Wednesday, May 20, 2015

More on prairie trails: unregulated ATVs and unmanaged access

The posters promised “22 miles of scenic trails.” That sounds nice. Where? In Saskatchewan’s beautiful Pipestone Valley, a long and winding oasis of native grass in the southeast of the province where almost all of the surrounding land is cultivated.

But this is not public land and it might be a little noisy for a quiet prairie walk anyway. The twenty-two miles of trails have been made for quads, motocross bikes and all manner of recreational vehicles. Every April five to seven hundred quads (or all terrain vehicles) gather at this stretch of the Pipestone Valley near the town of Wawota to hold a “quad rally.”

Five to seven hundred. Five quads can make a mess of a riparian area along a stream--we see it on our land every summer. If you want to see what hundreds of quads can do, take a look at this Youtube video of the Wawota Lions Quad Derby (yes, the local Lions club sponsors it as a fundraiser) held on April 25th this year.

Slide forward to 0:52 in the video and you will see a 30 second shot of the Pipestone Creek, perhaps a quarter-mile length of its vegetation and banks turned into black mud. Then take a look at the aerial shot in this second video, at the 3:48 mark after the ad is finished running (clearly these videos are getting their share of clicks).

Images like these are appalling to those who see our last small remnants of native prairie as representing some of the rarest old growth ecologies on the continent and deserving of our care and respect, but, of course, this is privately-owned land and that means here in the wild west you can do what you like with an ecosystem if the Land Titles office says you own it.

However, the Pipestone Creek itself is not private property. It is a bona fide stream with several species of fish, birds, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates, draining almost 4,000 square kilometres of Aspen Parkland prairie (most of it cultivated) into the Souris River. Our Provincial Environment Ministry and perhaps the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans have a responsibility to protect it as part of the waters we share and steward as public commons. How is that working out? Is there any regulation or policing of this kind of activity in a riparian area and the stream bed itself?

Well, apparently, the RCMP are usually on hand for the rally--not to protect the land or its non-human residents, mind you, but to protect the seven hundred people from one another.

But this year, the tenth anniversary of the Wawota event, something happened. A Saskatchewan Conservation Officer spoke to the organizers of the event and told them that they are violating conservation regulations. He let them know that he could charge them. He chose not to in the end, but now the Lions’ Club is considering its options and may cancel the rally for next year. When some of the faithful heard this, though, they launched a twitter campaign and a petition on, which has 1200 signatures. They are appealing to the Premier and the Province to save the Wawota Quad Rally.

While there is a fringe of extreme quad owners who will argue they should have a right to muck up a creek bed or native grassland because they are just having good clean fun, there are many more pragmatists even in conservation circles who will say that to minimize this kind of activity you have to keep it to a few pieces of land where the owners give their permission. Then, presumably, other places both private and public, can be protected, because all or most of the quad activity is restricted to a few sacrifice zones.

That sounds plausible, but in the real world, it is not working that way. Some of the people who go to these rallies--and there are many of them—return home to pursue their hobby on provincial Crown lands and on private farmland and pastures, spreading the ecological destruction onto new trails beyond the sacrifice zones.

unauthorized ATV users on our neighbour's land resting after they destroyed a beaver dam

This is a big unregulated problem that is only going to get worse. In Saskatchewan, somewhere between seven and eight thousand of these all-terrain vehicles are sold each year. It goes without saying that not everyone who owns a quad behaves badly, and some of the folks at the Wawota rally would no doubt be responsible ATV operators, but all it takes is a small number of yahoos to make a mess of hiking trails in our Provincial Parks, to destroy a stretch of creek bed or a hillside of native grassland on our private and Crown lands.

the garbage we collect regularly from ATV users

Farmers and hunters use quads responsibly for the most part, but they too are getting tired of seeing the damaged habitat. They will tell you their stories of disrespectful quad drivers cutting fences, chewing up trails, tearing apart beaver dams to play in the gush of water. On our pasture south of Indian Head we have had all of that. At times I have had to stand on the trail to put a halt to a local ATV poker derby with dozens of quads coming across our property.

water running out of the beaver dam after the ATVs left

Earlier this spring I heard a second hand story that came from a rancher I know from the Val Marie area. He is a member of the group of community pasture patrons who were more or less coerced into forming a grazing corporation to take over management of the Lone Tree community pasture on the Montana border.

