Plan to expand protected area divides region

The provincial government has proposed expanding Twin River Heritage Rangeland Natural Area in southern Alberta

MILK RIVER, Alta. — Residents and landowners in the Milk River region of southern Alberta await a provincial government decision about a 7,840-acre expansion to a protected area west of the town.

The comment period on the proposal expired at the end of September after being extended by a month following requests from several factions in the region for more time to provide input.

Alberta Environment and Parks proposes to reclassify and expand the Twin River Heritage Rangeland Natural Area that now protects 47,000 acres of grassland along the Milk River Ridge.

The plan has generated controversy, with some affected landowners in favour of the change and some municipalities and councils calling for more planning before it proceeds.

Among the proponents are ranchers Audrey and Robert Taylor and various conservation groups.

Biologist and conservation advocate Cheryl Bradley said the proposal shows that the provincial government intends to conserve more of the mixed grass subregion, including native prairie.

“This area was recommended for expansion by the Prairie Conservation Forum, by the regional advisory committee to the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan,” said Bradley.

“So what government is doing is following through with a commitment that was made in the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, and they’re following the process of having a consultation.”

The Milk River Watershed Council Canada is among those that registered concerns about the proposal.

Tim Romanow, executive director with the council, said it has four concerns that should be addressed before any redesignation or expansion occurs. Among them are plans to explore construction of a dam on the Milk River. The likely site for it is within the proposed expansion area.

A designation of the area as protected heritage rangeland has implications for such a project and would limit efforts to improve water supply and stream flow on both sides of the international border because of water sharing rules and arrangements.

“Those are serious concerns for our council and for our watershed and in the light of climate change and the variability that we’ve been seeing in the last few years, and challenges with regard to infrastructure in Montana, as well as infrequency of flow and concerns with the letter of intent that allows us to offset sharing of water from the St. Mary (River) with Montana, all these factors piled on,” said Romanow.

Redesignation and expansion would also prevent additional oil and gas activity in the region. There have been proposals for several years to drill wells in the area, most recently by Granite Oil.

Conservation groups and some landowners have actively opposed additional oil and gas activity, and hearings are scheduled with the Alberta Energy Regulator.

In addition, Romanow said the area designated for expansion is not necessarily intact native grassland. Some of it was cultivated in years past and is now host to invasive species.

“We certainly support our grazing community and our ranching community and we think that’s a great opportunity, but any expansion that occurs does put limitations in terms of oil and gas activity and changes some of the access management and tools for maintaining issues like invasive species and invasive agronomics, which are a concern in our area,” he said.

The watershed council wants the province to outline the scientific criteria used to designate property as heritage rangeland. So far, it believes such criteria are lacking.

“We feel this is setting a precedent, and if there are to be additional heritage rangelands in the future … in other areas of the province, there has to be criteria set aside that says that the land needs to be at X value for intactness, or for wetland classifications … or it has to include X number of species enrichment, or things like that,” he said.

MRWCC chair John Ross agreed.

“There’s a lot more valuable lands around there that could be included in the heritage rangeland than those ones.”

Ross also expressed concern that extended grazing leases might not be part of the larger designated heritage rangeland, yet grazing is a vital part of maintaining and protecting grassland.

“We really like the heritage grazing land designation to be put on the Twin Rivers, but we would like it to be done kind of properly in a well thought out way and not this push to try to get it done as fast as we can, which is what the government is trying to do now,” said Ross.

“There is no immediate pressure to actually push this thing through, other than political pressure, and that’s not really the best way for the environment.”

Bradley disagreed that the proposed changes are hasty.

“It should not have come as a surprise to anybody who had read the regional plan,” she said.

“I don’t know why the Milk River Watershed Council came out so strongly against it because the local committee had supported expansion, if leaseholders were in favour, when it was first set up, and this council has always been supportive of good management of native grasslands. I’ve really been impressed with the conservation ethic that this council has had.

“(Twin Rivers) has been assessed as really high value for conservation.”

The proposed expansion area has numerous wetlands important to water birds and amphibians and is home to antelope, deer, sharp-tailed grouse and numerous other species of flora and fauna.

The provincial environment and parks department was contacted for comment, but no one was made available.

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