Cattle, army conduct joint manoeuvres

Livestock, soldiers co-exist | The Canadian Forces Base in Wainwright, Alta., is ideal for army training, cattle grazing

WAINWRIGHT, Alta. — It may be the ultimate multi-use grazing area.

The cattle at the Canadian Forces Base in Wainwright share the range with hunters, pipelines, gas well activity, tanks, bombs and soldiers.

Cows have the right to wander across the 148,000 acre base, but the military and its activity have priority.

“The army is tolerant of grazing,” said Harry Loonen, a rangeland agrologist with Alberta’s sustainable resource development department and one of the grassland managers.

“If the cattle get in the way of the army, then they don’t want the cows.”

Eighty percent of Camp Wainwright is on provincial land and the other 20 percent is owned by the federal government.

More than 5,000 soldiers de-scended on Camp Wainwright for military training this spring. The wide open spaces, trees, river valleys and sandy plains make it one of the best military training facilities in Canada. Every soldier deployed to Afghanistan spent time at the military base.

It’s also one of the best ranges for grazing cattle. With no fences, the cows are free to wander anywhere on the base, including the permanent danger areas, which include shooting with live ammunition, bombs and possible undetonated live ammunition.

“Very few cattle get shot,” Loonen said during a Society for Range Management tour of the base.

The biggest danger to cattle is being hit by a military vehicle at night if they lie down on a road to rest. The cattle usually move to quieter areas when the shooting starts.

The cattle do have rank, as one group of British soldiers discovered. One animal was shot for a barbecue, but the soldiers quickly discovered that the rules of private property apply and they were forced to compensate the producer.

Sixty to 70 grazing patrons bring in 6,600 cows, calves and bulls a year.

The turn-in date is June 20 and the take-out day is Oct. 31. Patrons can choose when they bring the cattle onto grass, but once on the base the cattle must stay until the end of October.

Loonen said the lack of fences on the base makes it difficult to manage grazing.

One solution is a later turn- in date to ensure the grass has a good start. Cattle herds are also dropped strategically across the base, and the herds tend to stay where they’re left.

Dugouts almost every mile throughout the base ensure the cattle don’t have to travel far for water.

A low stocking rate means cattle have little reason to wander in search of better grazing and get in the way of military manoeuvres.

Ranchers must plan their pasture checks carefully. They must phone first before arriving and may not be let on the base if there is action on the range.

Patrons receive a slight reduction in rental rates because of the extra challenges involved in grazing cattle on a military base.

The federal government created Buffalo National Park in 1907 on what is now CFB Wainwright and established one of the last Plains bison herds in the country.

The bison were removed from the park in 1939 and the land turned over to the Department of National Defence for an army training facility. During the Second World War, the area was used as a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers.

In 1988, gas well development was allowed at the base in certain areas with strict guidelines.

Well sites must be below ground to prevent the well heads from getting in the way of military training. They are buried inside giant culverts three metres underground and covered with a large grate strong enough to withstand a 60 tonne Leopard tank.

An energy industry consultant is hired to act as a liaison between the gas companies and the military base.

Pipelines are buried twice as deep as traditional pipelines because of the heavy armoured vehicles travelling across the area.

Special draws allow hunters to shoot elk, deer, moose and grouse in the fall.

Rangeland on the base is a combination of sand dunes and prairie parkland. It is one of the only bases that is good for “mounted and dismounted” training.

Kelly Sturgess, CFB Wainwright’s base environmental officer, said ensuring the rangeland stays in good condition is a challenge.

Shooting with live ammunition usually starts a fire once a year in the permanent danger area. Because of the danger of other unexploded ammunition in the area, the fire is allowed to spread until it hits the fireguard and is extinguished.

Most of the permanent danger zones are burned every two to three years.

“It’s been burned for 50 years,” said Sturgess, a civilian employee at the base.

The frequent fires mean the permanent danger areas have grass but little tree or shrub cover to create distinct grazing areas.

Retired University of Alberta professor Art Bailey said a study from 1975 showed that the frequent burning does not affect soil organic matter.

“The study shows that prescribed burning early in the season, organic matter in the top six inches was 11.5 percent compared to 8.1 percent in the unburned areas,” he said.

“Burning keeps out the woody material, and the soil organic matter was higher. This is one of the key discoveries we made.”

Rangeland burning is a natural consequence of military action, but so is ripping up grass with armoured vehicles and digging kilometres long trenches through the sand dunes.

Sturgess’s job as an environmental specialist is to convince soldiers and officers to take care of the grassland and repair the damage. If they don’t, an area that is ideal for military training will become useless.

“It’s the premier training area for Canadian forces in Canada,” he said.

This spring, soldiers built a three-kilometre-long anti-tank trench as part of a training exercise. They built it with a blade mounted on the front of a tank and then used the same equipment to restore the site.

The position of environmental specialist was created in 1996 on all Canadian military bases. Sturgess has used the job to stress the need for good land stewardship during military activity.

For example, he asks soldiers not to mix topsoil and clay when reclaiming trenches.

Spotted knapweed was found on the base in 2003, and an extensive eradication program was introduced, including washing military vehicles before coming onto the base.

“Soldiers from across Canada bring their vehicles and equipment here,” Sturgess said.

“No other department moves more equipment. We’re a big vector for moving invasive plants.”

However, the primary role of the military base is training soldiers, and Sturgess said it’s a continual struggle to balance military training and long-term environmental sustainability.