Ranchers say reclamation of fish habitat near McLean Creek does more harm than good

The province has removed the only road to access grazing lease land in hopes a native trout species will flourish near McLean Creek, about 50 kilometres west of Calgary.

Province removed road to grazing lease land so native trout species could flourish

Shanna Dunne, left, and her parents, David and Jody Ball, say work the province has done to restore fish habitat in the Silvester Creek area does more harm than good. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Ranchers in an area of the foothills southwest of Calgary are frustrated after a road used to access grazing lease land was removed to restore fish habitat for westslope cutthroat trout, a threatened species in Alberta.

The road led to a valley that was level and seeded with grass. Culverts and bridges helped ranchers cross Silvester Creek, about 50 kilometres west of the city in the McLean Creek area.

For the last 15 summers, rancher David Ball has used the road to move cattle to his allotment area. 

But the reclamation process has left deep holes and piles of dirt along the route, making it impossible to move the cattle, Ball says.

He and his wife, Jody, own the UXL Ball Ranch. They say they are all for reclamation — but as stakeholders, they feel it may be doing more harm than good to Silvester Creek.

"As ranchers, one of the most important things to us is that we're good stewards of the land," Jody said. "I always thought that [reclamation] was putting the land back to its natural productivity. And when I look here, I see all this destruction." 

The Ball family used ATVs on the road to carry salt for the cows, luring them to the valley. The blocks weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg). Now there's no safe access over the creek for the ranchers or the cows, the family says.

"This isn't reclamation, this is more destruction," David said. 

Forestry, agriculture, energy and recreational use all took a toll on the land. In 2018, the forestry road was deactivated and closed to vehicles, but the area remained open to the public.

Shanna Dunne stands beside a large hole that was left in the Silvester Creek area by the province after reclamation work. (Submitted by Shanna Dunne)

Just past the main McLean Creek staging area, the Balls' daughter, Shanna Dunne, unlocks a green gate with a code and drives a meandering icy road owned by Husky. 

Over the one remaining bridge, her truck crosses Silvester Creek, heads up a hill and pulls over next to the rancher road — the only access the UXL Ball Ranch has to its lease land, a valley where cattle can graze. 

Instead of a clear path to the valley, it's littered with piles of dirt. Beside each pile is a hole — some deeper than eight feet (2.4 metres). 

Animal 'death trap'

Contractors left loose dirt and large metal pipes with jagged edges sticking out of the landscape. 

"It's dangerous for our cows and the wildlife … the wild horses," Dunne said. 

The province says the road was built through wetland and over Silvester Creek, home to the threatened species, westslope cutthroat trout.

The problem was the slope of the road flushed runoff sediment directly into the fish habitat, says Norine Ambrose, executive director of the Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society.

While she's not privy to the particulars of the province's reclamation planning, she said sometimes culverts and bridges in these land use areas aren't built high enough off the ground and can contribute to environmental issues for the streams.

The Ball family says the reclamation work done by the province isn't the solution they were hoping for. (Helen Pike/CBC)

She said the deep holes aren't a typical reclamation practice, but the loose dirt is — it helps dissipate runoff into the ground before it gets to a stream.  

In 2019, Spray Lake Sawmills, the timber company with tenure in the area, did reclamation work on the old rancher road. 

The province put up signs prohibiting motorized vehicles in the area after it was closed to the public. But Alberta Environment and Parks spokesperson Tom McMillan said that didn't stop ATV users. 

"Motorized vehicles created new trails around the gate and destroyed the reclamation work along Silvester Creek," McMillan wrote. "Alberta Environment and Parks tendered a contract for additional reclamation work for the area, including sediment control and access management to protect fish habitat."

A UXL Ball Ranch bull is moved into a trailer. (Helen Pike/CBC)

The only choice to stop damaging the sensitive land, according to the province, was to take the road out. 

But the Ball family doesn't see the benefit. 

Without the road and culverts, Dunne says cows and quads will gravitate to the creek.

"Because that's a big open valley," Dunne said. "We just need to make public awareness and get them to clean up their mess."

The province has put a sign up now: "Reclamation Area, Do Not Enter."

But weeks ago, when Dunne found the carnage, there were no signs, no fences. 

Province says work not yet complete

The province says the work is still ongoing and will be completed next spring. Officials are still in consultation with stakeholders who are concerned with access in the area. 

"I don't know what the easy solution is because I think it isn't an easy solution," Ambrose said. "I think it requires a lot of effort and change, which might not be readily obvious."

David Ball says there have been Zoom meetings, and they have raised concerns.

"We're kind of put in this position and we have written letters about what's going on and they have received our input. But there's never been a discussion or a problem-solving discussion, so we really haven't been included," David said. 

Better planning needed between users

For better access, David said the province told them to build a new road by hand.

"To go back to Square 1 is redundant … we're not back in the 1800s here," he said. 

Ambrose agrees that asking ranchers to build a new road isn't the answer. 

"If a new road is something that's going to get put in … it needs to be well thought out, well designed," Ambrose said. "If the goal was to actually reduce our linear footprint in these watersheds … that means you shouldn't be adding more, you should be reducing. So when you close something, you shouldn't continue to add more to replace it." 


Helen Pike


Helen Pike joined CBC Calgary as a multimedia reporter in 2018 after spending four years working as a print journalist with a focus on municipal issues. You can find her on Twitter @helenipike.


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