Retired third-generation rancher Terry Inskip remembers looking out into the Lac du Bois grasslands in the late 1970s.
“We called it the red hill because that’s all it was, was red dirt,” Inskip said.
Bikes and four-by-fouring “destroyed” the area, he said, while ranchers were blamed in the past for overgrazing.
With the advent of the park in the mid-1990s, however, enforcement began. An area is now specifically designated for recreational vehicles and about 1,000 cattle continue to graze, but on an 18-month rotating basis, allowing the grasslands to rest.
Today, Inskip said he is happy looking out into the grasslands because the area is healthy. Soil taken from the lower grasslands, just steps from homes in Batchelor Heights, was bone dry on a sunny Friday earlier this month, when area agrologists and visiting Rotarians joined the Thompson-Nicola Regional District on a field trip to discuss Lac du Bois grasslands’ past, present and future.
The soil at this lower elevation fosters bluebunch wheatgrass, prickly pear cactus and sagebrush. The edible arrow-leaf balsamroot, an important food source for the Secwepemc, was spotted blooming yellow hues (it blooms for a short period in May and June).
SPROUTING AFTER THE FIRE
A line nearby in the hills offered a visible reminder of the fire that threatened the Batchelor homes last summer.
That fire line is not black — one might expect it to be charred less than a year later — but is instead a vibrant green. Vegetation has regrown since flames scorched the hilltop, visible across Kamloops and terrifying residents with fresh memories of the 2017 wildfires.
TNRD plant man Mike Dedels explained that fire sweeps through grasslands quickly due to limited fuel, leaving plant roots virtually preserved beneath the soil.
A forest fire, by comparison, burns longer with an ample fuel supply.
“It cooks the soil,” Dedels said.
Farther up the road, darker soil was scooped for examination from the middle grasslands — moist, nutrient-rich and containing more organic matter than the dirt below. Up in the hills, near Lac du Bois, the soil is almost black.
“All we’re doing is going up in elevation, a few hundred metres at a time,” Thompson Rivers University natural resource sciences chair John Karakatsoulis said. “It plays a huge role in productivity, certainly for grasses and, of course for cattle, as well.”
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES
Grasslands cover less than 1.5 per cent of the province, but contain 30 per cent of rare and endangered species.
Less than one per cent of British Columbia is considered a bunchgrass zone, occurring at the lowest elevations of the driest and hottest interior valleys.
TRU natural resource science lecturer Peggy Broad calls the Lac du Bois grasslands an “endangered ecosystem.”
“Down in the United States, I know a lot of areas, they’re actually classifying them as endangered ecosystems versus setting them aside based on one species being endangered, which we often do with animals,” she said. “Maybe that’s something we should be looking into doing in Canada.”
Colleague Karakatsoulis, meanwhile, wonders what has been lost since the federal agricultural research station was closed in Brocklehurst in 2013 under the Conservative government.
The station opened in the 1930s, providing ranchers with information important to grazing the grasslands.
Staff at the station also partnered with the university on research.
“Losing the research station has been a huge blow to this area,” Karakatsoulis said.
“Lots of historical data was collected over the last 50, 60, 70 years and it was a shame that the government closed it.
“And there’s no indication they’re going to re-open it again.”
The current federal Liberal government has acknowledged the threat of climate change, to which the grasslands will not be immune.
Assuming a 2 C increase over the next 50 years, what impacts would be felt in the grasslands?
Expect more rain and extremes, meaning weeds could move in, cattle could go thirsty and recreation could be further limited in efforts to protect the area.
“Two degrees is almost the same as southern Washington,” retired range manager Rick Tucker said. "Along the Washington-Oregon boundary is where we will probably be with two degrees change.”
The lower grasslands would feel the least impact, with plants spaced farther apart and growth initiated earlier in the spring, with an increase of invasive weeds likely resulting.
Tucker expects the lower grasslands to be “doomed” to cheatgrass — research south of the border has shown not much can be done to prevent the invasive plant — and dried-up watering holes, upon which ranchers rely for their cattle grazing in the area.
Moving north into the middle and upper grasslands, expect rough fescue to be replaced by bluebunch wheatgrass.
The highest elevation — into the forests — will see the most significant impact.
“The [Douglas] fir will not survive climate change. It’s going to die,” Tucker said.
“I don’t think there’s any question. We saw what happened with lodgepole pine, with beetle kill, which could be attributed to climate change.
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s going to be insects …There’s going to be diseases and there’s going to be fires. So it’s [Douglas fir forests] going.”
He said growth of rough fescue, which could survive a two-degree climate increase, needs to be encouraged.
“Then when the trees go, the pinegrass goes, the rough fescue can spread into it,” Tucker said. “That’s doable. It’s just that we’re not doing it.”
Effectively, the middle grasslands would become what is now the lower grasslands and the upper grasslands would become what is now the middle grasslands — think of that dryer soil moving up to higher elevations.
What that means is a value judgment, Tucker explained, with losses and gains to all sectors.
Thinking back to those days of the red hills, Inskip provided some solace.
“When you look at these grasslands, just always remember that a while ago, they were grazed, they were destroyed by motorized vehicles, non-motorized transportation, ploughed on, aircraft flown, grass seeded with non-native species, rocks picked, infested with invasive weeds and numerous fires, as well as having a fibre-optic line, pipeline and another pipeline coming through,” he said.
“So they’ll never be pristine, but they can be healthy.”