COLUMNS: Science and ranching go hand in hand

I took advantage of holidaying in Arizona to visit a rancher-led group which was tackling some thorny conservation issues.

Several years ago when I was still the chair of the Grasslands Conservation Council of BC., I took advantage of holidaying in Arizona to visit a rancher-led group which was tackling some thorny conservation issues.

The group called the Malpai Borderlands group is based on the borders of the states of New Mexico and Arizona and along the Mexican border.

About a dozen ranches in the area had teamed up with the Nature Conservancy, a large U.S. environmental organization.

Their main business was finding practical solutions to some conservation issues such as saving endangered species by stewarding the rangelands — pubic and private — with a multiple of purposes of course including good grass for cattle.

You might remember the “cattle free” movement to rid the public rangeland of cattle. It turns out that done well cattle grazing can be compatible with and enhance  other public values.

The range management agencies had been stopped from doing prescribed burns and some government officials had been threatened with prosecution for  “allowing a taking of endangered species” by not putting out wildfires.

It seems burning up a half dozen snakes of an endangered species was an offence. There was no recognition that a fire, which naturally creates habitat to support 50 snakes, was a net benefit to the species.

The other phenomenon occurring in the area was the indiscriminant subdivision of land for housing often in large rural housing parcels of 10 to 40 acres.

These new residential lands were threatened by the burning of rangeland for renewal purposes whether it was prescribed and human initiated or started by lightning.

It seems that the solution was to buy up the small homesteads that were being bought up for subdivision and keep them in ranching.

Or, the Malpai Borderlands group could buy conservation easements from their members and neighbours and thus stop the subdivisions. This is a market solution and seems to have worked for them.

A fire getting away is now not such a threat to human habitation. An elegant solution.

By collaborating with the Nature Conservancy the group could raise money for research into these issues.

It appears they had some success in proving that drilled wells and water tanks which added habitat to a particular endangered frogs’ needs and chances of survival.

Groups collaborating can take solutions (if they are well researched) to government. Government may well not have the solution to a problem.

So the takeaway message from the Malpai Borderlands group to ranchers in B.C. was to “do your own science.”

In other words, don’t wait for others to use their science against your interests.

This approach will come up with the win-win solutions.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.

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