By Cheyenne Stapley
This post first appeared on Stapley’s blog Little Prairie Baby. Visit the blog here.
Editor’s note: According to the ESRD, there are currently 980 feral horses on the Southern East Slopes alone; it is suspected this number is actually low. Currently in Alberta there are capture permits out to cull some of the horses. It is important to keep in mind that based on the stocking rate formula established by the ESRD that in one grazing season (based on a five month grazing season) 980 horses is equivalent to 3,435 cows-calf pairs, and are grazing without any management. Conservation and grass management is not only important to producers, the Alberta government, and livestock, but to other wildlife on the hills. This article outlines a rancher’s perspective of the necessity of a horse cull.
Tucked deep in the Alberta forests of the eastern slopes of the untamed Rockies, cabins are hidden away and cow camps look like a snapshot from one hundred years ago. Grazing permit holders are still cowboying the old way, packing salt in on horseback and pushing their cows high into the mountains to graze. Although far from cell phone service and bright lights, with approximately 16,500 cow-calf pairs coming off of these ranges in the fall, how they are managed is far from primitive.
The provincial forest reserve is a land mass that stretches over 23,310 square kilometres and has had cattle grazing under government management since 1915. In 1930 the provincial government replaced the federal government as the acting custodian of the reserve and continued to implement the same values that were brought to light in the early nineteenth century. Conservation of timber and the watershed were recognized as important; therefore, cattle were brought into the forestry to help protect it against fires by clearing away dead grass and brush. This proved to be mutually beneficial, as the continued success of ranchers hinged on the need for more grass. Since the grazing permits’ inception in the early 1900s, both the science of range management as well as the overall health of the forest reserve has improved.
Unlike government leases, grazing permits are set up on a preference quota (PQ) giving the rancher rights to graze a certain number of Animal Unit Months (AUMs). The ranchers are required to follow a number of legislated conditions; one condition is to have a Range Management Plan (RMP). Ranchers work closely with government employed agrologists in the writing of their RMP, a valued manual which is meant to stay current and updated. Management strategy is held in high esteem by both ranchers and the Alberta government alike and details down to salting techniques, dates of grass use and range riding are all recorded. Producers today know the value of educated range management, going as far as helping to fund their own vegetation inventory studies and continuously putting forth the effort to trail blaze in the way Alberta’s forestry is grazed.
In the late 1990s, ranchers utilizing the forestry grass, bound together to form the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve Association (RMFRA) because they recognized the importance of a collaborative effort to continue to promote stewardship of the land. The association is made up of a board of directors and members who pay fees of $1 per AUM, with a current total of 83,000 AUMs in the association. This association has also received grants to help pay for studies to promote rangeland health and its impact on livestock. The collective group of ranchers strive to produce unbiased and educated studies for themselves and the public alike. In the past, this group has completed studies on wolves and feral horses and their impact to livestock health, prescribed burning of timber, and recreation and land use. The RMFRA has been recognized and received an international award for their conservation efforts, but director Keith Kinnear humbly puts it, “For the most part it is in our best interest to graze properly as we are the first to feel the impact of overgrazing.”
With the cow-calf sector being critical to one of Alberta’s leading industries — beef production, grazier Jim Bauer says, “With no calves, there is no beef. A beef cow can take rough range land pastures and make relatively low quality forage into a big healthy calf in the fall.” Beef production doesn’t just help feed the world, but continues to sustain many farming/ranching families and create a wealth of jobs inside the industry. It is noteworthy to see the provincial government and producers working hand in hand to provide guardianship to the forest reserve.