Now this fellow is not one to complain or kick up a fuss, but he is worried. During the last seventy-some years of federal management of Lone Tree, access was controlled and no one could just drive onto the land with quads and trucks. There were clear regulations and a department to back them up, including a full time manager in residence with keen eyes for anything out of place.

As of last year, that system of oversight is gone. In early April, the rancher happened to be at Lone Tree and caught a group of men on quads who were driving over the pasture collecting antler sheds left behind by the elk and mule deer that winter there. Fire is a constant threat on grassland this far south and ranchers live in fear of a truck or quad muffler causing a big spring conflagration and eating up thousands of acres of grass.

He explained his concerns and asked them politely to not enter the pasture without permission. Their response? “We were told this isn’t a community pasture any more so those rules don’t apply.”

Unfortunately, there is some truth in that statement. The old rules protecting the pasture don’t apply. What is needed now are some new rules and government support, both for access to these lands and for ATV use in general.

Respectful and managed public access is important for all of our public lands, but if Saskatchewan’s provincial government does not wake up to see that they have responsibility for the ecological wellbeing of the 1.6 million acres of grassland being handed over to the province, we will see more unmanaged access at its worst, and the former PFRA pastures could become the latest ATV sacrifice zones.

ATVs are not going away any time soon, but we need to start licensing and regulating their use. From what I hear, the people who run the Saskatchewan ATV Association are reasonable folks who also want the Province to step in and work with stakeholders to develop a full set of guidelines, including licensing--an important first step that almost every other province in Canada took long ago.

Children and adults die on ATVs every year in this province and yet we have no rules on how these vehicles are used; streams and rivers and native prairie on Crown land and First Nations’ property (take a look at the Little Arm/Kinookimaw area by Regina Beach) are being destroyed every day and there are no serious penalties enforced, no licenses to trace when someone violates a law.

There is an opportunity here to do something good. The Conservation Officer who took a stand at the Wawota rally needs someone to back him up. And that doesn’t just have to be his department or ministry; it doesn’t just have to be conservationists and hunters. It should be all reasonable people, including all quad owners who want to see responsible and sustainable, regulated ATV use come to this Province.

Write or talk to your MLA, challenge our Provincial Cabinet members, ask them what they are going to do to licence ATVs and stop irresponsible ATV use from damaging our natural landscapes.


  1. ATV's are the exact opposite of respect for the land. We see the tracks of ATV's regularly on our small parcel of endangered fescue grassland all the time. ATV's are about power, and freedom, and not about responsibility. One ATV driving on our property leaves tracks that can be seen for more than two years. I don't think that even 1% of residents of Bruno ever see a crocus in bloom in spring on the native prairie any more. If people are willing to walk and respect our prairie, we always grant them walking access to our land. The only people who have ever asked in 30 years are hunters. We selectively grant them access, BECAUSE WE KNOW THEY WILL BE APPRECIATIVE AND RESPECTFUL. The rest just drive their ATV's wherever they want when nobody is looking. I'm building perimeter fences during the last two weeks, not so much to keep cattle in, but to keep ATVs out. So sad.
    Guy Pulvermacher's photo.

  2. We have people here that do not understand why an ATV should not drive on our Gronlid cross-country ski trails, though we have hundreds of kms of trails they can use in the same area in the Fort a la Corne forest. A disturbing indication of some riders' disrespect came in a Facebook post where an ATV rider asked why she shouldn't be allowed to ride on our signed ski trails as it must be Crown land. One person answered, "Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission haha go around it and have some fun" and received several likes. We definitely need some regulation and education! for ATV riders. They should be licenced as snow machines are.

    The All Terrain Vehicles Act regarding Permission for operation on private land reads:
    6 No person shall operate an all terrain vehicle on any:
    (a) private land not owned or occupied by him or a member of his immediate
    family; or
    (b) Crown land used or occupied otherwise than by the Crown;
    without the permission of the owner or occupant of the land.
    Licensing at least might help ID and penalize riders that disrespect the land and the law.

  3. YouTube isn't research. Get off the ring road and do some research. I will personally take you on the trail and show you the environmental benefits of it as well

  4. And how unfortunate that a club such as the Wawota Lions Club who raise over $15,000 in one day to donate to various things will now lose out on that. Perhaps you will open your wallet and help them out

  5. The CO doesn't need anyone to back him up. There is no animosity against him. He was just the messenger.

  6. Also you say the hiking trails in provincial parks are made a mess by atv's. I don't know about the rest of them but quads are not allowed in Moose Mountain Provincial Park. Maybe this summer you should come to Wawota and I'll show you the areas the derby was on. Then you might have a clue what you are talking about.

