Course:CONS200/2019/Impacts of Cattle Ranching in the Interior of BC on Prairie Restoration Goals

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Grassland restoration is necessary because of how easily these ecosystems can be changed into farming, ranching, urban, and recreational areas.  The grasslands of BC provide habitats for more than one third of Canada’s most threatened and endangered species (Leung, 2002, pg. 1).  Currently, grasslands cover less than one percent of BC’s area (Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management et. al, 2004, pg. 4), and of these grasslands, less than seven percent are part of parks or a part of a protected area (Leung, 2002, pg. 1).  The majority of these grasslands are in the South Interior of British Columbia, and extend up past Prince George. In many of the remaining grasslands, invasive species have been introduced and have changed the plant community composition (Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management et. al, 2004, pg. 2).  Restoration and careful grazing management are necessary for continued use of grasslands for ranching purposes, as well as keeping ecosystems in tact to continue to support the wildlife and plants that inhabit them.  Collaboration between environmental groups, government, farmers, ranchers, and Native American groups are imperative to the success of grassland restoration, because forty percent of grasslands are privately owned and another ten percent are owned by Native American groups (Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management, 2004, pg. 4).  More than ninety percent of publicly owned grasslands are under grazing leases (Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management, 2004, pg. 4), so proper management of these grazing areas is important to sustain the grassland ecosystem.

A restoration goal is the desired future condition of a site (Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, 2001, pg. 4).  The desired future condition of a site can be the same site historically, before it dealt with the disturbances and degradation of our actions (Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, 2001, pg. 5).  The desired future condition can also be based on a reference site - a similar ecosystem that has been undisturbed or relatively undisturbed and can be used to develop restoration goals and objectives (Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, 2001, pg. 6).  Restoration objectives are the short-term steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the restoration goals (Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, 2001, pg. 4).

Grassland Ecosystems in British Columbia

The grasslands in the interior of British Columbia are located in between the rain shadow of coastal mountain range and the Rockies, and contains multiple large river systems such as Chilcotin, Fraser, Thompson, Nicola, Okanagan, Similkameen, Kettle, Columbia, Kootenay and Peace River (Gayton, 2003).

The genesis of the grasslands in the Interior of British Columbia dates back to the receding glaciers of the Pleistocene ice age. According to the biogeoclimatic zone system, the majority of the grasslands in the Interior of British Columbia are categorized under four sub zones: Bunch Grass (BG), Ponderosa Pine (PP) and Interior Douglas-fir (IDF). PP and IDF sub zones have trees, however the forest floors in these zones are dominated by grasses and forbs. A combination of physiography and climate of this region restrict tree growth, and facilitate the establishment of the grasslands (British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range, 2019).

The grasslands in British Columbia are categorized into three types: 1. Lower grasslands which are in lower elevation below 500m. It is dominated by big sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass, and in the dry, hot climate. 2. Middle grasslands which are usually above 500m elevation, and dominated by bluebunch wheatgrass and bluegrass. 3. Upper grasslands are located on hillsides and higher plateaus. It is dominated by fescues, with much less wheatgrass (Blackstock & McAllister, 2004).

The ecosystem before colonization was much different from what we see in the grasslands now. Elk, horses, sharp-tailed grouse, sandhill cranes were common species in the landscape, bunchgrass were tall, grasslands were not encroached by trees. First Nations managed the grasslands with prescribed small scale fires and irrigation. By using small scale fires, First Nations manipulated and contributed to the succession of the grasslands, suppressed shrub and tree growth, supported angulates browsing, maintained their forage and hunting ground. There were wetlands throughout the grasslands, which hosted abundance of ducks, other riparian species and plants, such as cattail, tule, reed and Indian hemp. First Nations people constructed the irrigation ditches with clay and gravels, for their beans and potato crops. (Blackstock & McAllister, 2004).

With the Tranquille, Thompson and Fraser Gold Rush in the early to mid 1800s, large number of settlers moved into the Interior of BC, and this motivated Hudson’s Bay Company to establish the cattle ranching in the mid 1800s. By the large scale ranching, water was diverged, wetlands were drained, rivers were dammed, land was fenced, and soil was cultivated. Expansion of the herd scale to meet the fast-growing demand led overgrazing on the native bunchgrass, and decimated its population: they disappeared by early 1900s. Smooth brome grass was introduced to mitigate overgrazing, Kentucky bluegrass was accidentally introduced, weeds such as mustard, burdock, mullein and pigweed took over the available spaces, logging and overgrazing facilitated sagebrush’s optimal growth (Blackstock & McAllister, 2004).

Ranching industry saw elk and horses as pests, and they were wiped out. An Act of the Extermination of Wild Horses in 1896 granted permit to people to shoot unbranded horses in public lands east of Cascade Mountains. Elk started to disappear as the settlement fences erected, which restricted access to their browsing lands (Blackstock & McAllister, 2004).

