A group of outdoorsmen near Merritt, B.C., say they're being threatened with criminal charges and accuse the RCMP of taking sides in a dispute over access to lakes on a massive cattle ranch owned by a U.S. billionaire.

The Douglas Lake Cattle Company is trying to restrict access to more than 30 lakes on a spread the size of Luxembourg.

CBC first reported two years ago on the David and Goliath battle between the ranch, said to be the largest working cattle ranch in Canada, and the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club.

But now the fight, reminiscent of an old-fashioned western, is heating up again as members of the fish and game club risk criminal charges by cutting locks on gates across roads that were once public.

Locks cut - Douglas Lake

A local activist prepares to cut a lock from a gate near the Douglas Lake Ranch. (CBC)

"These locked gates are significant because we are trying to keep them open for future generations of the public to get in here and they keep locking  'em on us, and we are going to  keep unlocking them until somebody does something about it," the club's Rick McGowan told CBC News.

Ranch officials say the land on their more than half-a-million acres is private. That includes the roads to the popular fishing and hunting grounds near Stoney and Minnie lakes.

Those who force their way in are getting more than just threats. They're facing criminal charges.

"It's like a great big schoolyard bullying game they are playing. And they figure well, if we charge a few people, kick a few butts, then everybody will stay out of here," said McGowan.

So far, billionaire Stan Kroenke is saying little. Kroenke owns the St. Louis Rams, is the largest shareholder of Arsenal in the English Premier League, and is married to Ann Walton, daughter of the founder of Wal-Mart.

Kroenke has earned the nickname “Silent Stan” for his shrewd business deals and general lack of comment.

Not 1st standoff for historic ranch

​Kroenke's historic ranch is no stranger to standoffs.

B.C.’s first train robber, the famed “gentleman bandit” Bill Miner, who allegedly coined the phrase, "hands up," once hid out at Douglas Lake Ranch back in 1905 before being arrested at the ranch following a manhunt.

Bill Miner - Douglas Lake

Bandit Bill Miner, believed to be B.C.'s first train robber, was arrested at Douglas Lake Ranch in 1905 following an extensive manhunt. (Wikipedia)

Years later a movie about the saga, The Grey Fox, was filmed in these same dusty foothills.

Ranch manager Joe Gardner said people who cut locks are trespassing on private land.

“It doesn’t really matter how much money owner Stanley Kroenke has," Gardner told CBC back in 2011. "What matters is our legal right.” 

McGowan said he's not broken any laws.

“They are threatening to charge us with public mischief and our point of view is — this is what's illegal," he said. "These are public roads and you have to have a permit to lock a public road. They have no permit."

McGowan and other members of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club were recently summoned to the Merritt Community Corrections office, where they were shown documents that offered them a compromise.

If they signed the “adult alternative dispute resolution” agreement it meant they admitted to mischief, agreed to community supervision, but would avoid criminal court.

So far, members have all refused and every chance they get, they continue to cut locks.

Douglas Lake

A fence surrounds Douglas Lake Ranch, Canada's largest working cattle ranch, east of Merritt, B.C. (CBC)

"There is not a chance I am going to do it," said club member Kim Robinson. "If I sign this and say I'm responsible and I did this, it can come back and bite me in the ass.” 

The RCMP say the men could end up in court.

"This is the exact thing we don't want happening," said RCMP Sgt. Norm Flemming. "Could he be charged for that? Absolutely. [This person is] expressing their frustration and they are going about it in the wrong way."

The property dispute is winding its way through B.C. Supreme Court, which will consider whether the roads in question, and the land around the lakes, are public or private.

In the meantime, the RCMP have said they will arrest and charge anybody who damages locks, because the locks are ranch property — whether the road is or not. 

So the standoff may end up in criminal as well as civil court. If so, it won’t be the first time Douglas Lake is the backdrop for a wild western-style showdown.

On mobile? Click here for a map of the Douglas Lake Ranch

With files from Eric Rankin