Makeshift shooting range draws fire from K-Country ranchers

A family of three brandished rifles for a recent round of shooting practice in a wooded pocket of Kananaskis Country, their targets set up in front of a trail, as angry cattle ranchers looked on.

The spot is among several in the region that have become increasingly popular for gun lovers who bask under southern Alberta sun as they pop off a few hundred rounds, some using barbecues, propane tanks and aerosol cans as targets.


Infuriated ranchers say these shooters set their targets up near trails with little visibility of hikers, horseback riders and cattle that may be nearby. A couple ranchers took the Herald on a tour of these makeshift ranges and stumbled upon the Christensen family shooting off their guns.


“Somebody’s going to get shot out here,” said Gary Meadows, a rancher who runs cattle through the area during the spring and fall, as he watched the family fire their weapons.


Police say there are few legal limits imposed on firearm use in this pocket of K-Country, which stretches an estimated eight kilometres wide west of Millarville, prompting rancher Cam Ostercamp to quip that the area appears to be lawless.


Gun lovers are forbidden from firing live rounds at night or across a highway. They could also be charged for shooting prohibited or restricted weapons and for careless use of a firearm, an allegation that requires careful police investigation based on circumstances, said Const. Jeremy Perdue of Turner Valley RCMP.


Roger Christensen, his son Devon and daughter Courtney were shooting at paper targets tacked on to flanks of wood, the deafening blasts from their guns echoing throughout the landscape. There were no natural barriers to stop stray bullets, which meant that any ammunition that missed their targets would continue on into the trail, into the woods.


The dad said they had scoped out the perimeter before they started firing. And he said the area is a known range, something he said should discourage ranchers from running cattle and merrymakers from running recreational vehicles down the trail.


“That’s how I found out about it,” he said.


Last fall, Meadows said he was heading down the trail with his cattle — he and others hold a permit to graze herds in the area — and he had to pull away when he heard gunshots.


Meadows said gun lovers have been using several spots west of Millarville as shooting ranges for years, but he said the problem has been getting progressively worse as more people learn of the secluded areas.


Nobody has been hurt so far, but he said tragedy is inevitable.


“It’s atrocious that somebody would use a firearm so carelessly that they could injure somebody,” said Joe Breslawski, president of the Alberta Provincial Rifle Association, who wasn’t aware of the spots close to Millarville, but was familiar with gun-totters unsafely firing in wooded areas.


Breslawski said there are precious few public shooting ranges in Alberta, which prompts gun lovers to set up targets in the woods to avoid lineups. But he said the shortage of regulated ranges is no excuse for unsafe target practice, especially given that license holders are taught to have backstops for their targets, to know where their bullets are going.


“I guess you can’t fix stupid, can you?”


Purdue said any police investigation into a complaint about unsafe shooting in wooded areas would turn on the circumstances of the case, though he said there are no active investigations. He said if nature lovers are walking, cycling or driving off-road vehicles down a trail, “you can’t be shooting across that trail.”


“If a person is not doing their due diligence in making sure they know what is beyond that target, then there is the charge of careless use of a firearm,” Purdue said.


Ostercamp, a cattle rancher, said he has turned over to the RCMP license plates of shooters he saw firing near trails, but he said Mounties told him these people aren’t doing anything wrong.


“If I got out of my truck at Glenmore and Macleod with a (rifle) over my shoulder and tried walking down the sidewalk, I wouldn’t get very far,” Ostercamp said, explaining he’d likely be swarmed by police.


“But they can come out here and shoot until Hell freezes over.”


Last fall, crews overseeing a nearby oil and gas well told Meadows that shooters were firing their weapons while his cattle were passing through. He said his herd suffered several more losses than he could account for last year, though he can’t prove whether target shooters or predators were the culprits.


“They will set up a target or throw an old propane bottle out at the base of a trailhead that’s coming out of a valley, and they don’t know who or what’s coming down there and they’re blasting away,” Meadows said.


Kyna O’Gallagher said she was hiking through the area with her family last May when shooters set up a target near a trail. She and her four-year-old were heading down the path and would have walked behind the target if they hadn’t seen the men. “They didn’t see us.”
After a confrontation with O’Gallagher’s husband, the men left, despite their protests that they were allowed to shoot there. A while later, the family heard gunshots and called RCMP.


O’Gallagher said she and her husband were married on top of a foothill in the area one May long weekend and they return there for their anniversary. Now, she worries the annual tradition is fraught with risks. And she fears authorities don’t have enough manpower to adequately uphold public safety.


“That is the root of my fear,” she said.



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