By Joel van der Veen
DAVIDSON — After more than 75 years, the sun has set on an era for the former PFRA pastures at Willner and Elbow.
The cattle were brought off the fields last month, and now patrons are preparing for the first season under new management — themselves.
Despite a new Liberal government in Ottawa and calls to halt the transfer of the former PFRA grasslands, Ian McCreary said last week there’s little hope that the course will change at this point.
“Our sense is it’s going to be very difficult for them to change anything for our year,” he said. “It’s unlikely that we can avoid the transfer process . . . Governments tend to move not entirely quickly.”
McCreary sits on the board of directors elected last spring to oversee the Willner-Elbow Grazing Corporation, which is leasing the two pastures that had been operated by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration dating back to the early 1940s.
This will allow ranchers to continue using the land that has been available to them for generations, but not without a steep increase in the fees they must pay.
Such is the new reality facing ranchers, three years after the Conservative government announced its plans to end the Community Pasture Program.
This involved divesting the 85 pastures that were operated through the program — 62 of which were in Saskatchewan — on a gradual basis between 2013 and 2018.
The McCraney pasture was part of the first group of 10 to be transferred to the provincial government for the 2014 season.
This year, the Willner-Elbow pastures — with a combined total area of 36,200 acres, enough room for about 2,100 cattle and another 70 bulls — began the transition. The province takes over the pastures in March and will then lease them to the corporation.
McCreary said that existing patrons have paid their deposits and that the pastures are already expected to be about 75 per cent filled with existing cattle for the 2016 season.
The corporation has advertised that it will accept additional cattle, though current patrons will have first dibs on available capacity.
McCreary said the interest received so far indicates that the need for the pasture land is evident. He added that the “cattle cycle” is currently at a peak phase, with the average calf price last year reaching over $1,500.
“There’s a lot more interest in livestock now than there was when the process started,” he said, noting that cattle prices cycle through peaks and valleys.
He also said the corporation is optimistic that the current manager, Ross Sigfusson, will return for the 2016 season.
Lease fees are a new part of the equation for patrons. The province will charge around $135,000 for the season, representing about a third of the corporation’s total annual budget. As a result, McCreary estimated, grazing fees will increase by 30 to 40 per cent over what patrons paid last year.
The corporation also continues to grapple with the presence of leafy spurge, an invasive plant that displaces native vegetation in fields.
McCreary estimated that between 9,000 and 12,000 acres on the two pastures are affected by the spurge, making it a significant concern.
An existing sheep grazing program has helped address the problem on a short-term basis, as sheep will eat the spurge and leave the grass behind, but McCreary said a long-term solution is needed.
With the shift in Ottawa resulting from the Oct. 19 election, several nature groups, including Nature Saskatchewan, have called on the federal government to put an immediate pause on the transfer of former PFRA grasslands.
A news release issued Oct. 29 said a plan is needed to sustain the ecological values of sites like the Govenlock community pasture, protecting species at risk while allowing for ongoing use by cattle ranchers.
Nature Saskatchewan excutive director Jordan Ignatiuk said all signs have indicated the process is unlikely to stop, despite the change in power.
“We don’t expect that there’s going to be a reversal,” he said, noting that his organization is still encouraged by the Liberal government’s apparent commitment to the environment.
While it’s been difficult for Nature Saskatchewan to monitor the situation closely due to the sheer number of pastures, Ignatiuk added, “To some degree we’ve got an idea of what’s happening.”
The McCraney pasture began the transition process two years earlier and has been operated under a patron-directed corporation since then. McCreary said the Willner-Elbow patrons have been able to watch and learn from that transition.
For the full story, please see the Nov. 9 edition of The Davidson Leader.