05/23/2012 04:06 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Cattlemen want federal plan to transfer community pastures to Prairies delayed

EDMONTON - The Canadian Cattlemen's Association is calling on Ottawa to delay its plan to transfer control of 900,000 hectares of community pasture to the Prairie provinces.

The federal government wants to shift responsibility for these pastures to the provinces over six years starting in 2013.

Cattlemen's president Martin Unrau says the association wants a one-year delay to give producers who graze their cattle on these pastures more time to plan for the transition. Ranchers are also worried about the environmental consequences of the switch.

"They have built their whole operations around being able to take cattle to these places so people's livelihoods are at stake," Unrau said Wednesday from his farm near MacGregor, Man.

"Guys are calling me and saying, 'We are hearing in the coffee shops that the community pastures are being disbanded.' Guys are panicking. We are saying, 'Hang on, we don't have any details.'"

The association supports the transfer but wants assurances the pastures, which could be sold off by the provinces, are maintained as designated agricultural land for cattle grazing.

These grass and range lands were transferred to federal government control in the 1930s during a severe drought as part of a soil conservation program. Producers pay fees to graze about 220,000 cattle on the pastures.

The system includes 61 community pastures in Saskatchewan and 24 in Manitoba. There are just two in Alberta, both located within the sprawling grounds of Canadian Forces Base Suffield in the southwest corner of the province.

Agriculture Canada's plan is to hand over responsibility for 10 of these pastures to Saskatchewan and Manitoba next year and complete the transition by 2018. The transfer plan was announced in the federal government's spring budget.

Unrau says the cattlemen's association is also worried about the potential fate of 31 at-risk wildlife species that live on the protected pastures such as the burrowing owl, black-footed ferret and the swift fox.

"The environmental benefits that we get off of the community pastures is very beneficial not just for agriculture but for all of society," he said. "It has been positive for our industry and we would hate to see it disappear."

Ranchers aren't the only group raising questions about the transition plan.

Earlier this month the Opposition NDP raised the issue in the Saskatchewan legislature.

Agriculture critic Cathy Sproule said some producers who have used these grazing pastures for years might not be able to afford to buy the land if the province puts them up for sale.

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud said he has formed a committee to look at how producers might be able to form associations to jointly buy pastures, perhaps with government financing. No decisions have been made.

The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association is to vote on a motion Tuesday on the community pasture plan at its annual convention. Organizers say the issue is so important that the wording of the motion won't be finished until just before the meeting.

Alan Parkinson, an Agriculture Canada official heading up the transition plan, said the federal government has heard calls from producers for a delay, but no decision has been made to push back the timeline.

"We are looking to identify which pastures would be the best ones to transfer early and then following that what the rest of the schedule would look like for the remaining five years of the program," he said from Regina.

"Until we reach some conclusion with the provinces, we are not really in a position to go and recommend any changes to it."

Parkinson says some people are looking at the transfer plan as a business opportunity to buy grazing land, while others are concerned about whether sensitive ecosystems would continue to be protected.

But they are mainly hearing from producers and groups who are worried about where they will graze their cattle.

"We are still in early days," he said.