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Preserving B.C. Wetlands

A more co-ordinated effort toward preserving important B.C. Interior wetlands while promoting the growth and viability of B.C.’s struggling beef cattle industry are the main objectives behind the recent signing of a five-year, memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association (BCCA) and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Ducks Unlimited has also signed an MOU with the B.C. Ministry of Forests and Range, because when it comes to preserving wetlands in B.C., it definitely takes three to tango. That’s because 97 per cent of the land base in B.C. is Crown-owned, and that is also where most of the cattle grazing takes place. So government involvement in both wetlands preservation and grazing lease management is essential.

B.C. cattlemen feel that this type of agreement provides more evidence of the environmental goods and services that ranchers provide to the province on Crown land, and helps build their case that they deserve some type of compensation for their effort, especially given today’s cattle prices. The work ranchers do to protect the environment and wildlife goes much further than protecting wetlands. It also includes such activities as weed control and feeding ungulates like deer and elk.

“We pay to be there,” says BCCA vice-president, Judy Guichon, “but at the same time, we provide stewardship on that land base. We don’t get any remuneration for that. With the cattle industry losing money, we can’t afford to feed the wildlife. So yes, we do feel that down the road, we need to be able to add those services to our bottom line.”

She operates a 1,400-head cow-calf and yearling ranch south of Kamloops. The cattle are pastured on about 24,000 hectares of leased Crown land. Because so much of the pasturing is done on Crown land, she says cattlemen understand that working with the many stakeholders that have an interest in the management of the land base is critical.

“We realize that on Crown land, we have to be prepared to work with all the other users,” she says. “We try our darnedest to have cross pollination between their organizations and our organization so we work together.” The relationship between Interior ranchers and Ducks Unlimited is well established with decades of history.

The MOU with the BCCA applies to private land while the MOU with the ministry takes in the rest of the B.C. Interior land base. With agreements in place, more money will become available to ranchers for such projects as fencing off portions of important wetlands to protect waterfowl and birds especially during nesting. It typically might involve providing specifiaccess points to wetlands to cattle for water, or could also mean investments in alternative watering methods such as troughs and pumps at higher elevations so that cattle are not reliant on fragile wetlands in the valley bottoms for water. The main focus areas for Ducks Unlimited in B.C. are in the Cariboo-Chilcotin area, Okanagan, and Peace Country.

“We absolutely want to work with B.C. ranchers whenever we can and the MOU is the best way to do it,” says Ducks Unlimited regional planning and research biologist for the B.C. Interior, Bruce Harrison. “We’re actually concerned that if we lose ranchers off the land, the situation could get much worse. Properties get split up and sold off as hobby farms and other high-use properties, where the developers tend not to have the same habitat values as a properly run ranch.”

B.C. head of agricultural programs for Ducks Unlimited, King Campbell, emphasized that the conservation group, “is not into exclusions. We’re into management of these areas.” Fences can often save ranchers from losing cattle to drowning, and can also result in more and better-quality forage with development of better-controlled grazing plans that also preserve wetlands habitat.

B.C. Interior wetlands play an important role in maintaining waterfowl and bird populations because they are important stopping off points along the Pacififlyway for migrating birds.

“They are stepping stones that birds will use on their flight up north and back south again,” says biologist Harrison. While birds will likely still make their way north even if these wetlands diminish, “they won’t be able to acquire the energy that they should have on the flight up. So probably their breeding effort will decline considerably.”

There are about 20 different species of waterfowl and 17 species of shorebirds that use the Pacififlyway.

Concerns about climate change and its impact on wetlands was a driving force behind negotiating the MOUs.

“We’re quite concerned that we are losing a lot of smaller wetlands that are highly productive for waterfowl,” says Harrison. Many of the smaller bodies of water are simply drying up. There is a lot more competition for the remaining bodies of water for a variety of uses, such as irrigation, watering cattle, recreation and conservation.

“The use level on the wetlands that remain is going way up,” he adds. So working on conservation projects now in concert with the cattle industry is one way to preserve this important resource for the future.

Guichon says staff at Ducks Unlimited are very creative when coming up with solutions so that the needs of both ranchers and the conservation group are met, and it often results in better water quality for the cattle. By partnering, ranchers also benefit by cost sharing on projects.

“All of us would like to keep the cattle, where possible, from doing damage in riparian areas,” says Guichon. “It’s not something we want to see either, but it’s the cost. So when Ducks Unlimited can come up with a way to help us fund it, I know very few people who are reticent to do it.” She adds that in many cases, ranchers can provide their share in labour, equipment and materials.

The Guichon ranch has first hand experience working with Ducks Unlimited. About 20 years ago, the ranch and conservation group worked to develop a 40 hectare marsh. It involved construction of dams to create one permanent marsh and one seasonal marsh that the ranch pumps dry after nesting season. So both the ranch and Ducks Unlimited benefit.

According to Campbell, the organization has a list of priority projects and is working co-operatively with individual BCCA members to arrange funding and to implement wetland management plans.

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