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Ministry of Forests in hot water for damaging Okanagan protected areas

Unauthorized work by the Ministry and improper cattle grazing caused damage
The damage left behind by a water diversion that was done without authorization by the Ministry of Forests in the South Okanagan Grassland Protected Area. (Contributed - Jesse Zeman, BC Wildlife Federation)

Unauthorized work by the Ministry of Forests and improper cattle grazing damaged protected grasslands according to an investigation by the B.C. Forest Practices Board.

The investigation was launched after the board received complaints in 2021 regarding grazing issues in the White Lake and the South Okanagan Grassland Protected Areas. (WLGPA and SOGPA)

The protected areas were established in 2001 to safeguard rare and endangered plants, wildlife habitat, other ecological values and their cultural importance to the local Indigenous peoples, including the Lower Similkameen, Osoyoos and Penticton Indian Bands. One of those complaints came from the executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, Jesse Zeman, who stumbled across the scenes of damage near his home while following a wildlife trail.

The damage was from a water diversion, one of the pieces of work undertaken by the Ministry of Forests. In total the ministry put in 19 kilometers and two diversions without authorization.

“There was exposed pipe, garbage, erosion and a number of large trees had been knocked down,” said Zeman in a press release.

Further, the nearby creek crossing had no culvert, which should have been installed during road construction. Instead, it was jammed with rocks and logs.

“The area where soil was removed for the diversion has been irreparably altered,” said Keith Atkinson, chair of the Forest Practices Board. “No attempt was made to salvage the productive layer for future restoration. Additionally, investigators found the excavated soil had been mostly side-cast onto steep slopes, where it entered stream and riparian areas and covered - to the point of destroying - native plant communities, some of which are highly endangered.”

Furthermore, some species in the seed mix used to re-vegetate the excavated area are known to compete with and potentially overtake native-plant communities.

“Though the Ministry of Forests complied with legal requirements to re-vegetate exposed soils, it did not consult with BC Parks or adhere to its memorandum of understanding concerning the selection of an appropriate seed mix, putting native plant communities at risk,” Atkinson said. “The board considers this to be an unsound practice.”

BC Parks, which the Ministry has a memorandum of understanding with over protected areas and was required to go for authorization, had no record of the construction.

In addition to the damage from the Ministry, the oversight board’s investigation found improper grazing by cattle in the protected areas. Tenured grazing was happening prior to 2001 and the areas became protected, and was allowed to continue under certain restrictions, including range areas and time.

“As we walked along, we encountered off-stream watering below the creek and a number of cows were grazing there,” Zeman said. “The take-home date for cattle is Oct. 31 in the area and this was well into November.”

Watering tanks for the cattle were overflowing and some recently installed pipe was already exposed due to erosion.

Other found cattle were in non-permitted range known to support both red-listed and blue-listed plant species.

As a result of the investigation, the Elkink Ranch was cited for failing to uphold their legal requirements for grazing in the Mount Kobau area of the SOGPA. The report noted that the government had escalated from warnings to violation tickets and orders, however they were still noted to have been ineffective at bringing Elkink back into compliance.

In the Blue Lake area, where grazing was permitted to the 69 Ranch Partnership, there was damage found to riparian areas by cattle that did not belong to the partnership. The owners of the trespassing cattle have not yet been identified.

The investigation also found issues with the government for a low number of inspections that were too few to detect non-compliance from ranchers and their cattle. The non-compliance that was found almost entirely involved incidents with the Elkink Ranch.

“This is what happens when the province of BC defunds conservation of our land, air, water, fish and wildlife,” Zeman said. “There are multiple unforced errors that occurred because the Okanagan District within the Ministry of Forests thought it was above the law. Every time we looked further into what happened we found more and more issues and blatant disregard for the rules. Why do members of the public have to force the government to follow its own rules?”

Brennan Phillips

About the Author: Brennan Phillips

Brennan was raised in the Okanagan and is thankful every day that he gets to live and work in one of the most beautiful places in Canada.
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