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environ m e n t

By Duane McCartney

True conservationists Conservation is paid more than lip service on the Zehnder family ranch


he Zehnder brothers, John, Dave, Mark and Chris have conservation in their blood. Originally from Switzerland, their parents started ranching in the Columbia Valley near Invermere, B.C. in the early 1970s. Their father was involved with the development of Panorama Ski Resort and the boys all had an active role on the 3,500acre ranch. Conservation was always important to the family over the years. Recently their efforts have been recognized by a regional conservation award. John currently manages the ranch with about 130 Gelbvieh/Angus cows. “In the past we had a much larger herd of 300 head which was reduced because of the BSE crisis and required hired help which was very hard to get. Now I can almost run the whole operation by myself,” John says as we walk through the pasture as part of a tour with “Wings Over the Rockies” a weeklong interpretive conservation and naturalist program held every May in the Columbia Valley. On this day our group is touring the Zehnder Ranch to see first-hand examples of conservation initiatives on their grassland. It is fascinating walking with John and his brother David, an agriculture and conservation consultant, as they identify all the birds on their ranch. As the ranch is in the Rocky Mountain Trench, their grazing lands are at different elevations and in different eco systems. In the summer, the cattle are on forested range in the mountains while in the winter and spring the cows are on seeded pasture closer to home. Calves are sold in the fall to Alberta feedlots but some of the beef is managed organically and sold locally in Invermere. The brothers have diverse interests. In his spare time John trains border collie dogs to move cattle and wildlife and for many years he has helped move the elk out of the Banff townsite with his dogs. John gives us a small demonstration working some sheep with his dogs. From the herding demonstration we make our way off the field and through what was once an area cultivated for Christmas trees. The family used to grow Douglas fir Christmas trees using a traditional method of cultivation known as stump culture. Christmas tree production served


C at t l e m e n · au g u s t 2 0 1 3

Dave Zehnder discusses the goals of the Ecological Services Initiative on their family ranch.

as a means of farm diversification. Some of the remaining trees have grown beyond the Christmas-tree size but provide excellent habitat for songbirds. We continue on down to the lake which the family developed for irrigation, and now provides excellent waterfowl habitat. The riparian area surrounding this lake is the focus of a demonstration site. This is where Dave introduces us to the concept of Paid Ecological Services, which is about paying farmers and ranchers to produce cleaner air, water and enhance wildlife habitat on their land. Dave has been instrumental in advancing the concept. He also assisted in the formation of a new Local Conservation Fund which has provided the funding for the pilot now underway. “We started the Ecological Services Initiative program in 2010 with a few demonstration and research sites on some ranches in the area. The concept was to develop and test a model where ranchers could be financially rewarded for protecting the watersheds for clean water, and conserve critical wildlife habitat in a proactive manner,” says Dave. “During the recent regional elections we were able to include a referendum question asking people in the area if they would financially support local conservation projects through a $20-per-parcel annual tax. The money would go directly to supporting conservation efforts on private land in the area. The community voted in favour

of the fund which has supported many projects including this pilot project.” The initial demonstration sites proved successful and we have expanded the program to include many more demonstration sites all across B.C. and into Alberta. “We have the help of six universities in Canada and the United States monitoring the project sites and financial assistance from the B.C. minister of agriculture, Columbia Basin Trust Fund, B.C. cattlemen, B.C. Agriculture Council, Ducks Unlimited, University of Alberta’s Institute for Land Use Innovation and Agriculture Environment and Wildlife Fund, and now Environment Canada has come on board. It’s very exciting! “The big questions we are trying to answer are... if you pay a farmer or rancher for producing ecological services does it work for the farmer and does it make a difference in the big picture. Is a long-term program to encourage landowners to maintain ecosystem services viable?” Dave continues and tells us about how his uncles in Switzerland and farmers elsewhere in Europe and Ireland are compensated for conservation efforts on their farms. “In British Columbia we only have about three per cent of the provincial land base in agriculture. Most of that limited agricultural land is in the valley bottoms, and Continued on page 14