LEARN MORE :: Grasslands of BC :: Managing Grasslands

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Stewards of the Land

stewards1First, what is Stewardship?

Stewardship requires us to consider the land as a resource and acknowledge that we have a responsibility to wisely manage such a resource for both our own purpose and for the sake of future generations. It thus implies caring for and maintaining a wide range of values within a particular area. In the case of grasslands, the particular values that need to be cared for are those related to grazing and grassland management. Stewardship is consistent with sustainable use and does not mean preservation or protection from human use.
Stewardship requires us to consider the land as a resource and acknowledge that we have a responsibility to wisely manage such a resource for both our own purpose and for the sake of future generations. It thus implies caring for and maintaining a wide range of values within a particular area. In the case of grasslands, the particular values that need to be cared for are those related to grazing and grassland management. Stewardship is consistent with sustainable use and does not mean preservation or protection from human use.
Grassland stewardship in the context of ranching is a relatively new concept and has two challenges: actually achieving stewardship goals and being taken seriously in the general public. Partnerships similar to those the GCC is developing with ranchers and the ranching community will be the foundation of successful stewardship in the province.
In BC today, the economics of beef production and changing land values are having negative impacts on grasslands. All of this can result in reduced stewardship options for grasslands. There may be more tough times ahead, but BC’s ranches will survive and continue to contribute to the economy and stability of rural BC. There is strong commitment on the part of many ranchers to maintain their operations, even in the face of the current pressures. More ranches are adopting ecologically sensitive management practices; some are becoming comfortable working with conservation groups. Ranchers will continue their role as stewards of the land, protecting grasslands from developers and subdivision through conscientious use.

Grasslands Through History

stewards2Grasslands have changed constantly throughout recorded history. For thousands of years before European settlement, the grassland ecosystems provided food, clothing, fuel, and shelter for aboriginal people.

Aboriginal people maintained the open grassland landscape with fire, to remove brush for improved travel and encourage new plant growth for game animals. The impact of burning by aboriginal people was greatly reduced by the late 1800s. Between the 1900s and 1930s, European settlers burned to clear land for crops, but by the 1960s the BC Forest Service effectively eliminated large fires. By late 1900s, the effect of forest vegetation creeping into the grasslands was evident.

In the nineteenth century, the introduction of livestock also began to alter the characteristics of the grasslands. The introduction of horses in the early 1800s changed the lifestyle of the aboriginal people by improving labour and mode of travel and therefore increasing trade and food supply. The aboriginal people highly prized their horses; they became a clear indication of wealth in many bands.

Cattle, and then sheep, were introduced into the interior of BC in the mid-1800s following gold mining, exploration, and rail and road construction. The BC beef industry was the first to develop in Canada. The first cattle drives occurred in BC when the Hudson’s Bay Company moved cattle and horses from Fort Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia River to Fort Kamloops and Fort Alexandria around 1840.

Between 1858 and 1868 about 22,000 cattle entered into BC from Oregon Territory to bring beef to the miners during the gold rush. Many cattle were wintered in the valleys of the Thompson River and its tributaries, to facilitate an earlier start to the gold fields in the spring. Miners came and went, but some that stayed saw the grazing potential in the land. The first pre-emption act was passed in 1860 which opened the way for settlers to take up 160 acre parcel of land and commence improvements.

The oldest ranches in the southern interior were established during the 1860s with the establisment of Nicola Valley, Chilcotin, and East Kootenay areas occurring 10 to 20 years later. Jerome and Thaddeus Harper, founders of the legendary Gang Ranch, (near what is now Kamloops) were among the first to realize the interior’s grassy slopes were ideal for raising cattle. As settlers created ranches on the grassy valley bottoms and mountain plateaus, and began to ship their beef by rail to markets beyond the boundaries of their valley, communities grew up around them.

In those days, livestock grazed year-round and as a result, the grassland plants were often damaged.

stewards3Many of these ranchers had emigrated from lands that had relatively moist summers, like the North American prairies or Europe. Interior British Columbia has hot, very dry summers that put the plant community under considerable ‘natural’ stress. This fundamental factor was not recognized by many ranchers, which resulted in major die-back of the more desirable bunchgrass species, like bluebunch wheatgrass and rough fescue.

The first ranchers thought it was unnecessary to feed cattle in the winter. Over the years, cold winters with deep snow covering the grass and the changing markets forced the ranchers to begin raising hay and crops for winter feed and vast acreages of grasslands were cultivated.

By 1900, most of the remaining grasslands were overgrazed. In the twentieth century the profession of rangeland management developed, and with it came the recognition of the dangers of overgrazing and the application of grassland management practices to bring about improvements.

Ranchers whose livelihood depends upon grass, had the most urgent need to advocate for grassland protection. Research and education has made available much practical information to ranchers and range managers to enable them to sustainably manage grasslands. The staff at the Agriculture Canada Range Research Station in Kamloops, and others in Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as various Canadian universities, have made significant contributions to this body of knowledge.

