Ya Ha Tinda Ranch remains Parks Canada's only working horse ranch as it turns 100

Surrounded by breathtaking scenery, the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch has been managed by Parks Canada for 100 years. It’s unique in that it’s the only ranch owned and managed by the agency.

'There is a whole series of projects that depend on the use of good horses'

Ya Ha Tinda Ranch turns 100 2:02

Surrounded by breathtaking scenery, the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch has been managed by Parks Canada for 100 years.

It's unique in that it's the only working horse ranch owned and managed by the agency.

Nestled at the foot of the Rockies, about 150 kilometres northwest of Calgary, the ranch sits at the end of a long gravel road encircled by forest, with some buildings blending into the landscape.

A dozen horses roam freely.

The Ya Ha Tinda Ranch brings in a dozen foals as young as six months old every year. Their training lasts five years. (Louise Moquin/Radio-Canada)

The place has a postcard feel to it, with its snowy peaks on one side and miles of rolling meadows on the other.

Parks Canada uses it to train all the horses that are used in national parks in Western Canada.

"This is the place recognized by all as the birthplace of Parks Canada's horse-breeding program," says ranch foreman Rick Smith, one of four full-time residents at the site.

Foreman Rick Smith says Ya Ha Tinda Ranch is the birthplace of Parks Canada's horse-breeding program. (Tiphanie Roquette/Radio-Canada)

Every year, a dozen foals as young as six months old arrive at the ranch. Trainers evaluate their personality. To be good companions of the park wardens, the animals must be calm and obedient.

Their training lasts five years, after which the horses are distributed to parks in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Every winter, hundreds of animals return to graze on the ranch lands.

Hard-to-reach mountain terrain makes them essential companions for park wardens. According to Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager with Banff National Park, helicopters and motor vehicles have failed to replace the horses.

Whole series of projects

"There is a whole series of projects that depend on the use of good horses being raised on the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch," Hunt says.

According to Parks Canada employees, the ranch has proven successful over the century of its existence, but its history has long been peppered with questions about its usefulness.

Kathy Calvert, one of the first female park wardens, wrote a book on the history of the ranch.

"One of the biggest struggles was between the provincial and federal governments," Calvert says.

Kathy Calvert, pictured with fellow author Dale Portman, says the ranch's boundaries have changed several times as a result of tensions between the provincial and federal governments. (Tiphanie Roquette/Radio-Canada)

The tension between the two governments has redefined the park's boundaries several times, to the point where the ranch, still managed by the federal government, is now outside the boundaries of the national park.

"The big problem is that the ranch is isolated, and the administration in Ottawa has always needed to be convinced to keep it," she said.

The 2012 budget cuts at Parks Canada made some fear the worst.

Without a park warden, there is no need for horses, and the land has always been of interest to real estate developers.

"There is a very long list of people who wanted to use the place, build hotels, a golf course," Calvert said.

Great diversity of wildlife

Calvert says the ranch has been able to resist and reinvent itself over the past decade.

The ranch lands enjoy a great diversity of wildlife.

A large herd of elk has established winter quarters on the land, which is also used as an anchor for University of Alberta research in the area.

Parks Canada is conducting a bison reintroduction project in a nearby valley, making the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch one of the best access points to check the progress of the project.

Ya Ha Tinda Ranch is surrounded by a great diversity of wildlife. (Louise Moquin/Radio-Canada)

With files from Radio-Canada's Tiphanie Roquette and Louise Moquin