Alberta ranch makes largest conservation agreement in Canadian history

Screen Capture from Ducks Unlimited. The McIntyre Ranch south of Lethbridge encompasses 22,000 hectares of native prairie and wetlands.

Brett McKay
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
St. Albert Gazette

The McIntyre Ranch south of Lethbridge encompasses 22,000 hectares of native prairie and wetlands, an unbroken grassland sanctuary that would take you an hour an a half to drive end to end. Thanks to landmark conservation agreement announced today, the land will stay in its pristine state indefinitely.

In what is being called the largest conservation agreement in Canadian history, the owners of the ranch, the Thrall family, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), and Duck Unlimited Canada partnered to preserve the entirety of McIntyre Ranch through a conservation easement, a legal mechanism protecting the property from land use changes that would damage the habitat.

“It’s hard to overstate how significant McIntyre Ranch is,” NCC spokesperson Sean Feagan said.

“It’s probably one of the largest privately deeded properties in Alberta and one of the largest remaining tracts of fescue grassland in North America.”

The ranch has had only two owners in its 130-year history. The land will continue to be used for cattle grazing, but through the easement, the owners have voluntarily given up the right to plow the land for agriculture or subdivide and sell it off for development.

“The successful completion of the McIntyre Ranch campaign underscores the power of collaboration and community engagement in conserving Canada’s Prairie grasslands. We hope this significant milestone is just one of many future achievements in our efforts to safeguard one our planet’s most endangered ecosystems,” said Tom Lynch-Staunton, NCC regional vice-president.

Grasslands are one of the planet’s most endangered ecosystems. It’s estimated that over 80 per cent of Canadian prairies have already been lost to other uses.

McIntyre Ranch is also adjacent to the Ross Lake Natural Area and Sandstone Ranch, creating a contiguous grassland preserve covering 26,000 hectares. The land is home to 150 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish, according to wildlife surveys, including the threatened ferruginous hawk and 26 other species of concern.

By 2030, NCC aims to preserve 500,000 hectares of grassland in Canada, or about six times the size of Calgary. Major easements like McIntyre Ranch are a key to reaching that goal, Feagan said.

Feagan said there has been interest in protecting the ranch for more than 20 years, and it took the collaborative effort from countless people to finalize the project.

“It was a long process,” Feagan said. “The family just kind of decided that the time was right to do something like this. It took a lot of work and a lot of different people working together to get this done. Now that it is finalized and funded, it’s a miraculous accomplishment.”

Investments in the conservation project came from the provincial government, through the Alberta Land Trust Grant, Environment and Climate Change Canada, through the Natural Heritage Conservation Program, and other donors.

The owners of McIntyre Ranch donated half of the value of the land, and were compensated for a portion of the remaining land value.