A new initiative taking place just south of Cranbrook aims to use targeted cattle grazing combined with new technology to help mitigate fire risk in grasslands.
The project is taking place on the outskirts of Cranbrook with the Thibault Ranch, where cattle will be put to work along a 13 kilometre stretch of land.
Mike Pritchard is one of the leads on the project. Pritchard is a rancher, Wildfire Prevention Coordinator with the BC Cattlemen’s Association (BCAA) and former employee with the BC Wildfire Service. During the 2017 wildfire season, he was one of the BC Wildfire Operations Section Chiefs tasked with managing the unprecedented season.
He explained that although conifers are a main source of fuel for forest fires, dry grass only exasperates the issue.
“In this area, and across B.C., there’s a big push to conduct fuel management in our forested areas,” he explained. “There is a large concentration of conifers, but once those are removed and the rain and sunlight can shine on the ground, the grass grows really well. So now you’ve effectively traded one fuel for another. Not only that, but much of the time the conifers will grow back.”
He says that once grass catches fire it moves through a forest — and a community for that matter — all too quickly.
“I’ve been a rancher for years and when we started talking about this project I thought it was such a natural fit. Grass feeds fires, but it also feeds cattle,” said Pritchard.
He adds that fuel management and treatment programs are effective, but not always available. Grazing cattle is just one piece of the puzzle, or one tool in a tool kit when it comes to managing fires. Although it is more work for the cattlemen, Pritchard says it’s worth it to be able to see the benefits.
“This is the first year we have fixed plots in both Cranbrook and the Summerland/Peachland areas. This means we will be able to take a critical look at the results,” he said. “So far, what’s interesting is how easily we can figure out the fire intensity of grass. If it’s not cured (completely dry) it stays in a vegetative state as the cattle continue to graze. So the grass is healthier for longer and less likely to burn.”
Many conifers have been removed off of the plot of land to encourage the cattle to graze, but this opens up borders and makes it more tricky to keep the cattle contained.
The cattle are currently being held on the grazing grounds by electric fencing, which is movable and fairly cost-effective. In the long-term however, Pritchard says it’s not ideal. That’s why he and the rest of the stakeholders in the project are looking at collared technology.
“There are lots of agencies involved because fencing is a huge financial aspect. At the same time that we were looking into using cattle to mitigate fire risk, the BC Livestock Association was also looking into funding GPS collars for cattle; a virtual fence,” Pritchard explained.
Essentially, the rancher defines a specific boundary location for the virtual fences. All of the cattle would be collared and the collars would let the cattle know when they reach that boundary.
The technology already exists in Europe and a company based out of Norway is on board with the idea, but the difference in cellular technology has stalled the process for now.
“There’s a company in Norway using cellular data already, so we talked to Telus and they are on board. The only issue is the technology is 2G so it’s not compatible. We are hoping to get confirmation this fall and be able to launch it using LTE in the spring of 2021,” Pritchard said.
It could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in fencing, especially if this becomes a popular method province-wide.
“For example, fencing in the Southern Interior is currently priced at $20,000 per kilometre. So we’d be looking at around $250,000 just for the one project,” he said. “The collars would only cost about $80,000.”
The cattle will require a little training, so there will be a learning curve, but Pritchard is confident that it will be a success.
“There’s all kinds of potential here, not just saving money and fire suppression,” he said.
An article from Columbia Basin Trust explains that residents of Cranbrook — who use these lands for recreation — will also get to enjoy a new trail. There can be conflict between people, their dogs, and cattle, so Pritchard wants to spread the word about this project.
“These cows are doing a job here, an important job. They’re working for the community.”
The project is supported by the Trust through its Grassland and Rangeland Enhancement Program, delivered by the Kootenay Livestock Association, and key partners like the BCCA and the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
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