The West was wild long before cowboys romanced it with their grit and charm… and in some pockets, the prairies never did tame down.
The southeast corner of Alberta is some of the wildest cowboy culture in Canada. The topography of the region is as beautiful as it is perilous. Picturesque rolling hills mask rugged coulees and closer to the river, occasional sinkholes of unfathomable depth. Hot and dry, the shortgrass prairie is home to rattlesnakes, pronghorn antelope, scorpions, black widows, cacti and burrowing owls. And at the centre of it is Canadian Forces Base Suffield — the largest military training base in the Commonwealth. At 2,500 square kilometres, the isolated base is perfect for live munitions and operations training, and even the British Army rents part of the base for training its soldiers.
The semi-arid climate has saved huge tracts of land from being broken for crop farming. Instead, settlers started running cattle on deeded and Crown lands where massive herds of bison had once roamed. Because of the area’s isolation and challenging environment, this part of the West was never quite tamed — and that’s just how the resident ranchers like it. Out there, men and women in cowboy hats and chaps still ride out on the range to check their cattle. “Quad cowboys” are frowned upon, and the sensitive prairie grasses are gently nurtured and fiercely protected. And with good reason — it can take as much as 60 acres of land to feed one cow-calf pair for a year. The prairie co-evolved with ungulates and requires grazing in order to retain its health and biodiversity. On the prairies, native grass is gold, offering a modest living and unbridled freedom in exchange for responsible stewardship.
OF HORSES AND MEN
A true western story wouldn’t be complete without horses, and until 1994, an estimated 1,200 feral horses roamed the land at CFB Suffield. In the early ’90s, there was growing concern that the horses were causing too much damage to the prairie ecosystem, even though there were often annual round-ups to catch excess horses. Once caught, ranchers and horse enthusiasts would adopt and break them for work or pleasure horses.
The round-ups to gather excess horses were controversial, and didn’t escape the notice of animal rights organizations. A citizens’ committee was formed to decide what to do about the population, which resulted in a strategy to remove and re-home all of the horses.
During the discussions the committee also determined that a large replacement ungulate would need to be introduced to take over the large grazing role horses had been fulfilling. Three years later, in 1997 132 elk were relocated from Elk Island National Park, and in 1998, an additional 89 head were introduced to supplement the herd for a total of 221 head. By late 2014, the herd was estimated to be 8,000 strong.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Before the prairies were settled, elk were widely distributed — and so were plains grizzly bears, wolves and cougars. Without any hunting or predator pressure, the elk flourished and multiplied — and started leaving the base in large numbers. While the committee had determined elk were the answer, there was little done to plan for population control, or even a determination of how many elk the region could support.
Now retired, Major Dan Davies had been the Operations Officer at the base during the period in question, and he says he personally assured area landowners that if the herd ever reached 800 animals, there would be a hunt on the base.
“We just picked a number. And there was no scientific reasoning for it. We picked 600-800 as the maximum population and that was just based on the fact that we took 1,200 horses off the base, so 600–800 elk would probably be about right,” Davies said.
Joel Nicholson, senior species at risk biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks, says the province is now dealing with the problem.
“There wasn’t necessarily a management plan established at that time and so the elk have done better than anyone would have predicted out there,” he said. “We were a bit late with starting this, but it is well underway.”
The ranchers surrounding the base largely feel the efforts are too little, too late.
“It’s a complete disaster,” says Jeff Lewandoski, a rancher whose land borders CFB Suffield on the west side. “From May until the end of September, we probably spend an average of two hours a day fixing fence and chasing elk out of here.”
The elk jump the fences, often taking out the top wire as they do. They rub their antlers on the posts, whittling them down to near pencil sticks in the process. Some pastures formerly used for grazing simply can’t be used any longer because the fences are destroyed so frequently that cattle can get out and make it onto the nearby roads and highways. But it’s not just fence lines the elk are wrecking — forage crops and haystacks are consumed and destroyed too. The elk are also attracted to the water the area ranches provide for their livestock.
“You’ve got to remember there’s no developed water on that base, and we live in a pretty arid part of the country. This is as close to a desert as you get in Alberta, so on a good year there’s some sloughs out there that those elk can drink out of, but when it gets into August and things dry up, they have to come out for water,” says Brad Osadczuk, a delegate with Alberta Beef Producers as well as a councillor for Special Area 2, subdivision 8.
