U of A rangeland scientists gain access to two important new study areas

Onefour and Stavely Research Ranches will test conservation, biodiversity questions

Helen Metella - 14 December 2016

Two historic research ranches in southern Alberta have officially changed hands, and that's giving scientists from the University of Alberta assured access to study two large rangelands.

The land areas are the Onefour and Stavely Research Ranches, located in the southeastern corner of the province and southwest of Nanton, respectively. Established by the Canadian government in 1927 and 1947, they were dedicated to ranch and livestock fieldwork until Agriculture Canada decided three years ago to close them.

Today, the signing of the memorandum of understanding was announced between the University of Alberta and Alberta Environment and Parks, which will allow these working landscapes to be managed by the province of Alberta and be reborn as centres concentrating on improving rangeland management, promoting long-term rangeland economic and environmental sustainability, and conserving biodiversity.

"The Onefour and Stavely research substations have been essential in developing rangeland management as we know it in western Canada," says Shannon Phillips, minister of Environment and Parks. "The University of Alberta has played an essential part initiating and conducting the research on both sites and the recent memorandum of understanding between the Government of Alberta and the University will help ensure the future of these vital facilities."

"Having reliable access to large-scale rangeland landscapes is critical to improve our fundamental understanding of rangeland ecology and function, and ultimately identify beneficial management practices for those relying on and using these areas," said Edward Bork, Mattheis Chair in Rangeland Ecology and Director of the Rangeland Research Institute.

"For example, these areas will be used to understand how to optimize and sustainably use forage production, better protect Alberta's prairie biodiversity, including species at risk, as well as mitigate risks and challenges posed by threats such as climate change, all with the intent of ensuring native grassland conservation."

The institute already conducts studies at the Kinsella and Mattheis Research Ranches in central and southern Alberta, but adding the new ranches vastly enriches the scope of its work.

"While Mattheis and Kinsella are very good exemplars of the mixed-grass and parkland regions respectively, they do not represent the most arid prairie regions of Alberta (as Onefour does), nor the more humid and biodiverse grasslands of southwestern Alberta (Stavely), where climate, soils, and associated vegetation are unique," said Bork.

"All four ranches combined now provide four contrasting environments in which to test questions of relevance to ranchers and rangeland managers."

Additionally, the U of A intends to maintain long-term studies that the federal government started many decades ago.

"Long-term studies are difficult and costly to undertake, in part because they do not align with short-term funding cycles; yet their results are especially important to researchers and ranchers due to their ability to provide novel insight into how grasslands withstand or recover from chronic stress," said Bork.

"The long-term stocking rate study (the number of animals in a given landscape area and period of time) at Stavely, for example, has significantly advanced our understanding of how fescue grassland vegetation and soils respond to differences in grazing intensity."

As well as being a venue for rangeland and native grassland research, these lands will simultaneously provide grazing opportunities for local ranchers, and provide for more effective technology transfer back to the ranching community.

There is sufficient space to do both because the Onefour Research Ranch encompasses more than 40,000 acres and the Stavely site occupies 960 acres.

"As a faculty, one of our priorities is providing space where our students and faculty can explore how to turn science into solutions," says Stan Blade, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. "Access to the lands at Stavely and Onefour assure that we will continue to use the best tools for rangeland and grazing research, which will benefit Albertans for generations to come."