those wetlands aren't just for birds. They're for everyone. They protect our communities and our way of life by naturally filtering nutrients and pollutants from water and reducing the impact of costly and devastating floods, and they provide opportunities for outdoor recreation year-round.

Unfortunately, up to 40 percent of the wetlands in Canada's Prairie Pothole Region are gone. Ducks Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited Canada are teaming up with a variety of partners to restore the wetlands that have been lost and protect those that remain. With the help of generous corporate partners like Shell Canada, the Pembina Pipeline Corporation, and the Coca-Cola Foundation, these prairie habitats have a fighting chance. Here's how some of those partners' contributions are being put to use.

Pembina Pipeline

Ian Balfour is Pembina Pipeline Corporation's vice president, conventional pipelines. In June 2019, Balfour and other Pembina staff joined representatives from DU Canada at the Cherry Project in Alberta to pull fence and lend a hand with conservation work on the property. Here, Balfour experienced for himself the beauty and power of prairie wetlands and grasslands and learned about the incredible environmental benefits they deliver to local communities. This site is one of many important conservation projects that DU Canada will deliver thanks to Pembina's support.

The Calgary-based corporation is leading by example as it teams up with DU Canada in a partnership that promotes sustainable industry practices, acknowledges the importance of working landscapes, and delivers essential environmental benefits to the people and wildlife who call this beautiful and vital region home. Pembina's $1 million investment will conserve approximately 2,000 acres of important wetland and grassland habitat in key areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan. "We look forward to witnessing this important conservation work come to life in the backyards of our families, friends, and stakeholders," Balfour says.

By supporting DU Canada's Revolving Land Conservation Program, Pembina is helping keep land in the hands of private owners. The program allows agricultural interests to stay on the land while protecting wetlands and associated grasslands, which DU Canada CEO Dr. Karla Guyn says is important, given the high demand for land across the prairies. "Partnerships with companies such as Pembina and initiatives like the Revolving Land Conservation Program showcase our commitment to collaboration,' Guyn says. "We believe in finding solutions and working together with those who share our passion for our land, water, and wildlife."

Pembina's commitment to DU Canada is fueling vital conservation work on the prairies for three years, starting with several Revolving Land Conservation projects in Alberta and Saskatchewan that kick-started a cycle of environmental sustainability and economic success across this important region. "The revolving model allows Pembina's support to be continually leveraged, funding conservation for years to come," Guyn explains. "It's a powerful way to forge an environmental, economic, and social legacy."

The Coca-Cola Foundation

As the water sustainability program director for Coca-Cola North America, Jon Radtke thinks he has the best job in the world. Radtke grew up as a hiker and fisherman in southern Illinois. He graduated college as a geologist and for a number of years worked as a consultant. Then, one of his big clients, Coca-Cola, offered him a full-time position in 2005.

Radtke was one of a handful of hydrogeologists the company employed at that time. He jumped at the chance because Coca-Cola wanted to take serious action for conservation. He was a part of a review of the water sources, watersheds, and risk factors at more than 1,000 Coca-Cola bottling plants worldwide. Radtke and others developed training programs and mitigation plans to care for the precious water that the iconic company was using in its beverages and bottling processes.

Today, Coca-Cola is striving to return every drop of water it uses to the environment. The company returns wastewater that meets environmental standards, but, with the help of organizations like DU Canada, it also mitigates the billions of liters of water it uses in its products. "We do watershed restoration, and in some underserved communities we do clean water access and sanitation projects," Radtke says. "Really, it's about restoring the natural hydrology of a location."

Since 2015, the Coca-Cola Foundation has been working with DU Canada on a unique project in the Prairie Pothole Region. The project, focused on wetland restoration and conservation through DU Canada's Revolving Land Conservation Program, saw Coca-Cola achieve a million liters of water replenishment per acre. "The results were fantastic," Radtke says. "Not only does a project like that help us reach our volumetric goal, but there are water quality improvements, it provides habitat, and these wetlands store water and slow it down on the landscape, which helps during flood conditions."

Prairie Wetland

Funding from the Coca-Cola Foundation helped restore this prairie wetland near Strathclair, Manitoba, to its full potential.

Photo © Shaun Cassan

The partners recently marked a milestone. "We have provided a million dollars of funding that has returned a billion liters of water," Radtke says. In the spring of 2019, Coca-Cola announced that it had reached 100 percent water replenishment in its finished beverages, and so has balanced its water use in Canada.

Circling back to his outdoor conservationist roots, Radtke couldn't be happier in his current role. "I get to work with great partners like Ducks Unlimited Canada and I get to go out to these watersheds and help restore them."

DU Canada's Revolving Land Conservation Program

Some of the conservation activities funded by Pembina Pipeline and the Coca-Cola Foundation will be delivered through DU Canada's Revolving Land Conservation Program. It's an innovative approach that engages landowners and other partners to fuel a perpetual cycle of conservation. Here's how it works:
  • DU Canada purchases land with high conservation value and restores the wetlands and grasslands on the property.
  • The land is then sold to producers with a conservation easement placed on the title.
  • The easement protects the natural habitat while allowing subsequent owners of the property to use the land for haying and grazing.
  • Funds from the sale of the land provide DU Canada with the capital to repeat the cycle.
Leigh Patterson is editor of DU Canada's Conservator magazine. Ashley Lewis is senior communications specialist for DU Canada. Wayne MacPhail is a freelance writer based in Hamilton, Ontario.