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Comment: Social licence needs to be a co-operative effort

The term social licence kept jumping into my mind last month as I scanned the headlines coming out of Oregon where a group of gun-toting militiamen took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

They were there to protest the arrest of two ranchers who were convicted in 2012 of starting fires that spread to the public land adjoining their ranch. The ranchers, who were turning themselves into federal authorities, had nothing to do with the militiamen. They were simply the newest victims in the decades-old clash between U.S. ranchers and their federal government’s management of public lands.

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The standoff was still going on as this issue went to press. It is easy to have sympathy for the rancher and his son who got caught up in this firestorm, but the antics of the protesters was doing nothing for the stewardship image that so many U.S. ranchers work so hard to maintain.

Flare-ups over the common use of public lands have been a constant irritant of ranch life right back to when the first fences went up. And they are likely to continue. What can change, however, are the attitudes of those involved.

It seems obvious, for example, that the current U.S. administration seems bent on upholding an activist agenda that overrides the concerns of ranchers who care for large swatches of both private and public land. Talk of converting 2.5 million acres into a national monument, and ever-tougher environment restrictions on the use of public land only hardens the feelings of ranchers, many of whom depend on those lands for part of their grazing needs.

Then, just as this issue was going to press, came news of President Obama’s veto of a Senate joint resolution that would halt the Environmental Protection Agency’s “waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other farm groups have been battling against WOTUS for several years now claiming it extends Washington’s control over public and private water use to an unwarranted degree. With these powers, the NCBA fears, ranchers may be required to get water permits for everyday use of water on public or private pastures.

The only water source specifically excluded would be found in swimming pools and landscaped ponds, says the NCBA.

It’s hard to worry about social licence when your own government seems to be threatening your very existence.

Recent headlines on the Canadian side of the border paint a better picture of what can happen with a more co-operative attitude.

First, was the news that the National Cattle Feeders Association has certified its animal welfare protocol with the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization. This provides feedlot operators with a credible way to show that they are meeting all the recognized standards for animal care required by packers, the food-service sector and by extension the public.

A number of south Saskatchewan ranchers has been making similar strides in strengthening their social licence by including protection for species at risk in their management plans on native pastures. This work was endorsed by Environment and Climate Change Canada last month when the department provided $2.58 million to the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association to fund several innovative conservation projects in areas covered by the rancher-run South of the Divide Conservation Program.

The money comes from the Species at Risk Partnership on Agricultural Lands fund set up originally under the Harper government to involve producers in stewardship efforts to preserve critical species at risk habitat. The emphasis is on co-operation rather than regulation to protect endangered species, and that’s an idea that fits in with the ideas of modern-day ranchers.

You will learn more about South of the Divide and some of the ranchers involved in this program in our upcoming March issue.

This is only one of many conservation efforts being organized and driven by ranchers and beef producers right across the country. Their aim is not just to create the illusion of a social licence with the public who buys their beef but ultimately to care for the land that provides their livelihood and, they hope, the livelihood of future generations to come.

This is a never-ending cycle. No matter how much time and effort is put into doing the right things, and documenting them when that is necessary, there will always be those who will find fault through ignorance or duplicity. When Hollywood climate champions like Leonardo DiCaprio can look at the wonder of an Alberta chinook and see a disaster from climate change, anything is possible.

Perhaps the best social licence is one that comes from doing what you know is right for your family, your neighbours and your industry.

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Gren Winslow

Gren Winslow is a past editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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