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British Columbia's Gilpin grasslands are being reduced to stubble by grazing cattle. (Globe and Mail)
British Columbia's Gilpin grasslands are being reduced to stubble by grazing cattle. (Globe and Mail)

Mark Hume

Grazed to stubble, Gilpin grasslands need cattle ban Add to ...

Several efforts have been made to save the Gilpin grasslands, a beautiful and distinctive ecosystem found just east of Grand Forks in arid southern British Columbia, over the past 38 years.

Wild grass once stood waist-high on the gentle slopes above the Kettle River, but efforts to preserve that natural splendour have largely failed.

Herds of cattle, left to roam freely under British Columbia's range regulations, have caused extensive damage over the 4,000 hectares, which includes the Gilpin and adjacent grasslands, where meadows are interspersed with pine forest.

The Gilpin grasslands have been largely reduced to raw stubble, even in an 800-hectare parcel that has been given Class A provincial park status.

The problem of overgrazing on the Gilpin grasslands has long been recognized by the government and there have been at least two major land-use planning exercises aimed at resolving the issue. Both failed because of a lack of follow through.

The Nature Trust bought nearly 200 hectares of land in the area, fencing some of it off in an attempt to save the natural grass ecosystem, but that did nothing to save the larger area.

The Gilpin grasslands - home to Bighorn sheep, elk, two species of deer, wolves, cougars and a variety of songbirds - remain open to cattle grazing, and the damage is evident.

Generations of beef cattle have stripped away most of the natural grasses, pounded stream banks flat and churned water holes into mucky bogs.

Few know this better than Barry Brandow Sr., a Grand Forks resident who has spent years tramping through the area, chronicling the continued blight of the land.

"You can't fence in all those small streams that wander through the area. The cattle get in there and just tear up the banks," he said in an interview. "You cannot believe the erosion problems they create."

The cattle also eat whatever they can, so heavily browsing the grasses in some areas that there's not even enough ground cover left for small birds to nest, and valuable forage for elk and Bighorn sheep has been stripped away.

Mr. Brandow said the provincial government first acquired land in the area in 1972, and the Nature Trust added to that with later purchases.

Right from the beginning everyone knew the cattle were damaging the land by overgrazing - but even though resource management plans calling for restrictions were drawn up in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, the cattle were never driven out.

And when Class A park status - which restricts development of Crown land - was granted to a large parcel a few years ago, the cattle grazing rights were left in place.

"Cattlemen are very powerful. They have a lot of influence; a lot of friends," said Mr. Brandow.

This year Mr. Brandow said there were about 100 cows and their calves browsing in the park. That's not a big herd, but it's big enough to continue the degradation of the grasslands.

"We want the cattle out of the Class A park," says Mr. Brandow, who has been leading the fight to save the area. "Our argument is not anti-cattle, it is based on good, hard science. To restore the natural grasslands you have to bring an end to the over-browsing that is happening."

The provincial government appears to have recognized the problem and is considering a Ministry of Environment proposal to designate about 4,000 hectares as a wildlife management area.

A WMA, according to the government, is an area where "conservation and management of wildlife, fish and their habitats is the priority land use, but other uses may be permitted."

In other words, it would be managed so that the park and adjacent grasslands outside the park would not be trampled by herds of beef cattle. Browsing would be allowed only if it didn't damage the ecosystem.

That seems to make a lot of sense. But Mr. Brandow and others who love the Gilpin grasslands have good reason to worry. The WMA proposal first surfaced in 2005, wasn't acted on, was revised in 2007 - and it still has not been acted on.

For decades the bawling of cattle has drowned out the cries to save the Gilpin grasslands. And each year the beautiful landscape has been trampled a little more.

"Science has fallen off the face of the cliff in the way we manage the environment," Mr. Brandow says. "It's a shambles everywhere you look. But I'm hopeful sanity will prevail here and the government will finally do the right thing to save the grasslands."

A WMA would be a good first step. And an outright ban on cattle grazing in all Class A parks in the province should be brought in immediately. That way, when the grasses push through melting snow banks this spring, it will be a signal a rebirth, not an invitation to turn the herds loose.

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