BC BHA Chapter Advocates for Protection of Grassland

February 21, 2021

Honourable Katrine Conroy

Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development

Honourable George Heyman

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy

Honourable Nathan Cullen

Minister of State for Lands and Natural Resource Operations

Dear Ministers Conroy, Heyman and Cullen,

On behalf of the BC Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers we are asking the province of British Columbia to consider moving the compliance and enforcement of recreational use, on all provincial Class 1 ungulate winter ranges and native grasslands from the Forest and Range Practices Act to the Wildlife Act (FRPA). We would like to see the legislation clearly identify that when travelling in grassland/shrub-steppe areas, motorized users must stay on designated roads or trails. The following document outlines the importance of grassland and shrub/steppe habitats; the threats facing these ecosystems; and the rationale for why the Wildlife Act is more appropriate for protecting sensitive habitat than FRPA. The province’s ‘Together for Wildlife’ initiative commits to stewarding our provincial wildlife populations through the protection, conservation, restoration and recovery of wildlife and habitat and the enforced regulation of human activities. This admirable goal will only be achieved through the development of legislation that that puts habitat conservation and wildlife management on the same footing as economic growth, development and social issues.

Why Grassland/Shrub-steppe Ecosystems are Important

The grassland/shrub-steppe ecosystems of British Columbia occur in the hottest, driest valleys, where winters are cold with relatively little snow. These include the Okanagan, Thompson, Nicola, Fraser, Chilcotin, Kettle and Kootenay in the rainshadow of the Coast, Cascade or Columbia mountains.

Significant areas of these ecosystems have been lost. Today, grasslands cover less than one percent of British Columbia’s land area and are one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems. Most of the losses and adverse effects are to valley-bottom ecosystems, which are the most valuable to biodiversity, the most fragile to disturbances and the slowest to recover.

British Columbia’s grassland/shrub-steppe ecosystems are considered highly endangered. Nearly all grassland and shrub-steppe natural plant communities are considered at risk. Presently, fifteen of these plant communities have been blue-listed (special concern) or red-listed (endangered). Many other plant communities associated with grassland landscapes  such as wetlands, aspen copses and woodlands  are also endangered.

Grassland/shrub-steppe ecosystems provide critical winter range for elk, whitetail deer, mule deer and bighorn sheep. They also provide habitat for more than one-third of the province’s rare and endangered vertebrates; many rare plants and invertebrates also occur in grasslands.

Threats to Grassland/Shrub-steppe Ecosystems

The four main threats to British Columbia’s Grassland/Shrub-steppe ecosystems are motorized recreation, invasive species, forest ingrowth and overgrazing. The threats associated with motorized recreation are compounded since it directly contributes to the distribution and spread of invasive weeds, as well as causing physical damage and wildlife displacement. A 2008 BC Forest Practices Board investigation found that East Kootenay rangelands were over-used and on a declining trend. The report noted that there was likely enough ecosystem restoration occurring to overcome loss of grassland habitats, but only if the condition of grassland ecosystems was also maintained. As a result, in 2011, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) immediately responded by decreasing livestock grazing through reduced allocations of animal unit months on range tenures, creating an unprecedented liberal hunting season to reduce the Southern Trench elk population and investing millions of dollars to support chemical weed control programs and ongoing ecosystem restoration activities to help restore and enhance forage production.

In the same report, The BC Forest Practices Board noted that field assessment of rangeland condition at twenty-five benchmark sites showed that rangeland condition had declined on one-quarter of the sites, primarily due to damage from off-road recreation activities. Despite being implicated in 25% of range declines, there were no equivalent measures taken to control off-road recreation.

According to the Forest Practice Board (Restoring and Maintaining Rangelands in the East Kootenay Special Report FPB/SR/53 November 2016), “rangelands are a playground for large numbers of [motorized] recreationists, many from outside of the region. Gentle terrain and a lack of fencing means that off-road vehicles are not restricted to bladed roads or pre-established trails. While many off-road vehicle enthusiasts use the backcountry responsibly, it only takes a small number of vehicles off-trail to cause lasting soil damage and spread invasive plants. Rangeland soils disturbed by vehicles and camping can take decades to recover, causing economic impacts to other range users.” “One problem is the common perception that all public lands are open to recreational use.”

“The Board has previously reported the challenges of enforcing recreation activities on public lands. Enforcements of damaging recreation use are possible under the Off-Road Vehicle Act and sections 46 (1)1.1 of the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA), however, it can be difficult to enforce violations because of difficulties with apprehending and prosecuting the individuals responsible.”

It is clear that the problem is well known and documented, however, the powers afforded to our enforcement staff under the current legislation (FRPA) is not commensurate with the extent of recreational damage or the consequences of failing to protect these sensitive habitats.