Recalling a scary incident that happened recently, Lewandoski says the elk can be dangerous when they’re panicked and in large herds.
“Just as we were going out to gather cows, 30–35 head of elk ran through the cow herd and split them in half. I found out two hours later they had just come from my neighbour’s horse herd of about 20 head. They ran through them and spooked the herd, and killed the mare. She’d been gored,” he said. “This is getting pretty real. Now these elk are starting to kill livestock.”
For years, the area ranchers tried to engage the base and the province about the growing elk problem to no avail. The layers of bureaucratic complication compounded the problem. The federal government owns the land, the British Army rents a large portion of it, the province of Alberta regulates wildlife and hunting, and there’s a protected nature preserve on the base where hunting is prohibited.
FEAR OF DISEASE
People opposed to an outright cull have called upon the government to capture and relocate the elk, but because of the chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer populations in southeastern Alberta, relocation isn’t possible.
CWD is a disease very similar to BSE (known as mad cow disease), but CWD spreads much more easily, and tends to be found in areas where large numbers of animals spend a great deal of time. It was first noticed in captive cervid populations, and has spread rapidly throughout several states. The first case in Saskatchewan was detected in the year 2000 in a wild mule deer. In 2002, CWD was discovered at an elk farm in Alberta. It wasn’t until 2005 that Alberta had its first case of CWD in a wild deer. Found near Suffield, close to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, the Alberta government tried to curtail the spread of the disease by engaging in deer culls over four subsequent winters. CWD continues to be present in deer in the region, but to date has never been detected in a wild elk in Alberta. But it’s not just CWD concerning beef producers.
“What we’re worried about is tuberculosis (TB), and brucellosis. If we get a positive TB in this herd, it could hurt our cattle industry. It could cripple it. We don’t need another BSE,” said Osadczuk in a
June, 2016 interview.
On September 21, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that a five-year-old beef cow was positive for bovine tuberculosis (TB). The next day, the cow was traced back to its origin — a ranch bordering the Suffield base. Since then, at least 30 farms and roughly 25,000 animals have been quarantined. Three producers have learned all of their animals — including their horses and pets — will be killed while the rest await testing and answers. Two of the three producers turned out to be Lewandowski and Osadczuk.
“We’ve recognized and made it known to the government that the elk in Suffield are a problem, with or without tuberculosis,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers. “We are being very cautious and we would not want to be irresponsible about pointing fingers because the fact is, the elk that went into Suffield, I believe, were clean.”
Although mammals can carry and transmit bovine TB, it specializes in bovines — and that’s where it usually originates, and how it is typically spread. The disease is well-documented to spontaneously occur in cattle.
“Certainly the potential is there, but when you run the risk evaluation it still comes out to be quite low. With bovine TB you really need to have relatively close contact, like aerosol transmission, breathing onto one another, licking one another, so that’s not likely to happen,” said Margo Pybus, provincial wildlife disease specialist, species at risk, non-game and wildlife disease policy for Alberta Environment and Parks.
“They came from Elk Island and they were tested and I fully believe they were clean,” said Smith. “But the issue is that bovine tuberculosis can be carried by wolves and coyotes and elk and deer. And while I am not disputing that the elk were clean when they went in, we don’t know that they’re still clean, but at the same time, we’re not shouting from the rooftops that it has to be the elk, because we don’t know.”
Each year, the province has been increasing the number of elk hunters can harvest from the area, and for 2016–17, the number is greater than 2,000. An overall population goal hasn’t been determined yet, and the province maintains that will be decided once the current overpopulation is under control.
Once all his cattle are killed, Lewandowski says he isn’t sure if he’ll ever restock his ranch. He’s worried that the elk are harbouring TB and he will one day have to endure the same tragedy all over again. In the meantime, he’s desperately trying to avoid having his horses and his dog destroyed.
“I’ll chain myself to them if I have to,” he said. “They’re part of your family, they’re not just animals. If they’re going to kill the dogs and horses, then they better kill every coyote, every badger, and every elk because we’ve still got them running around and there’s no big hurry to test any of them.”