In 2004, Thunder Hill Ranch owner Brian McKersie welcomed the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) onto his large ranch, located alongside Columbia Lake north of Canal Flats, making the Thunder Hill Ranch Ecosystem Restoration Project the first ranching / conservation partnership project in the region.
One of the largest operational ranches in the East Kootenay, Thunder Hill features a host of key natural features that make it perfect for conservation activity, relates Hillary Page, NCC’s project stewardship coordinator.
The landscape of the ranch includes Douglas fir / ponderosa pine forests and grasslands with blue-bunch wheatgrass, fescues and june grass. Along with rich wetlands, ponds and Marion Creek running through it, the ranchland provides critical winter range for elk and deer, as well cattle for the ranch.
Naturally, the landscape also provides for carnivores such as grizzly and black bears, cougar, coyotes and badgers.
Another at-risk species, Lewis’s woodpecker is also found on the property, which connects to the 504-acres (204 ha) Marion Creek Benchlands property, also under NCC’s guidance. Marion Creek Benchlands, along with Thunder Hill, the Nature Trust’s Columbia Lake West and Crown land, provide more than 7,400 acres (3,000 ha) of connected conservation land on the west side of Columbia Lake.
Along with providing vital connectivity corridors for wildlife, the NCC is conducting ongoing grassland restoration and forest thinning work, including prescribed burns.
Working with the NCC and Brian McKersie on the Thunder Hill project are the provincial government (Crown land) and The Nature Trust.
“Everyone has managed to work together. It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Page, noting the thinning work decreases fire hazards and restores grassland and range on the benches.
“It’s good for wild land and works as a fire guard,” noted Cranbrook-based restoration forester Jeff Allen who is working with NCC.
Also aiding the NCC is important funding from the Regional District of East Kootenay’s (RDEK) Columbia Valley Local Conservation Fund (CVLCF), managed in partnership with the Kootenay Conservation Program (KCP) and derived from a $20 annual levy of properties in the valley by the regional government.
The CVLCF has served as a uniting force in the Columbia Valley, Page suggests.
When the CVLCF started, no one conservation group knew what others were up to, she said, with similar organizations seeking support from the same small pots of money.
“Now we are all talking and coordinated,” she said.
In 2010 the NCC conducted pile burning with funding from the CVLCF and Columbia Basin Trust and in 2013 a mastication project was conducted, with funding from the same agencies.
The funding was also timely as it created employment for many displaced forestry workers over the past few years, meaning economic benefits to the valley.
Bigger jobs are put out to tender and work crews hit the land – with jobs that wouldn’t normally have been available if not for the CVLCF and the projects managed by the NCC / Nature Trust.
Allen estimates that since 1996/97 “about $14 million” has been presented in wages, region-wide, for forestry workers taking part in restoration projects on crown land. “It’s basically money going into peoples’ pockets,” he said, explaining the Thunder Hill work has employed crews numbering 20 to 30 workers.
“It helped a lot of mill workers through ’08 and ’09,” he said.
Along with providing employment to aid valley families, the project is “creating resilient ecosystems,” Page added.
Allen explained the thinning work that is ongoing on Thunder Hill Ranch will have long-term benefits.
While recently thinned sites may appear like a freshly logged area, “you really have to walk them in three or five years to get a sense of the impact of the work. Our objective is really 200 years from now,” when tree species such as ponderosa pine have returned, he said.
Allen also noted that the restoration work isn’t being done solely for elk habitat.
“We’re not managing for elk; we’re managing ecosystems,” he said.
Land that is healthy for wildlife means healthy land for a ranch, Page said.
“Brian is happy with the work because over the long-term it will increase his forage,” she reported, adding the long-time valley rancher also understands that conservation requires vigilance.
“It’s what you do with the land post conservation that matters,” she said.
For more information on the RDEK’s Columbia Valley Local Conservation Fund go to www.kootenayconservation.ca.
The Call for Proposals for new projects is open until October 31, 2013.