History of Cattle Industry in British Columbia

British Columbia has been a vital part for the development of the cattle industry in Canada, as it is the earliest throughout the country. A very significant event, “The Cariboo Gold Rush”, initiated the phenomenon of cattle ranching in the province, where about 22,000 cattle from Oregon to B.C., providing a surplus of meat, in the 1850s(Steves et al,1969). Along with this, settlement in the province, brought in various ways of life and practices that led the way to the development of cattle ranching in Canada (McLean, 1982).

Cattle ranching was first evident in 1846, where herds of horses and cattle were transported to various forts such as Fort Kamloops, Victoria, and Langley by The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) for domestic use. Fur trade industries and brigades paved ways for settlements within the province(Steves et al,1969). The settlement grew even more when the licence between HBC and the First Nations in occupying the land has ended. With this, along the discovery of gold along the Fraser River, attracted miners to come in the province, with cattle drives that grew over the decade. Settlement started to occur along the Brigade trail and Cariboo Road in the 1860s, that extended through Kamloops, the Okanagan, Nicola, Thompson and Chilcotin regions, establishing the province’s main cattle ranches (McLean, 1982).

Along with Settlement in the province, Cattle Drives became prominent, bringing in stock raising practices and techniques along the Columbia River to Okanagan River and Lake, extending even further to Vernon, Kamloops, Cache Creek and the Brigade Trail. A pioneer in cattle drives, Joe Greaves transported sheep to Cariboo, back in 1859, and then earnestly facilitated a 4,000 head cattle drive from Kamloops, Wyoming, reaching the Chicago market. After this, Greaves then founded the Douglas Lake Cattle Company in the Nicola Valley. Joe Greaves was followed by others like the Harper brothers, Johnny Wilson and Lewis Campbell, contributing to the cattle drives in B.C.(MclLean, 1982).

The completion of the Great Canadian Railway, the market for ranching industry has been made easier as transport is made accessible, able to reach various markets along the country(Steves et al,1969). Along with development, the population has increased as well throughout the years, increasing the demand for meat. However, due to the development of cattle industry, there became an increase in concern in the depletion of range resources, along with infestations and introduction of invasive species. This resulted in different movements that led to “Cattle Ranges Act”, “Grazing Act”, “Range and Forest Act” (McLean, 1982).

Effects on Soil

Cattle ranching has various environmental effects on grasslands across the interiors of British Columbia. As mentioned, the province of British Columbia has a rich history of cattle ranching that can be dated way back in the 1800s. Although cattle ranching has provided livelihood for farmers and members of the community, cattle ranching caused severe overgrazing to grasslands in the province, affecting the quality of soil. Along with this, drought periods within the region, detrimentally affected the overgrazed lands, resulting in poor soil conditions (Ryswyk et al., 1965)

Grazing along with trampling from ranching, significantly affects soil properties and parameters. One of the main effects of over-grazing is physical deterioration of soil properties. Soil properties like bulk density tends to increase and properties like water content, infiltration rates, and scouring resistance decreased due to overgrazing (Zhou et al., 2009). It has also been observed that due to the higher bulk density and lower moisture content of grasslands, the distribution of stable aggregates lowered, increasing the soil’s erodibility (Zhou et al., 2009). In addition to this, it has been seen that infiltration rates of grazed soil is reduced t about ¾ of an ungrazed soil, potentially harming the conditions of plant communities (Gifford et al., 1983).

Rough fescue, a perennial bunch grass, occupies about 20% of the province’s grasslands (Krzic et al., 2013). It plays a significant role in the grasslands of British Columbia, as it serves as a forage for livestock and animals, however, it has a very low tolerance to grazing. It’s low tolerance, along with its limited habitat, soils become more susceptible to climate change as grazing causes reduction to rough fescue grasslands and the fertility of the soil (Krzic et al., 2013). Due to this, the plant community and vegetation are affected, restricting the development of root systems and reducing the production of root exudates (Zhou et al., 2009).

In a study done on the grazed land of British Columbia, it has been seen that the effects of grazing, besides altering soil properties, are characterized by loss of various species such as rough fescue, bunchgrass species, and wheatgrass. With the loss of these species, grassland can take more than 50 years to recover, sometimes, these effects can be permanent (Krzic et al., 2013).

Effects on Vegetation

Overgrazing can increase the frequency of invasive species that populate an area.  This is because the native grasses are grazed too early in the spring, giving them insufficient time to flower and spread seeds, grazed to the point of plant damage so that they cannot endure the hot, dry summers, or grazed too late in the season, not allowing them to store enough sugars for winter dormancy (Leung, 2002, pg. 3).  By weakening the native species, invasive species are more easily able to establish in an area and spread their seeds through grazing livestock - often seeds get caught in their hair, or in their manure (Leung, 2002, pg. 3).  Livestock often prefer native grasses, which can leave invasive species undisturbed and able to spread more easily, and with less competition from the grazed native grasses.

