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Conservation of Grasslands

conservation1Grasslands are home to more than 30 percent of BC’s species at risk and support more threatened or endangered species than any other habitat in the province. Despite this significance, grasslands represent less than one percent of the provincial land base and are one of Canada's most endangered ecosystems. Thus, grasslands are critically important to BC’s ecological diversity.

Grasslands are also significant to aboriginal culture in BC. Many grassland plants are valuable for traditional use, and many important archaeological sites are located within grassland areas. Grasslands exist within the traditional territory of many First Nations people in British Columbia, and many bands continue to use grasslands for ranching, hunting and other traditional purposes.

Grasslands play a critical role in BC’s ranching industry. Grasslands serve as a forage base for grazing cattle and sheep as well as providing space and water resources. Healthy grasslands are necessary for a successful and vibrant livestock industry in BC.

Finally, grasslands offer many unique recreation opportunities for residents and visitors alike. British Columbia’s grasslands are used extensively for motorized and non-motorized recreational activities for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. The stewardship and conservation of grassland ecosystems will therefore depend heavily on our ability to manage human activities appropriately.

Because grasslands have such a wide range of values, appropriate management is crucial. In order to ensure that grasslands can continue to provide ecological, social and economic value to British Columbians, strategies to conserve the land base needed.

Preserving Working Ranches

Grasslands are one of the most unique and endangered ecosystems in British Columbia. The purpose of grassland stewardship is to restore and enhance the landscape in order to ensure long-term health and viability of the land. Stewardship promotes the implementation of land-use practices that benefit the natural values of the land. Such practices are responsible for maintaining and restoring the grassland and associated habitats to as natural a state as possible.

conservation2In British Columbia, 95 percent of the grasslands are grazed by cattle. The link between ranching and healthy grasslands is therefore very strong. Strong, economically viable ranches are protectors of large, intact tracts of grasslands, preventing subdivision into rural acreages, which usually have detrimental impacts on grassland health, habitat values, and the ability of neighbouring ranches to continue to function. Never have the ranching and ‘environmentalist’ communities had so much in common.

Appropriate grazing has the potential to maintain or improve the ecological health of grasslands; high impact grazing practices can cause severe deterioration of grassland health. Common ground amongst all of those with an interest in grassland biodiversity, conservation and stewardship has never been more critical.

Grazing can positively impact rangelands by stimulating plant growth, helping to maintain optimal leaf area, enhancing nutritive value, removing excess litter, accelerating nutrient cycling and manipulating botanical composition. In carefully managed conditions grazing can be used as a control mechanism for invasive and undesirable species.

Ecologically based grazing management increases the number of different plant species on rangeland, and creates a mosaic of different habitats that enhance biodiversity. A properly designed grazing system can also be used to provide zones of reduced fine fuel to assist in controlling wildfires. After the summer of 2003, ‘fireproofing’ in BC’s dry valley edges is a major issue for many communities.

Ecologically based grazing management is economically viable, and in fact, assures the long-term availability of inexpensive forage for livestock, without which a ranch cannot survive. 

conservation3There are two main types of ranches that employ land management strategies to maintain and restore grasslands: working ranches and biodiversity ranches The goal of a biodiversity ranch is to maintain biological diversity of the land and to use livestock as a management tool, whereas the goal of a working ranch is to uphold economic viability by recognizing that it is linked to a healthy ecosystem Both types of ranch develop long-term stewardship goals and the owners are encouraged to conserve natural, historical, scenic and scientific values by developing land management plans that may involve the following stewardship practices: rotational grazing, development and placement of riparian exclosures, alternative watering systems and a water supply for new irrigation systems.

Working Ranches

Working ranches in BC rely on grasslands for fall, winter and spring forage. These health of these areas are crucial to the economic viability of the ranching operation. Working ranches apply stewardship tools through the development of land management plans. Each ranch applies strategies that will best protect its grasslands, wetlands and riparian areas. The land management plan benefits the rancher, wildlife and ecosystems alike.

130 Mile Ranch

conservation4130 Mile Ranch is owned and operated by Lee Hoium and Wendy Braim. Located 40 kilometres south-east of Williams Lake in the San Jose River Valley, the ranch is composed of valuable grazing land for cattle and contains some of the finest wetlands in the Cariboo.