  7. Are you going after the oil, mining and forestry companies as well? As they do way more damage then quad enthusiasts could or not as the govt makes so much money off of them. Also where do you live? Must be in a sod house or something if not then you are contributing as well.

  8. Just to name a few of places money raised from the Wawota Quad Derby has gone is...a little girl who has since passed of terminal cancer, a young man with cerebral palsy who needed surgery Sask Health didn't cover, Stars Ambulance and the list goes on!! You think you are doing something good?? Think again! Your ridiculous, with no facts to back up what you are saying, SHAME ON YOU! Come out from the city where you preach from and have a look at the valley now where you claim all this terrible damage has been done, I guarantee you the grass will be greener there than any other place in the valley!!

    1. The Wowota Lions can easily come up with another non-destructive fundraiser so that the Pipestone Valley is protected and the Lions get their money. And Mr. Herriot has facts, including video proof. The damage being done is severe and undeniable.

    2. I'm a Wawota Lions Club member and I'd like to hear of your suggestions for fundraising.

    3. All he has is a YouTube video of the day, does he have any pictures or video of the valley in the months to follow?? Ya, I didn't think so! He's more than welcome to come out and see for himself? I doubt that will happen though, it would make himself look like an ass!!

  9. I have zero interest in inciting an angry response or to continue in any kind of debate. I just want to share my experience. I (as many people I know) have personally witnessed 30 years of destruction of the crown land in Little Arm in Kinookimaw near Regina Beach. It's been torn apart by people who don't think of the consequences of their actions. I know that responsible ATV owners wouldn't dream of doing this to the land . Ruts grow deeper and trails become washed out with rain and snow melt, widening each time until what was once a trail is no longer even recognizable as having been one. Admittedly fundraising is crucial and not easily done. But if we continue to allow nature, bike, ski, walking trails, private property and native grasslands in this province to be devastated what will we leave for future generations? There has to be a way to raise much needed charitable dollars and preserve the last vestiges of prairie grassland. If I come into your house without permission and destroy it's contents I'm a criminal. If I sneak onto a piece of land and have some "fun" it's no big deal? If a person can get encouragement to go around ski area signage on facebook what does that say about the teachings we are handing down to our children .. what does it say about our respect for one another? If we had more education, guidelines and most importantly laws, maybe then people would have more respect out of fear of the very "real" consequences.

  10. I appreciate everyone's concern over the environment. If I thought we were doing any permanent damage I would be against the derby also. I would challenge anyone who is against it to come to wawota some time this summer. I will happily take you to the derby trail and you can see for yourself if there is damage. On a side note, isn't Craven held in a valley next to a creek?

  11. Thank you for all of your comments everyone. I apologize for the slow response but I was in the field for a few days. JeThank you for all of your comments everyone. I apologize for the slow response but I was in the field for a few days. Jeff—I appreciate your cool-headed expression of concerns. I would be happy to take you up on your invitation and come see the site later in summer—on one condition: that we (I will bring a qualified ecologist) can also take you to see an equivalent piece of undamaged Pipestone riparian habitat nearby for comparison. I can be reached by email at but will be away from email Sunday and Monday, 23rd and 24th.

  12. Sounds fair to me. I will also bring an ecologist. The person I would like to bring lives in Calgary so as much notice as possible would be appreciated. I think the Conservation Officer should be along also. I will contact him.

  13. Ok. Lets do the arrangements over email though. I guess it will depend on when your friend can make it. Let me

  14. I really appreciated this blog post. I live in the Aspen - Spruce forest fringe, south of Spiritwood on Meeting Lake. My husband grew up in this quarter and alot a small part of it is a field, most is uncut natural forest. When we moved out here in 09, we decided to stop all the ATVing because of the destuction to the habitat. Since we are between two cabins development, when we stopped access to our land, it pissed off a tonne of people and it gets ugly because they are still cutting new trails after we fenced off the existing ones. Basically, all the ATVers hate me. But this is an important wildlife corridor betweeen two small lakes, the last place that there is the shelter of the forest. We felt a responsablity to the land and the other species to protect it. We have alot of lake front and frankly are not well off. We could be millionaires if we sold. People resent us for not selling, because we are getting in the way of development. But my husband can't stand the idea of letting them come in here and clear out lots for cabins, making if impossible for the animals and birds to make their home here.

    One of the problems with ATV's is the sense of entitlement to a place to quad. This arrogance is what fuels all the discord.

