It’s not the first community pasture in Alberta, but Kleskun Lake certainly is the most storied. This historical lake bed has a uniqueness that sets it apart in the Peace River parkland area. Cattle were first herded to Kleskun Lake along the Edson Trail in 1912.
Today, Kleskun is one of 32 community pastures, or grazing reserves, that provide supplemental grazing for small farms or ranches in Alberta. It’s managed by a registered grazing association/co-operative in tandem with the Alberta department of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD).
Kurt Kushner, SRD Smoky area rangeland manager, says the Kleskun Lake Grazing Association has a renewable management agreement with the government in which it has to maintain fences, dugouts, a corral system and buildings as well as ensuring that pasture productivity is maintained.
Kushner says livestock is just one of the uses of these public lands. Industry activities and recreational uses have to be considered as well. Like all provincial grazing reserves, Kleskun is a popular recreational site for public use. Hunting, snowmobiling, and trail riding are popular. As well, an extensive waterfowl staging area was completed by SRD, Fish and Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited and Alberta Environment.
But it’s cattle with which the Kleskun range is synonymous. In 1918, the Kleskun Hills Cattle Company had stated its intentions to develop a 45,000-acre cattle ranch here with an eye on producing cattle for British markets, say local historians. It would have been one of the largest propositions of its kind in the British Empire.
The cattle company gave it a good shot (see sidebar) but a series of unfortunate events led to its demise. The land went back to the local municipality on a tax recovery plan, and by the late 1960s, the province obtained the original lake area from the County of Grande Prairie. Development of the grazing reserve started in 1969. The reserve now covers nearly 14,000 acres of which just over 10,000 are tame pasture. Although designed as a cattle grazing reserve, during the 1970s and 1980s the pasture also grazed a few thousand head of sheep in the summer.
But community pastures like Kleskun are now suffering their own kind of recession. SRD’s Kushner says it used to be that an allotment at a local community pasture was a bit hard to come by, but BSE changed that. As it is today, the waiting list that has historically been part of the process to get into a provincial reserve is practically nonexistent in northwestern Alberta.
Like all reserves, Kleskun is required to maintain a certain number of patrons according to its agreement with the province. But like other reserves in the region, it’s falling short.
“Kleskun lost nine patrons and only had four applications,” says Kushner, adding that it has met requirements for the minimum number of grazing cows. Presently 39 patrons run about 4,500 head, with individual herds between 5 and 400. The rate is $13-$15 per animal unit per month. Minerals and maintenance fees are on top of that.
“There is an allotment process, but three out of 10 reserves in northwest Alberta have not met minimum patron requirements,” says Kushner.
Originally, the minimum requirements were set to ensure that as many producers as possible had access to the local pasture, now it seems there’s plenty to go around. Nearby community pastures in High Prairie and Whitemud “aren’t even close” to meeting the minimum patron requirements, says Kushner.
When Alberta became a province in 1905, the responsibility for managing public lands lay with the federal government. By 1930, natural resource management was handed to the province. Grazing reserves were meant to spur the settlement of tracts of land across the province.
Twin River, the province’s first grazing reserve, was initiated during the Depression after farmers and ranchers in the Del Bonita area pushed for pastureland. By 1934, Alberta’s first community pasture was in operation.
In September 1995, the Standing Policy Committee on Agriculture approved the transfer of responsibility for the livestock management component of the government grazing reserve program to the patron associations. The Whitemud Association volunteered to be the first at privatization and by April 1, 1999 all 32 associations were responsible for their own livestock management. Since then, each community pasture has been governed by an association and a board peopled by its patrons.