Franz Feldmann has been a rancher in the Columbia Valley for more than 55 years. With a herd 700-head strong, he keeps busy with life on the ranch off of Westside Road.
Mr. Feldmann and his wife bought the ranch in 1963. The third generation of Feldmanns are now farming the land, with Mr. Feldmann’s son and granddaughter in the business full-time, and other family members coming to help throughout the year.
Ranchers, including Mr. Feldmann, typically have their own land where the cattle will graze during the early spring and late fall. In between those seasons, cattle will graze on neighbouring crown land, provided to the ranch through crown grazing leases. Ranchers have touted the benefits of cattle grazing for years. For example, Mr. Feldmann cites one study where one plot of land was grazed, another left wild. Time after time, wild game came to the grazed land instead of the untouched land. It’s called “conditioning”, he explained, allowing new grass to grow that is desired by wild game.
But now, the B.C. government and the BC Cattlemen’s Association are recognizing another benefit to cattle grazing: wildfire risk reduction.
The government put $500,000 into the Cattlemen’s coffers this last May, for partnerships and investigations into initiatives that will use grazing livestock to manage fine fuels.
“Using cattle and livestock grazing minimizes the growth of annual and perennial grasses, which helps to reduce wildfire risks,” Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, said in a press release. “It’s one example of what we’re doing to reduce the threat of wildfires, while supporting the ranching sector and maintaining wildlife habitat in our province.”
Kevin Boon is the general manager of the BC Cattlemen’s Association.
“The last two fire seasons have seen unprecedented resources burn in the province,” he stated. “These events have shown us the value of agriculture, specifically cattle grazing, in mitigating the start or spread of fires while assisting in firefighting efforts. Cattle grazing reduces the fine fuels available for fires to take hold. This funding will allow us to develop partnerships in interface areas to help protect our lands, forests and communities, while producing some of the best quality food in the world.”
Mr. Boon told the Pioneer that while $500,000 will not go very far, they are looking to get a few projects launched with the funding, picking high-impact areas for demonstration and success in how cattle can help to mitigate wildfire risks.
“The 2017 and 2018 fires for us here in BC really affected a lot of ranchers and ranchland,” he reflected. “It became obvious, especially in 2017, agriculture, and especially cattle grazing, was really assisting.”
Mr. Boon said other FireSmart measures ranchers practice, whether for direct wildfire mitigation purposes or not, include leaving open space areas for cattle grazing, as well as irrigation that keeps fields moist and helps prevent wildfires catching.
This is a unique partnership between the provincial government and the Cattlemen’s association; Mr. Boon said it is the first partnership of its kind in Canada.
Mr. Feldmann has seen how cattle grazing has helped with wildfires in the Columbia Valley in his 50+ years of farming.
“If you’ve got these cows grazing there every year, you don’t see any tall, dry grass there. It’s grazed down to a safe height,” Mr. Feldmann said.
Back in 1985, he shares, there was a large wildfire south of Invermere. A Christmas tree farm used to have cattle grazing on the land. Under new management, the cattle were moved off the land. A campfire took hold in the tall grasses and whipped all the way to K2 ranch. Mr. Feldmann speculated that, had the wind shifted, the fire would’ve gone straight to Invermere.
Another fire in 1991 by the Toby Benches actually jumped Horsethief Canyon and came within 1.5 km of his ranch.
With increasing recreational pressure on the crown grazing lease land, Mr. Feldmann said he and fellow Range Patrol members have to be vigilant. This last May long weekend, they spotted 34 campfires that had been built on the crown land around his farm – nine of them still burning. Range Patrol was able to track down and extinguish the fires.
The government is definitely standing behind ranchers, evidenced by this new partnership in which they hope to use cattle grazing as one of the many tools in the Province’s reach to minimize the spread and risk of wildfires.
“Reducing the risk of wildfires and adapting to a changing climate requires more action than the status quo of the last 20 years,” said Lana Popham, Minister of Agriculture. “B.C.’s beef producers are well known for raising high-quality grass- and range-fed beef, and we’re working with them to find ways to combine that practice with reducing vegetation that fuels wildfires. It’s an intriguing model that I’m hopeful will become a mainstay in our efforts to protect our communities and resources from fires, as well as supporting B.C. ranchers and B.C. beef.”