As society shifts from the pioneer days of exploitation of natural resources to sustainability and conservation, grassland stewardship and sustainable ranching have become ever more closely intertwined.

Ranching Today in BC

stewards4Unlike logging and mining, ranching is based on a completely renewable resource and therefore contributes to the sustainability of communities. Ranching is one of the only ways that our society produces food in intact ecosystems.

Grass, the green gold of the Cariboo, continues to sustain the industry that is one of the province’s economic mainstays. Today in British Columbia, there are a total of 5,011 ranching operations that have at least $2,500 in beef sales annually. The total economic contribution by the beef industry to BC is $1.4 billion dollars and revenue from the sale of cattle and calves in BC equals $355 million. For a breakdown of economic contributions by region in BC please visit www.cattlemen.bc.ca.

Ninety-five percent of BC’s grasslands are grazed by cattle. In the Thompson, Nicola and Cariboo areas many rangeland-based ranches graze 300 to 800 head of cattle. Douglas Lake Ranch in the Nicola has a cattle herd numbering roughly 20,000. The Gang Ranch in the Cariboo has been in operation since 1863.

These ranches are extensive and often include large tracts of privately owned grasslands; very large areas of Crown range may also be included in their operations. Good cowboys, fast horses, and skillful stock dogs are everyday sights, and they are critical tools for the proper management of the rangelands.

But, ranching has changed over the years. Computer marketing, year-round sales and huge cattle liners have replaced the brutal once-a-year cattle drives and machines have replaced work horses. Still, the success of cattlemen depends not only on how well they manage and market their herds, but on how well they maintain the land that sustain those herds. Ranchers are conservationists in the true sense of the word – their bread, butter and beef is entirely reliant on an environmentally sustainable operations.


Ranching is a bittersweet way to earn a living. Men and women stick to it because they treasure the freedom and independence, and work that is defined by the natural cycles of nature. But the other side of ranching is not so ideal. Fickle markets, ever-increasing production costs and sinking profits have worn many ranchers down and out of business. Even nature regularly challenges them through drought, killer winters, insect plagues and noxious weeds.

Future of Ranching

The economics of beef production are constantly changing. In recent years the industry has faced upward spiraling input costs, changing consumer demand, increased international marketing complexities, advances in biotechnology and genetics management, and other obstacles like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Each of these can trigger financial crises, which in turn leave ranchers with less money to put towards stewardship of their rangelands. Natural phenomena that are impinging on grasslands and thus on ranching viability are in-growth of forests, changing weather patterns and fire cycles.

Fragmentation and Development


One of the greatest challenges to ranchers is the urbanization of rural areas. As the baby boomer population reaches retirement age while social problems in cities increase, there is a growing demand for acreages. This upward pressure on land prices combined with livestock-human interaction--in particular, livestock- recreation conflicts--leads to an ever increasing marginalization of the ranching industry. The changing land values have an impact on ranch management. When real-estate values escalate far above the productive values of land, ranchers may be forced to consider alternative land uses - often subdivision. In some cases, ranchers move to an area of the province with lower land values, such as the Peace region. As a result, beef production in BC is moving away from the traditional regions of the province.



Even within agriculture, the conversion of grasslands to cultivated crops has long been a part of history. For example, lands that have historically been used for livestock grazing, winter feed production and species at risk habitat have in recent times been cultivated and converted to grape production. This conversion, although beneficial to provincial agriculture in general, impacts negatively on grasslands and its dependent species.

Competition for Water

stewards8There are also competing environmental and natural phenomena that put additional stress on grassland ecosystems and working ranches. The key to this group of threats is competition for water. As water becomes an increasingly scarce commodity, working ranches have to compete with municipalities and other interests for access. This puts increasing pressure on the financial resources of the ranching industry, which can result in reduced stewardship options for grasslands.

Changing Weather Patterns

In semi- arid areas, drought has always been a concern and in recent years has been particularly acute in the southern interior, impacting forage and water resources. Forage production on hayfields, pastures and rangelands has been well below average across most of BC. Reduced forage production has meant decreased weight gains for cattle and therefore reduced income for ranchers. In many cases ranchers have had to reduce cattle numbers on the range, using up limited and valuable winter feed supplies ahead of time.


stewards10Fire is part of the natural cycle in BC’s interior regions. For the last 50 years the suppression of fire along with low precipitation and increased winter temperatures has dramatically altered the fire cycles. In addition, the increase in forest pests such as mountain pine beetle has contributed to the heightened fire hazard throughout the province.

Fire is one way of battling a severe problem facing the ranching community in parts of the province: forest in-growth. In the south-eastern portion of the province in particular, ranchers face severe grass shortages and Crown ranges are being negatively impacted by tremendous forest in-growth and constant increases in wildlife grazing due to very limited natural predation. Fire is a valuable tool to mitigate in-growth and therefore secure forage resources for wildlife and cattle alike.