Monday, October 6, 2014

Grazing the wild

Waldron Ranch property, now under NCC conservation easement (image courtesy of NCC)
Last week the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced that they had secured a huge conservation easement on 12,000 hectares of fescue grassland in Alberta's foothills, where a co-op of 72 ranchers have been stewarding the land for decades. Pressure to develop the land is immense in southern Alberta so this initiative should prevent it from being subdivided, developed or cultivated into perpetuity. Grazing will continue on the land, as it must. Fescue prairie, like all grassland, needs the disturbance that grazing provides. Bison provided that from the retreat of the glaciers until the 1880s but cattle now provide something of an ecological substitution.

I still run into well-meaning folks who do not believe cattle belong on our native grasslands. Here is one of North America's great defenders of wilderness, Wallace Stegner, outlining his thoughts on why cattle grazing has a role to play in some "wilderness" areas. This passage comes from his famous "Wilderness Letter" which he wrote in 1960 and which ultimately led to the passing of the Wilderness Act fifty years ago in September:

I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be "harvested". For mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren't absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a man's feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.
Here are two more grand images of the Waldron property--courtesy of NCC and, as anyone can see, a cause for celebration:

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