Just west of Spirit River, Alberta, there is a tract of land where elk graze, chorus frogs chirp and red-tailed hawks patrol the boundaries between the fields and trembling aspen stands in search of prey.
It is a land that has largely been home to hay and cattle since early settlers first bought the farm equipment that is now rusting in the grass and built the pioneer log homes that are still slowly crumbling around their antique woodstoves.
It is also a land sparsely dotted with small oil wells, pipelines stitching seams of atypical plant life across the landscape.
That 740 hectares just south of Moonshine Lake Provincial Park, Blueberry Mountain Conservation Site and a popular birdwatching site at Jack Bird Pond was purchased by Shell Canada and the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) this April with the intention of managing the habit for its many wild residents, including the barred owl, which is a Species of Special Concern provincially.
Ungulates such as elk, moose and mule and white-tailed deer are expected to support carnivorous predators like cougars, not to mention the ubiquitous black bears who have left their claw marks on almost every large aspen in that forest. Fox hunt smaller game in the meadows and woodpeckers such as yellow-bellied sapsuckers find their food and chisel their roosts in the trees.
It may even be home to some of Alberta’s dwindling population of sharp-tailed grouse.
“We’ve been working in partnership with Shell since 2007,” said Darren Dorge, Land Program Manager with ACA, explaining the joint venture with the oil company to preserve that piece of nature.
“We’ve got focus areas set up, up in the boreal there,” he continued. “Obviously, this property is in one of the focus areas already. And then we heard of the opportunity of this guy potentially going to sell. So, we approached the landowner and approached Shell with the opportunity and all that. And it ended up working out perfect.”
The tract of land near Spirit River – now known as the Shell True North Forest – was identified as an ideal parcel for ACA and Shell to acquire through Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis of the ecosystem.
“There’s a number of different criteria that we use when we do the GIS analysis,” said Dorge. “Obviously, it brings up these areas of importance. And then with Shell, obviously, they’ve got an interest in that area as well.
“This one obviously fell into our lap from a number of different criteria,” he added.
The spruce and aspen stands combined with river valleys caught the eye of ACA.
“It’s just the whole diversity of the property as well,” Dorge continued. “There’s a diversity of habitat types on there. It’s important to so many different species. I think there’s four kilometres of riparian area there associated with the river running through the property. Obviously, that’s pretty important as well. And from a species perspective, there’s obviously a variety of different wildlife.
“From a diversity perspective, it’s obviously pretty important.”
Shell is tackling these types of short-term conservation initiatives because of the long timeframe of land reclamation projects in their oil sands operations. During the course of the decades necessary to reclaim those sites, Shell can help conserve significant parcels of natural spaces.
Their efforts have led to the conservation of land equivalent to fourteen percent of their Jackpine and Muskeg River Mine operations at this point.
“Overall, from an ACA perspective, working with these companies is a great thing,” said Dorge.
“They know that they’ve got a little bit of a footprint on the landscape,” he continued, adding that ACA’s Corporate Partners in Conservation Program (CPIC) has been a great way to help the organization and the oil companies achieve their conservation goals.
Energy sector participants in that program also include oil heavyweights Suncor, Syncrude, Canadian Natural Resources, Devon and PennWest Energy.
Interestingly, other oil companies such as Paramount Resources have producing wells on the property at this time. Those companies will be receiving information from ACA about the acquisition of the land and their plans for its future.
“Once those wells expire or whatever, then there’ll be a reclamation plan for those areas,” said Dorge. “And we’ll work directly with that company there on reclamation plans.”
Baseline inventories of plant and animal life are first on the agenda.
“They’ll kind of do a bit of a mapping exercise on what vegetation is there, what wildlife species are there, come up with some recommendations on how we could make that site better from a wildlife perspective,” Dorge explained. “It’s quite a detailed inventory. And we’ll end up getting a report at the end there that summarizes all the pertinent information on that property.”
That information will be used to develop a management plan, although ACA is already certain that they will continue to manage some of the hayfields as hayfields to benefit elk – the area is an important elk corridor – and other ungulates.
“It is an important winter range for elk and other ungulates as well,” said Dorge. “But the big thing is, with the elk, we’re hoping we can attract them into those areas, especially during the winter months. If we can control some of the elk depredation on surrounding lands by attracting some of the elk onto this property, obviously, some of the local landowners will benefit from that as well.
“We can keep a lot of those elk numbers on that property by managing those hayfields and keeping them pretty productive,” he added. “They’re obviously going to be pretty attractive to species like elk.”
ACA might also start a tree planting program on the site to spur reforestation.
“We can throw that draft management plan by Shell as well,” said Dorge. “They may have a couple of objectives they’d like to see happen there too. It’s a good partnership thing. That collaborative effort, I think, is huge there.”
A variety of land uses for the forest are also under consideration, including its potential as an educational tool for local schools.
“If they were going to do a field trip or something,” said Dorge. “And a site like that, where it’s got the variety of species of wildlife and the diversity of habitat and all that there, it would be a great little educational site for them as well. So, definitely open for those opportunities.”
It could also be used by everyone from hikers and hunters to birdwatchers and nature photographers.
“And it’s basically done by foot access only.”