Fearing new roads and machinery will destroy native grasslands, a group of ranchers is protesting oil and gas development in the southern Alberta foothills.
“This is the largest intact rangeland left on the continent,” says rancher Mac Blades, chair of the newly formed Pekisko Land Owners Association.
The group, comprised of 30 ranch families – including legendary cowboy singer Ian Tyson – is opposing an application by a Calgary-based oil company to drill a sweet gas well on ranchland southwest of Longview. Vermilion Resources Ltd. has plans to drill up to four wells in the area.
|Wendy Dudley, for Business Edge|
|Ranchers, including singer Ian Tyson, have gathered to oppose oil and gas development.|
“It’s in the greater good to maintain this ecosystem. There is long-term gain, rather than the short-term gain of oil and gas,” says rancher Ken Stiles who holds the grazing lease at the site of the proposed well.
“We know we can’t stop oil and gas drilling, but let’s at least think about where, when and how. Let’s not spoil this relatively small part of the province,” added Stiles, who used to work in the oilpatch.
The Pekisko Land Owners Association is an intervener in an Alberta Energy and Utilities Board hearing concerning Vermilion’s application. The hearing is scheduled for October 15 in High River.
The ranchers fear more wells will be drilled by other exploration companies, if Vermilion gets the go-ahead to drill this one. “No one is looking at the overall impact of all these wells. It’s not just a case of a single well,” Stiles says.
The association is seeking a moratorium on petroleum development in this sensitive area, until the industry develops practices that will not destroy the native grasses. The ranchers are particularly concerned about the rangelands running south of the Highwood River to the Oldman River, home to a number of historic ranches and pristine grazing lands that have never been ploughed or fertilized.
“There’s no example of native grass ever being restored after it’s disturbed,” says Blades, owner of the Rocking P Ranch started by his grandfather in 1900.
“The oil and gas won’t be lost. It will still be there. But if we lose the native grasses, we lose them forever.”
Vermilion argues that the site uses an existing access road and is on a former drill site. But the ranchers fear increased traffic and pipeline construction will introduce invasive weeds and non-native grasses which will out-compete the native rough fescue, an important forage for cattle and wildlife.
Vermilion spokesperson Heather Stang said the company is still reviewing the ranchers’ concerns. “But whenever we go into a drilling program, we follow environmental regulations meticulously,” she says. Stiles noted that native grasses did not grow back on former area well sites.
“This is a very special ecosystem, and it’s within one hour of a million people. I don’t think the people in Calgary would want to lose this,” says Tyson.
The proposed Vermilion well site is on land that was the former winter grazing grounds of the Bar U Ranch, now a national historic site. Other heritage ranches in the area include the EP, purchased by Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1919. The Bar U was founded in 1881 and was later owned by George Lane and Pat Burns, co-founders of the Calgary Stampede.
Tyson ranches east of Longview. “We must protect the West,” he says. “It would be a tragedy if we missed this opportunity to protect it.”