Tom and Sabrina Schlup have reached another milestone in their efforts to return their land back to its natural state. This past October, with the help of the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, they completed the thirty-third wetland restoration project on their farm.
When the Schlups purchased the land in 1999, most of the wetlands on the farm had been drained and cultivated.
“The place looked like an old dish rag that had been washed too many times,” says Tom. “The tops of the knolls were eroded and nearly bare and soil was settling in the potholes below. We set out to restore the sloughs and return the land to its natural state, within reason.”
Tom and Sabrina manage a herd of about 200 bison on their 800-acre ranch situated along the Birdtail Valley near Rossburn, Manitoba. The bison meat they produce finds its way into fine restaurants across the continent. The rolling landscape is a product of the continental glacier during the last Ice Age, which left a fertile land perforated with numerous small wetlands. It lies in the middle of the Prairie pothole region, the duck factory for central North America. Over the decades, with the advent of new technology and bigger farm machinery, the wetlands became a nuisance to larger farming equipment and the wetlands were drained. It has been estimated that up to 70 % of the prairie wetlands have now been drained.
Nowadays the entire farm is in pasture, with the previously cultivated cropland seeded down to tame forages. Tom is bale-feeding his herd on the tops of the knolls to try to improve the organic content of the formerly eroded soils.
“We began working with the Upper Assiniboine Conservation District first, then they suggested I talk to the people at the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation,” says Tom. “They had a program that could help out.”
The program was the Wetland Restoration Incentive Program (WRIP), which was initiated in 2008/09 as a partnership between the Province of Manitoba, Ducks Unlimited Canada and MHHC. The program was designed to restore the original condition of drained or modified wetlands, improve local water quality and sequester carbon. Roy Bullion, Habitat Conservation Specialist with the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, based in Shoal Lake, provided Tom with the program details.
“When I first talked to Roy,” Tom recalls, “I didn’t really have a sense for how many sloughs we were going to restore, I just told him to plug every hole! The more water the better.”
Small earth dikes were constructed to stop the downstream flow of water, allowing the wetlands to re-establish. On the Schlup’s farm, the size of the wetlands vary from very small up to 10 acres or more.
“After a few dry summers you start to think about water,” Tom says. “While there might not be any scientific proof, I believe more water on the landscape helps produce rain. Sloughs help maintain soil moisture and recharge the water table.”
Each restoration project is protected under a conservation agreement, or easement. Landowners who sign a wetland restoration conservation agreement receive a one-time payment as part of the agreement.
The easement is recorded on the land title and remains in force with the transfer of ownership. The agreement is entirely voluntary. There are restrictions on the use of the land such as no drainage or breaking, but normally the landowner can still take hay from the land or use it for grazing provided the habitat is not negatively impacted. In addition to these benefits, the rejuvenated wetlands provide habitat for waterfowl and other birds and animals.
“We didn’t start this with self-benefit in mind. We just think that bush should remain bush, and sloughs should remain sloughs. What we’re doing is taking a little Native knowledge and putting it to good use with a modern twist,” Tom explains. “The easements on the projects will prevent the next landowner from undoing all the work we have done, and will continue to do.”
Since 1998, the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation has entered into more than 600 agreements involving more than 115,000 acres of habitat, most of it in southwestern Manitoba.
For more information on wetland restoration or habitat conservation opportunities contact your local Habitat Conservation Specialist.
Photo By Robert R. Taylor