Bunchgrasses should be a dominant native species in BC grasslands, and should account for at least 60% of the ground cover.  By looking at the species composition compared to a reference condition, it can be determined if the grazing is too heavy (Delesalle et. al, 2009, pg. 8).

Bunchgrasses, which are very palatable to cattle and a native species (Delesalle et. al, 2009, pg. 10) do not respond well to grazing because they do not spread in a lateral fashion (Krannitz, 2008, pg. 138).  While sagebrush has always been a prominent species in the area, ranchers attempted to manually remove it by spraying or mechanical means, in order to grow more bunchgrasses for livestock grazing (Krannitz, 2008, pg. 138).  When an area is overgrazed, dominant plants such as sagebrush are able to increase in frequency over palatable grasses that livestock have grazed (Krannitz, 2008, pg. 138).

By eliminating grazing on previously heavily grazed areas, it was found that above ground biomass and canopy cover of rough fescues greatly increased (Krzic et. al, 2013, pg. 340).

Many of the grasses that are palatable to livestock and wildlife, such as rough fescues, do not sufficiently resist the adverse effects of overgrazing (Krzic et. al, 2013, pg. 337), which can decrease their ability to seed and spread, allowing invasive or more dominant native species to take over (Leung, 2002, pg. 3).  

Litter, which is important for nutrient cycling and water retention, provided similar cover on ungrazed areas and grazed areas (Krzic et. al, 2013, pg. 340).  On grazed plots, there was more exposed soil, but similar frequency of other grasses than fescues on both grazed and ungrazed plots (Krzic et. al, 2013, pg. 340).

Effects on Water Quality

 In the southern interior of British Columbia, livestock ranching operations use grasslands and wetland areas for access to vast forage and drinking water (Clark, 2003). Even though water sources in grasslands are scarce and limited, they are vital for the survival of the inhabitants of these lands. Wetlands serve various purposes, they alleviate the water quality by filtering the sediments, nutrients and pollutants flowing from streams, rivers, lakes and ground water (Clark, 2003). They also reduce flooding and the erosion of soil, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and form a foraging habitat for diverse wildlife species (Clark, 2003). Improper management of livestock grazing and access to the water, contributes to the damage of these water bodies that constitute the aquatic habitats of various species of native amphibians to British Columbia (Cragg, 2007). The disturbances of the abundant sizes of the cattle herds and large biomass can also impact the aquatic macroinvertebrates residing in these wetlands (Clark, 2003).

Trampling and excessive grazing by the cattle herds causes soil compaction, which in return reduces the ability of stream and pondside vegetation and plants to retain water, resulting in water runoff and sedimentation formation (Cragg, 2007). This would alter the composition and characteristics of the streams and bonds, making them inhabitable anymore for some amphibian species. Loss of the tall grasses at a higher rate than the ground can restore, would eventually decrease the vegetation cover that provides amphibians with protection from desiccation, ultraviolet radiation, and the harsh sunlight (Cragg, 2007). Without this vegetation, no shade is provided over the water bodies which will increase the water’s temperature and make it inadequate for the survival of some aquatic species. Other than that, the migratory routes that invertebrate preys rely on between habitat patches will be revealed (Cragg, 2007), which in return affects their ability to escape predators.

Another serious threat to the water quality, is cattle urine and manure being significant sources of nitrogen and phosphorus surplus. With large cattle herds, the urine and manure near wetlands are much higher than the water and ground can filter, which results in the leaking of elements in polluting amounts into the freshwaters (Cragg, 2007). The contaminated water induces changes in nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations, increases bacterial counts, and reduces biological productivity in the aquatic habitats (Cragg, 2007). The contaminated water is absorbed by soil and later by plants, marine animals live in the wetlands, and wildlife drink the water and feed on the marine animals and vegetation, which means the they will all be affected by these pollutants. Even the cattle drinking from the water are in threat.

Loosing the species and vegetation and polluting the water bodies would impose drastic changes to the water and nutrient cycles, and eventually alter their composition and reduce their productivity and values. To maintain water quality, various plans and procedures should be adopted by livestock ranchers to better manage their grazing operations in sustainable means.

Fire Suppression

Fire is an important factor for succession of grasslands. Regular small scale fires regulate growth of shrubs and trees, encourages the growth of grass and herbs, which is more favored by angulates. Optimal grass dominance also regulates the soil stability and formation to maintain organic matter stanslocation into the soil horizon where plant roots to penetrate, and inhibits excess erosion. First Nations had traditionally utilized fire to manage the grasslands to maintain balanced ecosystem for all producers (plants) and consumers (from soil organisms to animals).

