09/29/2014 12:43 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST

Alberta Ranchers To Conserve Huge Tract Of Native Grassland

Witold Skrypczak via Getty Images

CALGARY - Southern Alberta ranchers have banded together to preserve a huge swath of almost untouched native grassland that some call a prairie Serengeti.

"Everything — everything — that was there when Columbus arrived is still there," said Larry Simpson of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which helped put the deal together. "That's what makes this area so special."

The 72 members of the Waldron Grazing Co-op have agreed to sign a conservation easement on more than 12,000 hectares of rolling prairie and foothills that their group has owned since 1962. The land, located on either side of Highway 22 south of Longview, Alta., was being eyed by developers and could have been sold for at least $75 million, said Simpson.

Instead, the ranchers agreed to easements that forbid subdividing, draining of wetlands, or cultivation of the land.

"We're not in it for the money, we're really not," said rancher Tim Nelson from Stavely, Alta., chairman of co-op board. "We decided we could preserve the land and we could also continue to use it the way we've used it for the last 52 years.

"It's not going to be houses out there, it's not going to be hotels. It's just going to be like it is."

The deal allows the co-op to retain title and keep grazing the roughly 10,000 cattle currently home on the range. Some energy development exists on carefully restricted terms and future proposals would be considered case by case.

"It's not like a park, it's not like an ecological reserve," Simpson said.

"Those are really important, but when we looked at the settled area of Alberta, we realized that if we were going to go to war over every single well that was going to be drilled we would not get much done. We're going to focus on conserving working landscapes as best we can."

The total cost of the project was $37.5 million, with $12.2 million from the provincial government and $4 million from Ottawa. The ranchers received $15 million — money they've already used to purchase another 5,700 hectares of adjacent grassland which they also plan to place under conservation easement.

The Waldron lands connect a large wildland park and even larger forest reserve. With the exception of bison, they are home to all the species that were originally native to the Prairies, including grizzly and black bears, wolves, cougars, hawks, eagles, elk, moose, deer, coyotes and foxes.

Nelson said public access on foot is permitted.

Visitors are asked to contact the range manager. Phone numbers will be posted on signs.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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