Overgrazing

As early as 1873, travellers were beginning to notice that the once lush bunchgrass ranges looked a little worse for wear. Reverend George M. Grant, who travelled with the CPR survey crew through the Ashcroft area that year, noted a great deterioration of the bunchgrass resource.

“It is little better than a vast sand and gravel pit, bounded by broken hills, bald and arid except on a few summits that support a scanty growth of scrub pines. The cattle have eaten off all the bunch grass within three or four miles of the road, and a poor substitute for it chiefly in the shape of a bluish weed or shrub, called sage grass or sage bush [sic] has taken its place.”

What Grant was seeing was the inevitable result of constant grazing on the delicate bunchgrass over an extended period.

A photograph of overgrazed rangeland at Riske Creek in the Chilcotin. Click to enlarge,
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Overgrazed rangeland at Riske Creek in the Chilcotin.NA-12576 - Courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.

Ranchers throughout the British Columbia Interior were realizing the extreme susceptibility of bunchgrass. By the late 1870s, the ranges were becoming overstocked and the deterioration of the bunchgrass resource accelerated. The grassland resource was most depleted in the Cache Creek and Ashcroft areas, where grazing had been constant since the early 1860s.

As it was, ranchers had very little incentive to preserve grasslands, particularly those that had not yet been pre-empted. The ranchers’ open range practice brought about an attitude of “first come first served” as far as the grasslands resource was concerned. The competition for grass was most fierce in the areas where settlement was heavy. Because of this competition, the bunchgrass deteriorated more quickly. Where ranchers could purchase extended amounts of land, they were better able to carefully conserve the bunchgrass. But the resource was not unlimited, and where demand for grazing land was great, there was simply not enough to go around. This left ranchers with the option of buying out adjoining ranches or selling out and moving to less heavily settled areas.

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