As settlers moved into the grasslands, priorities were given to utilization of provisions, expansion of the settlements, and establishment of the railroad by the forestry, ranching industries and government, which had intensified the use of fire in much larger scale. While prescribed burning by First Nations was likely reasonably constant and sometimes quite local, the impact of settlers’ use of fire was more careless and widespread. First Nations were reportedly adept at prescribed burning and in doing so they used low intensity fires to create and maintain fine-scaled mosaics of preffered plant species. (Parminter, 1995, pp.10) In response to an ever-blackening landscape, a fire prevention law, the Bush Fire Act, was passed by the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia on March 2, 1874. This act provided for fines of up to $100 or three months imprisonment where people were found guilty of allowing unextinguished fires in forested areas to escape and damage private or Crown land. (Parminter, 1995, pp.8). The fire suppression policy of the BC Forest Service put a stop to most traditional landscaper burning by the early 1930s, and became more effective in suppressing the number and size of fires. However, aboriginal burning is still carried out in BC on a much-reduced scale since reserves are federal lands and not subject to provincial regulations (Parminter, 1995, pp.5. Gayton, 2003, pp.9).

Fire suppression has resulted in the growth of tree population in the open grassland forests, and encroachment of tree species into the grass area. Also, it has encouraged growth of fire-intolerant species such as sagebrush, antelope brush and juniper, which has altered the grasslands negatively. Grass and forbs are pressured by the larger vegetation, expansion of forested area decreases grassland cover, hence both wild and domestic angulates are cornered into remaining portion of grasslands, which results in overgrazing of the small area, and subsequently unfavoured species encroachment. (Gayton, 2003, pp.10)

Current Restoration Efforts and Policies

There are many resources available for ranchers and the grazing industries to seek guidance and direction, such as The Grassland Portfolio that acts as a database for priority areas in grasslands and encourages conservation through stewardship (Grassland Conservation Council of British Columbia, 2009). The BC Grasslands Stewardship Guide is another source that provides the ranchers with various guidelines to better manage and sustain the grass and wetlands, and the biodiversity dependent on them (BC Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, 2013).

The first step to ensuring that the highest priority areas of grasslands are maintained, and their values are preserved, is to set of a foundation of scientific data for the planning and management decisions to develop from (Grassland Conservation Council of British Columbia, 2009). The Grassland Portfolio acts as a database for such priority areas and encourages conservation through stewardship of the land users (Grassland Conservation Council of British Columbia, 2009). The BC Grasslands Stewardship Guide is another resource that provides the ranchers with various guidelines to better manage and sustain the grass and wetlands (BC Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, 2013). There are many resources available for ranchers and the grazing industries to seek guidance and direction. The second step is to respect and follow the grazing management guidelines for the planning, implementation and monitoring of livestock grazing. Living up to these standards is vital to ensure the sustainable growth of animal, plant, land and economic goals under a wide range of the environmental conditions of BC’s grasslands and waters (BC Ministry Of Environment, Lands And Parks, 2013). Collaboration between ranchers is viable for not only maintaining large common grazing grounds that support wildlife, native vegetation, and wetlands, but also to ensure that the abundant resources are enough to support their industries in the short and long terms (Grassland Conservation Council of British Columbia, 2009). As all ranchers share the common interests in grasslands, they need to reach agreements and take the initiative of becoming the stewards of the land and all the biodiversity that depend on it, as the depletion of its grasses, soil, and water, will inevitably have tremendous effects on their industries and economies as well.

Rotating grazing proved to be effective, however, with such large cattle herds it should be minimized to restore the grassland’s health (BC Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, 2013). Rotating grazing must give enough time for the ground to heal and regenerate itself and allow the stream and pondside vegetation to grow back. Reseeding and replanting after every grazing season also aid in regenerating the ground and restoring vegetation that has been lost and roots eaten away by cattle. To limit the disturbances to the aquatic species, the grazing herds can be kept away by using salts around freshwater streams and bonds, but salt quantities must be monitored to remain under safe limits (BC Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, 2013). Another way to keep cattle away, is to build fences of clay and gravel. Limiting the cattle’s access, reduces the loss of vegetation and tall grasses around bonds and streams and the quantities of urine pollinating the waters. First Nations have been caring for and managing the grasslands in a sustainable manner for thousands of years. As the initial stewards of these lands, its only wise to seek their advice and wisdom and learn from them their native means of grazing and regenerating the land. The collaborative efforts of ranchers, residents, government, province, conservationists and biodiversity scientists, and indigenous people are needed to sustainably manage and maintain this indispensable common resource.


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