Encountering wildlife can be one of the main attractions for visitors to Alberta’s many natural areas. While hikers and campers typically keep an eye out for bears and moose, people enjoying Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park will also have a chance to see herds of beef cattle grazing on land where the buffalo once roamed.

“Grazing keeps a healthy environment. The wildlife isn’t as happy on land that’s never been grazed as something that’s been grazed by cattle,” says Brent Barbero, an area rancher and member of the Pincher Creek Stockman’s Association. “Basically, we’re trying to mimic what the buffalo did years ago.”

The province first proposed creating these two new parks in 2015. The parks surround the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve in southwestern Alberta, stretching along the B.C.-Alberta border from Crowsnest Pass in the north down to Waterton Lakes National Park in the south. The borders were officially established in January 2017, adding more than 105,000 hectares of land to Alberta’s reserve of protected natural spaces.

Bev Thornton, executive director of the Alberta SouthWest Regional Alliance, sees potential for the new parks to raise awareness of the region as a tourism destination. She expects visitors will be attracted to the area by the increased range of activities and better maintained camping facilities that will be found in the parks. Even local ranches may be able to capitalize on some of those extra tourism dollars. For example, Thornton has already seen some local operators diversify into the ranch vacation business by offering tourists the chance to take part in cattle drives.

Still, increased tourism and other commercial activities in the region does not alter the fact that ranching remains a crucial component of the local economy. According to the provincial government, there were 1,777 farms in the Alberta SouthWest region in 2016, and the ratio of cattle to people living in the area is 12.7 to 1.

In consulting with landowners and communities during the establishment of the two parks, the government has created an area where both ranchers and provincial parks can co-exist within the same borders. This creates a unique opportunity for Alberta SouthWest as they can continue to develop new economic opportunities in the region and still maintain a vibrant ranching community.

“Ranching is a vital part of the agricultural base that our region is built upon,” Thornton says. “While we all feel some effect from the ups and downs of our energy economy, agriculture creates a kind of stability here.”

The province assures ranchers in the region that the newly established land use rules will not impact existing grazing. In fact, grazing can be used as a tool for managing vegetation in natural areas and even helping to control invasive plant species, among other ecological purposes.

“The idea behind the grazing on forestry land was to help make local ranches more viable, maintain biodiversity and reduce fuel loading to prevent forest fires,” Barbero says. “And it’s still that way.”

Ranchers have been raising cattle in southwest Alberta for more than a century, and have been using sound grazing practices that has kept the area pristine during that time. For example, local ranchers have been managing grazing timing, salt location, maintaining fences around campgrounds, and hiring a rider to watch over the cattle – both necessities given the amount of outdoor recreation in the region – for a number of years now.

cattle in provincial park
Grazing on forestry land helps make local ranches more viable, keeps the landscape pristine, maintains biodiversity and reduces fuel loading to prevent forest fires. Photo courtesy: Brent Barbero

“We invest a great deal of time and money into maintaining a healthy grazing ecosystem,” says Barbero. “If user-pay ever existed in a public environment, we are it.”

Barbero adds the government is doing more maintenance work in the area and so far most of the initial impacts of ranching within the provincial park have been positive.

While hunting has never been a major concern for the ranchers, other forms of outdoor recreation have proven disruptive, sometimes driving cattle away from the best grazing areas, Barbero explains.

“Random camping and ATVs were rampant. There was very little control on that end of things, and a lot of our primary rangeland was basically rendered useless for grazing,” he says. “There are definitely restrictions on ATVs and random camping now, so some of that has been straightened out, and grass is a hardy resource that can return with good management.”

The government says it will work with local stock associations to manage the evolving needs of ranchers and other park users to ensure the peaceful co-existence continues well into the future.

“With the creation of the parks, a system was also put in place to monitor and regulate hunting in order to have a balanced system, recognizing all users,” notes Tim Chamberlin, communications advisor with Alberta Environment and Parks.