Traditionally, cattle were grazed on an open range system that contained little fencing and had unrestricted access to wetlands This led to the eventual loss of productive rangeland and wildlife habitat. In 1996, the owners of the ranch began to work with Ducks Unlimited Canada through the Interior Wetlands Program to develop a land management plan that would provide benefits for both ranching and wildlife. This new plan involved rotational grazing, alternative stock-watering systems and a water supply for a new irrigation system.

conservation5Today each pasture in the ranch is set-up with a monitored general grazing schedule. Alternative watering methods that were developed include: tapping into a small spring to supply water to five different pastures, a reservoir to establish a stable water supply for the ranch and benefit wildlife, and a new pump and pipes to fill the reservoir from the river and to keep the water level stable.

This ranch is a prime example of how the cooperation between non-government organizations and the ranching community are key to solving land management concerns.

Working Ranches and the GCC

Healthy grasslands and sustainable ranching go hand in hand.

The goal of preserving working ranches is inextricably linked to all other GCC conservation initiatives. Data from the BC Grasslands Mapping Project indicates that roughly 90 percent of BC's grasslands are grazed by domestic livestock, either through deeded private rangelands, grazing tenures on crown land or grazing regimes on First Nations land. Without working ranches, the conservation of grasslands is near impossible. Therefore, preserving working ranches is of utmost concern to the GCC.

For a full suite of articles on the importance of grassland stewardship and sustainable ranching, see the GCC's September 2003 issue of BC Grasslands magazine: Range Management and BC's Ranching Legacy - Past, Current and Future Challenges.

Biodiversity Ranches

The objectives of biodiversity ranches are to protect and restore riparian areas, establish short-term grazing rotation and other conservation practices on Crown range tenures, and to promote scientific research. The primary goal of the biodiversity ranch conservation program is to maintain and restore the grassland ecosystem and associated habitats. These habitats are well maintained through active management and can therefore support a thriving, diverse community of native plant and animal species and provide a stable income for any number of agriculture-based households.

White Lake Basin Ranch

The White Lake Basin Ranch is a biodiversity ranch owned by The Nature Trust of British Columbia. The lands encompassing the ranch were acquired in 1996 and 1998 and include two previously separate ranches totaling 5,302 hectares.

Many people are unfamiliar with the work of land trusts and conservancies. Most land trusts in BC are focused on the long-term protection of habitats or heritage sites for future generations, thus the words land trust and conservancy are synonymous. Land trusts usually work on lands that are privately held. They are independent charities that work in partnership with landowners, other organizations, governments and business

The cattle are owned and managed by Clifton Ranch, a neighbouring family-based operation. Much of White Lake Basin Ranch is dry grassland and big sagebrush habitat and is home to many species at risk, including the Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow and Badger. The dry coniferous forest is dominated by ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, and is home to such species as the Flammulated Owl.

For more information on this and other biodiversity ranches please go to www.naturetrust.bc.ca

Talking Mountain Ranch (Reynolds Ranch)

conservation6Talking Mountain Ranch is a biodiversity ranch that is partly owned by The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC). It is located on the west side of the Fraser River approximately 30 kilometres west of Clinton. The ranch is 30,755 hectares in total where 404 hectares of the property is owned by TLC and the remaining 30,351 hectares is Crown range land that has been secured by a grazing tenure.

The landscape of the ranch contains a high diversity of ecosystems and habitats including: grasslands, riparian zones, wetlands, brush and transitional to sub-alpine forested slopes. It is rare that a single acquisition can contain such diversity of vegetation and landscapes. The backdrop of towering hoodoos, limestone sinkholes and imposing canyons increases the allure of the area. The ranch adjoins the Churn Creek Protected Area at its southern edge.

The Talking Mountain Ranch is range for a large number of mammals including California Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer and Cougars. Reptiles and small mammals rely on the open spaces, soils and insect populations of the grasslands; birds of prey use them as nesting grounds; and ungulates are dependent on these areas for winter forage. Altogether, the Talking Mountain range provides a host of different habitats critical to fish, amphibians and waterfowl.

Land Use Planning

conservation7BC’s grasslands are disappearing at an alarming rate. Development pressure on remaining natural ecosystems is intense and increasing. The majority of land use decisions in areas of human settlement are made at the local government level, and local governments have been empowered in recent years to enact legislation to protect sensitive ecosystems within their jurisdictions. However, local governments are struggling to find a balance between managing growth and protecting natural values. Official Community Plans, growth strategies, and associated bylaws often do not effectively utilized the full suite of existing legislative tools to ensure protection of remaining natural ecosystems. Various models, tools and collaborative strategies need to be available to the land use planners to ensure that optimum use is made of existing legislation and incentives to promote grassland conservation.

