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Hay rustlers reveal depth of drought desperation

Hay illegally baled from an Alberta park and seized by RCMP and then stolen reflects desperation of livestock producers as historic drought threatens the Prairies
Alberta SPCA provincial supervisor Stuart Dodds, left, and Alberta Environment and Parks conservation officer Rob Spellicy with recovered hay bales. | Alberta SPCA photo

Theft of about $10,000 in hay bales gathered without a permit from a provincial park in Alberta, and then stolen before they could be donated to a charity, is being seen as an example of the desperate situation many livestock producers face.

Due to widespread drought and heat waves that have caused poor hay crops and rising prices across much of Western Canada, “people are going to whatever length to secure feed,” said Stuart Dodds, provincial supervisor for the Alberta SPCA.

After the round hay bales were found in the park by conservation officers, Alberta Environment and Parks decided to donate them to the SPCA. However, the bales were removed by an unknown party before the charity could pick them up.

The SPCA had planned to use them as feed in case livestock are seized from producers this winter, said Dodds. He warned the feed shortage means everyone from large livestock producers to hobby farmers with horses need to make plans to secure feed or downsize herds as they head into this fall and winter.

Failure to prevent animals from starving in Alberta can result in everything from fines of up to $20,000 to prohibitions on owning livestock, and “it could become a big problem in these coming months,” he said.

Many parts of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have received less than normal precipitation for nearly two years.

“It’s extremely stressful on people — you can hear it in people’s voices,” said Melanie Wowk, chair of the Alberta Beef Producers, whose ranch is in the Two Hills area east of Edmonton. “It’s the worst I’ve seen it in my 28 years up here, especially the heat.”

The price of a bale of hay has tripled in the past year to more than $100.

Alberta Environment and Parks was informed July 17 that a grassy area within Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park near Edmonton and St. Albert had been illegally hayed, the department said in an email. “Haying within a provincial park or protected area requires a permit; the department did not issue a haying permit for that location.”

Eleven bales were subsequently recovered from a rural property by the department in connection with the original complaint and donated to the Alberta SPCA, said Dodds. However, someone else appears to have separately come in and removed about 70 of the bales that remained in the park, he added.

It is the first such incident known to Dodds involving a public park.

“We’re hearing stories at the moment, just odd little stories of feed being stolen, but that’s from people’s fields and things like that.

“I think people are just getting a bit desperate and trying whatever they can to get supplies … If producers have a lot of feed on hand in yards and what have you, they need to be making sure that it’s secure because somebody might come in and attempt to take it, so you need to be careful around especially these rural areas.”

The alleged theft is believed to have occurred between July 31 and Aug. 5, said the email by Alberta Environment and Parks. The matter is currently part of a criminal investigation by the St. Albert RCMP for theft over $5,000.

It wouldn’t have been easy to remove the bales, Dodds said in the statement by the Alberta SPCA. “Collecting 70 bales would have required a bale picker as well as numerous loads on a flatbed semi-trailer.”

Due to the fact it is difficult to predict in advance the severity of the upcoming winter, hay is purchased by the Alberta SPCA on a case-by-case basis as livestock seizures occur, he said in an interview.

Anyone with information about the alleged theft can contact the Conservation Officer Enforcement Line at 780-644-3880, or the St. Albert RCMP.