Why FRPA is not the appropriate tool for protecting Grasslands/UWR

“The Forest & Range Practices Act (FRPA) outlines how all forest and range practices and resource-based activities are to be conducted on Crown land in B.C., while ensuring protection of everything in and on them, such as plants, animals and ecosystems. All forest and range licensees' activities are governed by FRPA and its regulations during all stages of planning, road building, logging, reforestation and/or grazing.”

In short, the FRPA is designed to manage industrial or commercial activities on Crown land. As it pertains to recreation, FRPA includes language that protects recreational facilities from industrial activities. However, FRPA was never intended to protect habitat from recreational users. The term “road” is not even defined in FRPA. Even subsequent regulations such as the Forest Planning and Practices Regulation only define road as a Forest Service Road.

FRPA simply does not adequately protect sensitive habitat from motorized recreation. FRPA does not even define the term environmental damage. Environmental damage is defined in the Forest Planning and Practices Regulation where the definition of environmental damage is clearly intended for industrial purposes and is not applicable to the majority of damages inflicted by motorized users.

According to that regulation, "damage" means any of the following that adversely alters an ecosystem:

(a)a landslide;

(b)a gully process on the Coast;

(c)a fan destabilization on the Coast;

(d)soil disturbance;

(e)the deposit into a stream, wetland or lake of

(i)a petroleum product,

(ii)a fluid used to service industrial equipment, or

(iii)any other similar harmful substance;

(f)a debris torrent that enters a fish stream;

(g)changes to soil.

In conversations with Natural Resource Officers, habitat biologists and Conservation Officers, they have all indicated that the burden of proof required to charge a recreational user according to this definition is very difficult to prove and, in most cases, results in the charge being dismissed. This fact is made clear when one looks at the Natural Resource Officer, Compliance and Enforcement Branch’s annual reporting. In 2018-2019, the protection of sensitive ecosystems, prevention of unauthorized use and occupation of Crown land (Land Management Function) was responsible for 27% of all public complaints and 25% of all inspections and patrols. This represents an investment of 11,905 hours of patrol time. Despite 1,861 complaints or compliance actions, only 152 compliance notices were issued. This means 92% of the time, nothing happened. The compliance staff (NRO and COS) are clearly putting in the effort, however, inappropriate legislation is preventing them from successfully prosecuting offenders.

Why the Wildlife Act is more appropriate

The Wildlife Act, especially the Motor Vehicle Prohibition Regulation, is much better suited to protecting critical habitat such as grasslands and Class 1 winter range from motor vehicular damage. The definitions of road, trail and environmental damage are much more in line with the damage inflicted by recreational users. This makes it more efficient for enforcement staff to issue tickets and results in less enforcement actions being rejected in court. Fines and tickets issued under the Wildlife Act are also enforceable across provincial boundaries unlike those issued under FRPA. Finally, tickets issued under the Wildlife Act for damage to habitat or improper operation of a motor vehicle (driving off of designated roads) carry a larger fine (usually $575) than similar tickets issued under FRPA.

Alternatives to the Wildlife Act

While the Wildlife Act currently provides the most appropriate legislation for protecting grassland/shrub-steppe ecosystems from recreational abuse, alternative measures could be modifying the definition of environmental damage under the Forest Planning and Practices Regulation to include off road travel in rangelands. An additional description could be added to the definition of damage: “(h) unauthorized operation of a motorized vehicle within sensitive habitat such as; a grassland; Class 1 ungulate winter range; crown grazing tenure; a wildlife habitat area (WHA); the riparian zone of a stream or a wetland,”

However, modifying this legislation could impact the use of this legislation for industrial/commercial users.

Another alternative could be increasing protection for sensitive environments under the Off -Road Vehicle Act. Section 32 (a) of this act “authorizes the Lieutenant Governor in Council to make regulations prohibiting or regulating the use or operation of off-road vehicles in prescribed geographic areas, on prescribed land or land in a prescribed class of land or during prescribed seasons or periods of time.” At present time, the Off-Road Vehicle Regulation has no consideration for environmental or habitat protection and only addresses licensing and insurance of Off-Road Vehicles.

In summary, the grassland and shrub-steppe ecosystems are critical, and severely threatened habitat types. One of the greatest threats to these ecosystems is the uncontrolled operation of Off-Road Vehicles which is a direct result of poorly written legislation which does not allow our provincial compliance and enforcement staff to protect these important provincial assets. If these areas are to be conserved for future generations then we must have clear and effective legislation that states that motorized users must remain on designated roads or trails and gives provincial staff the tools to enforce this principle.

We respectfully ask that serious consideration be given to the concerns outlined above and the potential solutions offered. BC is faced with a loss of critical habitat important to our wildlife populations and we must take action to improve this situation.

Yours in conservation,

Alan Duffy

Chair – BC Chapter

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers


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