Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Cowboys of Canada among ‘the whispered messages of the wild’

For every Douglas Lake, Waldron, or McIntyre Ranch — vast holdings the size of small nations — there are dozens of family ranches in the Canadian West struggling to make it. Their challenge is oil and gas, an industry that is, ironically, both the key to their survival and the cause of their demise. The eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies and the prairies, running away a thousand miles to the east, remained virtually roadless in 1905, when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan came into being. A single ribbon of steel, the Canadian Pacific Railway, bound the new nation together. With its vast land grants, the railroad sold the dream of the west to tens of thousands of immigrants, settlers without whom the tracks would have nothing to carry. The great ranches of the west were staked by horse and wagon or on foot, and the pioneers lived through winters so cold that elk grazed on willow branches thick as a man’s thumb. All that was to be heard were the whispered messages of the wild. Today there is virtually no field or meadow in all of Alberta outside of the national parks that has not been crossed and crossed again by pipelines, seismic lines, and roads servicing the tens of thousands of oil and gas wells that now litter the landscape. Ranchers have little choice but to welcome such activity on their lands. Theirs is a marginal existence. Most ranches are heavily mortgaged. Equipment costs are high, with previous spread a combine alone running close to half a million dollars. Factor in drought, devastating winters, the volatility of prices for cattle and grain, and you have all the makings of a financially precarious way of life, despite its rugged appeal. the long-term social and ecological consequences of oil and gas development may ultimately mean the end of Canadian cowboy culture. Access roads bring a host of challenges—range fires caused by exhaust sparks or the careless disposal of cigarettes; disruption to the habitat of wolves and bears, driving these predators toward domestic herds; and most serious of all, the introduction of invasive species of weeds and soil contaminants that threaten the ecological integrity of the grasslands upon which the entire ranching economy depends. Biosecurity is not an exotic term but rather a constant topic of conversation on the ranches and farms of the Canadian West...more

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