    Our land is covered in walking - quading trails. What makes me upset is that because of the aggresiveness of the ATV's we have had to ban everyone from our property. If we allow people to walk or ride bike, the ATV's use those access points to get in. And I wish there was a way to let people continue to enjoy the natural beauty, without having to fight with AVTers.

  15. Thanks for sending along your thoughts, Christine. I think there are many folks who share your experience and I am discovering that some of them are afraid to speak out in public. Thanks for being one of the brave ones.

  16. Dear Trevor,
    I am writing this in response to your blog comments of May 20, 2015 about Lone Tree Pasture. I would call into question your repeating of comments made by a Val Marie area rancher in regards to Lone Tree Pasture. First if this person lead you to believe that they are a patron this is questionable, I am not aware of anyone from there being a patron of that pasture. Secondly Val Marie is about 30-35 miles (50-55 kms) from Lone Tree Pasture---which is actually south of Bracken, Sk. Thirdly there are no elk down there and the deer in that area are quite scarce. Lastly Lone Tree Pasture Patrons have contracted the services of a former PFRA manager to oversee pasture operations on a yearly basis and he lives at the pasture headquarters. I am not a member of Lone Tree Pasture but am a friend and neighbour to several people who are and 2 of which are members of their board. I would suggest that in the future before you post second hand stories such as this maybe you could talk to people who are involved with the pasture to see if things like this are true. As a steward of the land I take offense to people who are not involved in my industry telling me and my counterparts that we can’t look after and manage tracts of crown land. We all know and understand that if we don’t look after the grass and ecosystem that comes with it (all wildlife and species at risk) we will not be successful.
    A concerned citizen of the Ranching Community
    Wayne Andree
    Orkney/Val Marie Area Grass Farmer

  17. The core issue is the oft-repeated word "entitlement". We live in a society in which our personal wants overshadow the wants of other people. This example of ATV mis-use is just one of many. I've stayed with friends at Regina Beach in summer and have had other cabin owners launch fireworks whenever they want - 2 or 3 am. In summer and in winter, ATV's and snowmobiles drive up and down the main street - also with no consideration for the time of day. How many of us have covered our ears because some motorcycle has passed us on the street with mufflers that have no pretense at eliminating high dB sounds? Responsible owners say these are the exceptions. I would argue they are not. These are the obvious, in-your-face examples saying we'll do what we bloody well want and you just have to suck it up. The fact someone might be driving quietly on some back trail is almost a moot point.

  18. thanks for that report on Regina Beach--it does seem to be a hotspot. The Little Arm hills have been destroyed by unauthorized off-roading.

  19. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  20. I apologize for the delay in updating but life and work got in the way. CO's and a govt environmentalist flew a drone over and walked the derby course in early July. The only damage they noted was a roughly 40 sq ft area. Our Lions Club was refused when we asked for copies of the drone pictures. We had been given copies of April pictures from the drone showing the damage we had caused when we were being threatened with fines. We were informed (rather sheepishly) that no further action would be taken. Again Trevor I apologize for not getting in touch to follow up on my offer to take you on a tour of the course.

  21. Thanks for the update, Jeff--and of course no need to apologize. The summer is short. I didnt know about that damage assessment. It would be interesting to see what their report is like. Meanwhile, have you been invited to take part in that ATV review happening later this month? Email me at if you want details.

  22. Trevor ...I want to thank you for this. ...Mike

  23. Furthermore , there is thousands of kilometers of ditch in this province, twice as many thousands as there are roads in fact, which snowmobilers have made good use of . The trouble is ATVers like to stay in tracks until they are ground down and nothing will ever grow there again.,,,Mike

  24. And the ditches are public land that is already disturbed. Thanks for the contribution Mike.

  25. I am a hunter, former mining manger, I own a atv to bring elk out of my hunting area and my wife and I trail ride in forest reserves on the THOUSANDS OF KILLOMETERS OF ROADS MADE BY THE LARGE LOGGING COMPANIES. The logged out areas are a total war zone. Yet that seems ok. No one seems to care about this major damage. The forest roads I ride on are void of trees, grass, and in most cases it is hard to see any wildlife like we used to. There is however endless moonscapes. What do you all think about that?

    1. Can't say I have been to the area you are referring to, but yes for sure forestry practices can hurt the ecology in the north. I live and travel mostly in the grassland regions of the province where habitat is destroyed by cultivation and resource industries. Thanks for the reminder that our north needs some love too.


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