With colonized sand dunes up to 10 meters high, and dotted with open sandy areas known as "blowouts", the Oak Lake Sandhills natural area is unique. Here rare and endangered plants and animals flourish. Protecting this habitat is a priority for one conservation minded family.
From an agricultural perspective, this land is virtually worthless, according to Jon Drinkwalter. But, from a recreation standpoint, and for biological diversity, it is priceless. This tract of sandhill habitat, located southeast of Virden, provides a home for many plants and animals.
Jon and Angie Drinkwalter aren’t your typical landowners. This conservation minded family feel that protecting habitat is more important than the economic return, and as a result they opted to place a Conservation Agreement (Easement) on their property, covering parts of three quarter-sections. It’s all wild with big rolling hills," said Drinkwalter. "When a study was done they found endangered species and species at risk."
"The Oak Lake Sandhills & Wetlands Natural Area (OLSW), located southeast of Virden, supports dozens of discrete sandhill areas that rise as much as 10 metres above the plain, supporting a mixture of aspen woodland and sandhill prairie," said Josh Dillabough, Natural Area Coordinator with Nature Conservancy Canada Manitoba (NCC). "The property itself is a stabilized sand dunes system with a mix of sandhill woodlands and sandhill grasslands habitats."
"The sandhill slopes alongside are host to a suite of rare plants such as Sand Bluestem, Spinystar, (which is a cactus) and Silky Prairie Clover."
The OLSW Natural Area is one the Nature Conservancy’s priority areas due to the diversity of plants and animals found here including a lengthy list of rare and endangered species. Protecting fragile habitats like this is important as it helps maintain biodiversity. Who knows what yet undiscovered creatures live here and in other threatened habitats.
The Drinkwalters bought this property as recreational land and that is what they use it for. Their family and friends often join them to sit around a campfire, picnic, camp, hike and enjoy other fun outdoor activities. Since they have a horse, they might eventually use it for pasture on the part not covered by the easement. In the fall several groups of hunters continue to get hunting permission and enjoy the property.
The Drinkwalters enjoy the peace and quiet the place offers. "The only noise you hear is from the road. It’s so peaceful, no noise, no light, just the stars, and there’s a million of them. It is quiet, peaceful recreation land."
"We don’t want it for farming, it is our hobby land," he explains. "Everybody is happy, the Conservancy got a big slab of protected land, and we paid off our mortgage, so it is good for everybody."
"We have pictures of bears from a trail camera," said Drinkwalter. "There’s a good sized black bear, and a cinnamon coloured one as well. "There’s lots of deer, coyotes and bald eagles." On one occasion their daughter saw a big cat with a long tail. They think it was likely a cougar.
"One of the stranger creatures here is the Tiger beetle, which is quite unusual and they are found in the sandy blowouts on the Drinkwalter property," said Dillabough "Manitoba is home to 19 species of these sand beetles," according to Dr. Bob Wrigley, the Chair of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s volunteer Scientific Advisory Committee for Manitoba. "They all have highly specific habitat requirements, and so typically occur in isolated colonies, with many yet to be discovered. Several species are currently at risk, with small populations found at only one or a couple of localities. Manitoba’s largest species, the Big Sand Tiger Beetle, inhabits the sandy blow-outs of the Drinkwalter property. Due to its relatively undisturbed nature, the property no doubt provides essential habitat for literally thousands of wildlife species."
"I would absolutely recommend easements to other landowners," said Jon. Permanently protecting the habitat on their property was the right decision for this family. "Absolutely, I would do it again in a heartbeat!"
A conservation agreement is a voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and conservation organization that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values.
For more information, contact: The Nature Conservancy of Canada at natureconservancy.ca or call them at: 1-866-683-6934.