The B.C. government has called for a full review of lands owned by conservation groups, to determine how many areas that were set aside to protect wildlife habitat have been leased out by the Crown as cattle range.
Forest, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson promised the review Tuesday, in response to concerns raised by Ducks Unlimited Canada, The Nature Trust and the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation.
The three groups wrote to the government Friday, raising alarms over Bill 5, legislation now in third reading that among other things amends the Range Act. Under the proposed changes, grazing tenures, which ranchers acquire so their cattle can range freely on Crown land, would be extended to cover a period of 20 or 25 years, not 10 years.
Until they scrutinized Bill 5 last week, the conservation groups didn't know privately owned conservation lands were being included when adjacent Crown land was leased out by government for cattle grazing.
"It has come to our attention that this draft legislation represents a potentially serious threat to our lands and investments in conservation," the groups stated in a joint letter. "Range tenures under the Range Act appear to have been applied, inadvertently or otherwise, to over 50 conservation sites in B.C., totalling over 22,000 hectares including critical properties on Vaseux Lake, Columbia Lake and Wigwam Flats."
The groups demanded an explanation as to why government is granting range tenures on land turned over to the Crown to be managed for wildlife.
"We met with the groups this morning to explain the intent of the amendments. I think there is some misunderstanding," said Mr. Thomson, who pointed out the bill only extends leases that already exist. "We don't see the legislation as [having] impact one way or the other … but I think it's a matter of making sure that we sit down and work through that with them."
He said he has promised the groups a detailed analysis of what conservation lands have been leased out. "These are very, very important partners for us," he said of the three groups, which typically work with government to secure and protect lands for conservation.
Les Bogdan, B.C. director of Ducks Unlimited, said he didn't know until last week that the government was granting grazing tenures on conservation lands – and he doesn't want to see those leases extended without a careful review.
"Our concern [is] that as soon as Bill 5 passes, then all those [grazing leases] would automatically be extended … and we're saying, no, no, no."
Mr. Bogdan said some conservation lands might be compatible with grazing, but some, where sensitive habitat is at risk, might not be. "We need to be able to review that and say pull these off the table because they are not for tenure," he said.
Brian Springinotic, chief executive officer of the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund, said the legislation caught him by surprise. "We are scrambling to understand the scope of it," he said. "The primary concern is that we were simply unaware of this and weren't consulted about the potential impact on properties that we helped others acquire for habitat purposes."
Jesse Zeman, of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said he's concerned the government is making money by leasing out land owned by conservation organizations. Any profits, he said, should go into a wildlife enhancement fund.
Rick Mumford, land stewardship co-ordinator for the BC Cattlemen's Association, said his group asked for the amendments because small ranchers are getting tangled up in red tape, renewing grazing tenures every 10 years, and they simply want longer leases. "It's just to reduce all the admin associated with these tenures," he said.