A dispute is escalating between the American billionaire owners of a massive B.C. cattle ranch and a local fishing group.
The fishermen say the ranch is blocking their access to two public lakes located on the Douglas Ranch near Merritt, B.C.
The 200,000-hectare property — reputed to be the largest working cattle ranch in Canada — is owned by billionaire Stan Kroenke, who's also owner of the NHL's Colorado Avalanche. His wife, Ann Walton Kroenke, is the daughter of Wal-Mart department store founder Bud Walton.
Members of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club claim ranch managers are illegally blocking access to Minnie and Stoney lakes, by dumping tree logs on a roadway that is publicly owned.
"This is definitely an attempt to keep us the heck out of here and off a public road," angler Rick McGowan told CBC News. "They're trying to lock us out of half a million acres of Crown land and all the lakes and streams in there."
The fishermen say the last time they went ice fishing, the ranch manager confronted them, calling them trespassers.
But while they insist the road is public and their only access to a public lake, the provincial government disagrees and has told them the ranch can lock the gate, blocking access.
Ranch manager Joe Gardner says the lakes are surrounded by private property and only the middle of the lake is public because the once tiny body of water has been enlarged, spilling onto private land.
McGowan argues that Kroenke may have flooded his own land, but that doesn't change the status of a public lake.
But Gardner says the ranch stocks the lake with rainbow trout and anyone who fishes them is stealing, the same as if someone stole a cow.
"It doesn't make any difference how much money Mr. Kroenke has. What matters is what our legal rights are. We have private property rights," said Gardner.
But the commander of Merritt's RCMP detachment isn't so sure.
"I don't know that I have reasonable grounds to lay a charge of trespass," said Sgt. Norm Flemming. "That's why I have asked for a legal opinion from our justice department, to give me some direction. And there certainly seems to be contradictory evidence both ways to suggest that it's private or public."
B.C. government documents show that as late as 1998, the government's position was that the old road remained public.
B.C. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom declined a request for an interview, but in a statement to CBC News, the Transportation Department later said it's going to leave the issue alone.
"Because the road was bypassed, and it serves no transportation purpose, the ministry is not pursuing a court order to have the road declared public," the statement said.
The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club is now raising money in hopes of suing the ranch owners for access to the road to the lakes and the club intends to ask the BC Wildlife Federation for help.