Five range areas around Merritt and Princeton have been branded with the stamp of compliance by the province’s forest practices watchdog.

An audit report, released by the Forest Practices Board on March 31, examined four range agreement areas around Merritt, and a smaller range area just north of Princeton. Each area corresponds with an agreement signed by a rancher, who maintains the area for livestock grazing while protecting riparian areas, and managing for drought conditions among other responsibilities.

In general, the report concluded that all five areas were in compliance with their range agreements, said Darlene Oman, communications director with the Forest Practices Board.

The board serves as the province’s independent watchdog for sound forest and range practices, and reports its findings directly to the provincial government and the public.

The audit report identified two areas out of the five surveyed where livestock had done some lasting damage to riparian, or streamside areas. The areas were so small, said Oman, that the damages weren’t “considered very significant.”

“It’s more advice to the ranchers, to be careful around those areas and make sure they are managing their cattle so it doesn’t get worse,” she said.

Mostly, the range agreement holders were lauded in the report for good maintenance of the crown lands.

“The board is pleased to see these range agreement holders are working hard to manage their livestock grazing on public land,” said board chair Tim Ryan.

“These areas have been subject to serious drought conditions, reducing the forage available for grazing. In response, some range agreement holders have shown stewardship by voluntarily reducing the number of cattle they are grazing.”

Another concern raised by the report is one that good stewardship on the part of the ranchers cannot solve: invasive plant species appearing with more regularity.

“These range agreement areas, similar to other grassland ecosystems with the district, are experiencing a rapid spread of invasive plants (mostly knapweed)” an excerpt from the report reads, “likely being exacerbated by the high number of recreational users on the range agreement area.”

For problems like the spread of invasive species, Oman said the only steps ranchers are required to take are limited to mostly preventative measures, while a lot of the responsibility for eliminating the species falls on the shoulders of higher levels of government.

“It’s a little bit of both [ranchers and the government], explained Oman.

“The ranchers have a requirement that they not contribute to the spread of invasive species. But the species come in there from a whole range of activities that the ranchers have no effect on,” explained Oman.

The audits were conducted in September of 2015, based on the Forest Practices Board’s criteria for selecting areas for its annual audit process.

First, a geographical region is selected at random — in this case, the Cascades natural resource district — and then range agreements are selected for an audit based on a number of factors, including proximity to one another.

The Cascades district, as one of the major grassland areas in B.C., is an important area for the cattle industry, said Oman.