The Green Infrastructure Model

Most municipal and regional governments acknowledge the need for strategic, landscape-level land use planning tools. A new look at conservation planning tools includes The Green Infrastructure Model Bylaws Package, developed by the multi-agency Wetland Stewardship Partnership and University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre Clinic. This model provides a set of local government bylaws that can provide comprehensive protection for grasslands, wetlands and other sensitive ecosystems. It provides integrated bylaw provisions that maintain the green infrastructure and protect ecologically sensitive areas. The model includes provisions for regional growth strategies, official community plans, development permit areas, zoning, tax exemptions, environmental assessment, storm water management and other regulatory tools.

Each local government can tailor the wording provided in the Model Bylaws Package to its own specific needs. The key benefit of the Model Bylaws Package is its integrated approach. For more informaitn about the package, click here.

Agricultural Land Reserve

There are growing concerns in BC that the Agricultural Land Reserve has gone from a protector of agriculture for future generations to a source of relatively cheap land for municipalities seeking immediate revenue and developers seeking a profit.

Introduced by Dave Barrett’s NDP government in 1973 as a way to arrest the loss of farmland, the Land Reserve is coming under increasing public scrutiny as it attempts to balance the opposing forces of preservation versus development around the province. BC Agriculture Council’s official position is that the land reserve provides food security, helps the environment, and provides economic benefit. The Council also cautions that not all land in the reserve is economic to farm, and emphasizes there is no point protecting the land unless you protect the farmer’s ability to make a living.

The GCC has been collaborating with several conservation organizations, land trusts, and the Agricultural Land Commission to streamline guidelines for developing conservation covenants on ranchlands. The key issue for many conservation groups is the establishment of covenants on ranchlands that protect native forage, agricultural values and ecological values in perpetuity, thereby protecting agricultural lands and ecological values from fragmentation and development. To learn more, visit the ALC website at www.alc.gov.bc.ca

Smart Growth

Smart Growth BC is a provincial non-governmental organization devoted to fiscally, socially and environmentally responsible land use and development. Working with community groups, business, municipalities and the public, they advocate for the creation of more livable communities in BC. Smart Growth BC was created as a joint project of the University of Victoria Eco-Research Chair of Environmental Law and Policy and the West Cost Environmental Law Association. The Smart Growth project aims to foster a growing citizen movement addressing growth and urban sprawl issues around the province, and to provide sound alternative policy solutions to these issues. Smart Growth BC was incorporated as an independent non-profit society in December 1999, and received federal charitable status in January 2002. Go to www.smartgrowth.org to learn more.

Priority Grassland Initiative

Over the last year the GCC has made great strides in developing an analytical and scientific assessment of grasslands in the province. This project is known as the Priority Grassland Initiative. The main objective of the initiative has been to develop a GIS analysis and techniques to identify priority grassland for conservation and stewardship, as well as extension of this information to appropriate land use planners. For more information on the Priority Grassland Initiative, click here.

Planning for Change Initiative

The Planning for Change Initiative aims to provide municipal, regional, provincial and First Nations’ governments with the tools and information to develop a strategy for preventing the fragmentation and development of priority grasslands within their boundaries. Throughout 2007, the GCC will be holding one day solution oriented workshops in several locations to provide municipal and regional planning staff with priority grassland mapping tools, conservation targets and planning tools available to them and to set the scene for discussion, solutions and relationship building between the agencies and the GCC. For more information on the Planning for Change Initiative, click here

Wildlife Protection

conservation8Grasslands are being replaced by pavement, buildings and sterile urban landscaping. The remaining wildlife habitat is smaller, degraded and more fragmented, making survival of certain wildlife species very difficult as they try to reach breeding ponds, hibernation sites, feeding locations, or to establish viable nesting areas. BC has only about a third of its original grassland ecosystem remaining in a relatively intact condition, but much of this remnant acreage has been degraded to some degree.

Species at Risk Act

The Species at Risk Act aims to protect wildlife at risk from becoming extinct or lost from the wildlife, with the ultimate objective of helping their numbers to recover to the point where they are no longer at risk. The Act covers all wildlife species listed as being at-risk nationally. SARA is the cornerstone for species protection and recover, and emphasizes a co-operative approach through conservation actions, incentives and stewardship.

