Pastures now owned by the federal government are going to change ownership. That much seems obvious.
What remains to be seen is the how the next generation of community pastures develops.
Many options exist: provincial government ownership, ownership or leasing by local cattle producer groups, ownership or leasing by individuals and conservation group control with carefully managed grazing rights, among others.
As the provinces gradually assume control of the pastures over the next few years, it is important they keep the needs of cattle producers in affected areas as their top priority.
Ottawa has announced that by 2018 it will turn over all 84 Agriculture Canada operated community pastures. Saskatchewan will take over responsibility for 60 of them and Manitoba will take over 24 community pastures.
The one federal pasture in Alberta is operated by the national defence department and will be handled separately.
Saskatchewan has named the first 10 pastures for which it intends to transfer ownership by 2014. Manitoba is expected to assume control of five pastures later this year.
What Manitoba and Saskatchewan do with the land after the transfer is where they must tread carefully.
While the federal government has decided its community pasture system is old bath water in need of change, the real prize, the baby in that bath water, deserves saving.
Conservation management principles must be maintained whether the pastures are turned over to local user groups, turned over to private individual patrons or kept in provincial hands.
As such, cattle producers who currently make use of these pastures are perfectly situated to take over.
In each case, strict conservation re-quirements must be written into the agreements. Requirements that spell out protections for native grasslands and species at risk and keep whole land blocks in place must be included. Prohibitions against tillage for annual cropping or housing or commercial developments go without saying.
Most of the pastures were set up because the land was ill-suited for crops anyway, but rising market prices, urban spread and oilfield development make it difficult to predict future development potential for any land parcel.
Having strict restrictions on land use would force those seeking future changes to seek adjustments to legislation. That at least opens these future issues up for debate and provides opportunity for input before changes are made.
When managing the transfers, the provinces must be as flexible as possible with financing terms or leasing arrangements to ensure the lands are in the hands of those who have the most at stake.
Many cattle producers have business plans based in part on access to community pastures and have invested a lot of capital based on continued access. They must be given first priority.
In the end, conservation can be assured under any ownership model. The key is the management system. In Grasslands National Park, for example, wildlife flourished once controlled grazing was introduced. The beneficial effects of having cattle mimic the roles of bison that once roamed the Prairies cannot be understated.
In the end, the system that arises could be a mix of ownership models, similar to what exists in Alberta, where a combination of crown-owned property, privately-owned land, conservation areas and community and patron-owned property serve the needs of Canada’s largest cattle herd.
With the proper environmental protections in place, cattle producers have repeatedly demonstrated they are more than up to the task of preserving the land. Indeed, their livelihoods depend on it.