Some pastures will be owned by Environment Canada, which ranchers fear will ‘change policies and plans’ on a whim
Ranchers who use former federal pastures in southwestern Sask-atchewan aren’t happy about a proposed land swap between Ottawa and Regina.
The plan would see the Nashlyn, Battle Creek and Govenlock pastures all operated by Environment Canada rather than the province.
In exchange, the province would obtain title to the non-reversionary, or federally owned land, in the former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration pastures that have already transitioned to patrons. This land includes 21 yard sites in the other 59 pastures.
Patrons from the southwestern pastures received a letter earlier this month advising them of the plan. A public meeting was held last week in Consul.
“There was approximately 70 to 80 people there from the community, mostly patrons, (who were) unanimous that they did not want to have Environment Canada as a partner,” said Randy Stokke, who is a patron in Govenlock.
Govenlock patrons already knew they would have to deal with Environment Canada because the 200 sq. kilometre pasture was non-reversionary and couldn’t be handed to the province. Its transfer from the agriculture department to the environment department was announced in 2015, although it is still not finalized.
Stokke said there appears to have been some small headway in negotiating an agreement with Environment Canada. The department had been unwilling to negotiate more than one to five year grazing permits but now is offering 15 year terms.
However, he said he feels sorry for the patrons in the other two pastures who have spent hours organizing their corporations to be able to lease from the province only to find themselves in limbo again.
“The province, I think, has dropped the ball on this, or threw these guys under the bus,” he said.
“They thought they were going to go through just like every other PF pasture in Saskatchewan.”
The concern with Environment Canada management is one of trust, Stokke said.
“We all know Ottawa can change its policies and plans with very little concern for the people of Western Canada,” he said.
“A lot of us fear that they’ll sweeten the pie to get everybody in-volved and eventually, offering only 15 year agreements, at the end of that 15 years, then what?” he said.
“Is Ottawa going to decide they’d like to make a park here? Are they going to make a national park here? Once this is in one block, it’s out of our hands.”
There were rumors that the federal government wanted to turn Govenlock into a national park, and three environmental groups suggested in 2015 that the federal government establish a national wildlife area on it.
Neither of these ideas sits well with ranching families who have used the land for 75 years.
Environment Canada did not return a request for comment before Western Producer deadlines June 19. Previously, it said the pastures represent rich biodiversity and species at risk.
“(Environment Canada) management of any pasture lands will incorporate the interest of ranchers in using these areas for cattle grazing and the interests of local Indigenous peoples concerning the future of community pastures,” the department said in an email in March.
Wally Hoehn, executive director of the lands branch at Saskatchewan Agriculture, said the land swap proposal is still preliminary, although the province has from the beginning wanted to acquire the non-reversionary land in the other pastures. There are approximately 75,000 acres of non-reversionary land; 49,000 acres are in Govenlock.
He said patrons were notified after Environment Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service expressed interest in the land swap, and discussions have now begun. The Nashlyn and Battle Creek patrons will not have done their planning for nothing, he said.
“The only difference would be the group would lease the land from the Canadian Wildlife Service as opposed to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada,” Hoehn said.
He said he understood ranchers’ concerns about dealing with the environment department rather than the agriculture department.
“I think they would be really comfortable leasing from AAFC or the ministry of agriculture,” he said.
“There are going to be other meetings to be able to build that trust.”
However, he also noted that the Canadian Wildlife Service has offered grazing permits in other areas, such as the Last Mountain Lake wildlife area.
Stokke agreed that patrons believe the province would better address local concerns. He said the province has strong protections on its crown lease land for habitat and species at risk.
He said that if anything, the non-reversionary land should be re-turned to the province because Ottawa acquired it for “peanuts” at between $300 and $400 per quarter.
“Now they want $100,000-and-some fair market value for grassland,” he added, noting the province isn’t in a position to buy it right now.