SARA builds upon existing laws and agreements, and complements the efforts of provincial and territorial governments under the Accord for the Protection of Species at risk in Canada. SARA prohibits the killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking of species officially listed as threatened, endangered or extirpated, and it prohibits the destruction of the residences of those species. Recovery strategies or action plans are required to identify the critical habitat of threatened or endangered species needing protection. Once identified, critical habitat will be protected by conservation agreements with landowners, provincial or territorial legislation or other processes, or federal prohibitions. SARA promotes funding for stewardship activities and conservation agreements by individuals, organizations, communities, business, or governments to protect species and habitats.

From the ranchers’ perspective, the principles and basic approach of SARA are supported; however, a number of concerns arise. SARA places a great deal of emphasis on individual species recover y plans and seeks landowner involvement. As grasslands are home to many of the potential threatened species, the potential exists for an individual landowner to be besieged with multiple recovery teams. The capacity of a rancher to host multiple recover plans and sort out the potential conflicting objectives of each of the species is limited. It is difficult for BC ranchers to manage their land for individual species and prefer species recovery teams to work with the ranching industry on a co-coordinated effort rather than trying to implement individual species plans.

For more information about Species at Risk in grasslands, click here.

Also, to view the SARA website, click here.

Further resources on protecting wildlife:

Recreational Practices

conservation9Grasslands in BC provide a unique recreational opportunities. Their gently rolling landscapes that are easily accessible to recreationists living in communities in BC’s interior. Because of their open and gently rolling nature, grassland lend themselves to a variety of motorized activities. Riders of varying skill level can pursue a day of recreation in an attractive landscape. Besides being beautiful, grasslands are also sensitive and easily damaged. Recreation users need to become part of the solution for developing best management practices for grassland recreation.

Off-Road Vehicle Coalition

Sales of off road vehicles (ORVs) in BC are growing in leaps and bounds. With approximately 150,000 ORVs in BC, the necessary policy tools and management strategies are required to monitor and manage off road grassland use. In the absence of licensing and registration, little can be done to insure the observance of designate and non-designated areas or encourage voluntary compliance. An effective management strategy begins with a means to identify ORV riders, track ORV activity, and promote responsible recreation and user-driven management. Furthermore, a good strategy will be economically self-sustaining and provide funds for the off road vehicle clubs themselves to administer management programs including safety, education, enforcement and compliance, responsible trail development and conservation and stewardship initiatives.
The Coalition for Licensing and Registration of Off Road Vehicles is now fully engaged with the provincial government on developing options for licensing and registration of off road vehicles. To learn more about licensing and registration of off road vehicles, click here.

Best Management Practices for Motorized Recreation

The GCC in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, developed the Best Management Practices for Recreational Activities on Grasslands in the Thompson and Okanagan Basins document. Developed with input from more than 40 organizations, this comprehensive code of practices was created by the users, for the user. The Best Management Practices document is the starting point for organization and recreation groups, who can use the document to develop activity-specific brochures and other education tools. The extension of a voluntary code of practices to groups and individuals who use grasslands is the first step in achieving sustainable grasslands use. The Best Management Practices (BMP) Pocket book – a guide to safe and sustainable motorized recreation - has received incredible support and recognition from riders, government and conservation groups.
For more information on the Best Management Practices Pocketbook, click here.

Mountain Biking in BC

Mountain biking has been dramatically growing recreation on BC grasslands in recent years. Free-riding, defined as flowing single track trails with technical features such as jumps, berms, gaps, drops and ladder bridges along its path, is fast growing. Off-trail use impacts plant communities, and construction of poorly designed trails lead to dramatic erosion impacts.
In 2006, the GCC was actively involved in a focus group that was formed to help the provincial government create a strategy for mountain biking in BC. The GCC’s main role was to ensure that sensitive grassland were protected from irresponsible riding. The issue of grassland management was addressed within the pilot strategy that the province unveiled last fall trough the adoption of the International Mountain Bicycling Association Trail Standards. A pilot project will begin in a a grassland region in the Cariboo this summer and it will be monitored by the GCC to ensure it meets the necessary requirements to protect the sensitive soils and plants on grasslands. To learn more about this program, click here.

Tread Lightly

Tread Lightly! is a non-profit organization with a mandate to promote responsible outdoor recreation through education and restoration. Originally launched as a program of the US Forest Service in 1985, the organization moved to the private sector in 1990 to improve effectiveness and better meet its goals. Tread Lightly! Offers recreation tips for activities ranging from mountain biking to hunting to back country skiing. For more information on Tread Lightly! visit www.treadlightly.org.