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Features

Middle Sand Hills (Suffield) Features

Area

  • This Area of Concern is located in the Mixed Drygrass Natural Sub-region of Alberta.
  • The banks and floodplains of the South Saskatchewan River have rich riparian communities.
  • The topography of the land ranges from sand dunes and coulees to rolling hills and undulating mixed grass plains.
  • The Middle Sand Hills, for which this Area of Concern is named, is just one feature of many found in this grassland area. Located in the north-eastern portion of the Area of Concern adjacent to the South Saskatchewan River, the Middle Sand Hills are rare, desert-like, stabilized and active (un-stabilized) sand dunes.
  • Hot in the summer and cold in the winter, climate in the Middle Sand Hills is classified as sub-arid to semi-arid due to strong winds, high summer temperatures and minimal precipitation.
  • Annual precipitation is 272 mm annually, the lowest level of precipitation in Alberta.

 

Watershed

  • No permanent streams drain into the South Saskatchewan River, but some drainage occurs from springs along coulee bottoms and during spring runoff.
  • The Middle Sand Hills comprises several inland, closed drainage systems which collect water in marshes or sloughs.
  • The area has seasonal marshes and ponds and three permanent lakes: Dishpan Lake, Whitehorse Lake and Easy Lake.
  • Much of the water in the area trickles away into the pervious ground materials.
  • Most of the Middle Sand Hills/Suffield area is considered a nationally significant area. A small portion is considered a provincially significant area.
  • To be considered a nationally significant area, a location must contain features which are limited in distribution at a national level or which are the best and only representatives in Canada. To be considered a provincially significant area, a location must contain features which are of limited distribution in Alberta or are the best examples of a particular feature in Alberta.

 

Environmentally Significant Areas

  • Most of the Middle Sand Hills/Suffield area is considered a nationally significant area.
  • Grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, and the Suffield NWA is one of only a handful of large unploughed native prairie areas in North America.
  • The NWA is unique because of its location near the northern limit of the North American northern plains, the eolian grasslands that it contains, and its relatively unaltered vegetation. It provides important habitat to at least 15 federally listed species at risk of extinction.

 

Vegetation

  • 3 climax grassland communities exist in the Area of Concern: spear grass-blue grama-wheat grass, spear grass-blue gramma and spear grass-wheat grass.
  • Middle Sand Hills sand dunes are sparsely vegetated with sand dropseed, sand grass, Indian rice grass and Canada wild rye.
  • Un-stabilized sand dunes subject to blow outs prevent significant vegetation growth beyond patchy wheat grasses and scurf pea. Shrub species like silver sagebrush, willow, prairie rose, and black choke-cherry grow in the undulating areas between the stabilized and un-stabilized dunes.
  • Rare species found here include Carolina whitlow-wort, clamyweed and skeletonweed.
  • Vegetation in the Middle Sand Hills is characteristic of sub-arid to semi-arid moisture conditions.

 

Wildlife

  • 30 species of dinosaur inhabited the area for millions of years.
  • Grizzly, bison and wolf have been absent from the Middle Sand Hills/Suffield area for at least a century.
  • Mammals in the area include: White tailed deer, mule deer, antelope, pronghorn, coyote, porcupine, badger, skunk, long-tailed weasel, least weasel, red fox, swift fox, bobcat, raccoon, cotton tail rabbit, jack rabbit, beaver, muskrat, kangaroo rat, Richardson’s ground squirrel, red squirrel, northwestern long legged bat and various types of mice.
  • Reptiles in the area include: rattlesnake, bull snake, garter snake, horned toad, tiger salamander, spadefoot toad, and northern leopard frog
  • Birds and waterfowl in the area include: Canada goose, pin tail, mallard, scaup, merganser, blue hero, long-billed curlew and black crowned night heron, yellow-shafter flicker, red headed wood pecker, brown thrasher, rock wren, rufous-sided towhees, McGowen’s longspur, lark bunting, lark sparrow, prairie falcon, pigeon hawk, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, sparrow hawk, burrowing owl, Swainson’s hawk, marsh hawk, great horned owl, and prairie falcon
  • CFB Suffield provides habitat for up to 17% of the total Alberta prairie population. On average, 15% of the CFB Suffield pronghorn herd resides at any given time within the NWA boundary. The NWA is also an important pronghorn migration corridor.
  • Elk were locally extirpated from the Suffield area in about 1960, when the last of a small resident population was poached from the Base. In 1997-98, 230 elk were introduced from Elk Island National Park. In the absence of natural predators, the population has expanded rapidly to 1,652 animals today.
  • Approximately 700 feral horses, descendants of domesticated horses, once lived in the area, although these were removed by the military on the advice of a public advisory committee.

 

Cultural

  • Occupied by man for nearly 5 000 years, archaeologists have located 1,692 important historical sites in the Middle Sand Hills area including medicine wheels, bison kill sites and stone cairns.
  • Paleo sites, including dinosaur remains and fossilized trees, are also abundant in the Middle Sand Hills area.

 

Geology

  • The Middle Sand Hills area was glaciated tens of thousands of years ago, and is marked by rolling basins and hills and some steep walled dry valleys left by unevenly melting ice.
  • Ancient glacial lake beds can be found in the centre and south of the area.
  • Elevation ranges from 640 meters above sea level where the South Saskatchewan flows out of the area, to 770 meters along the highest uplands in the far south (1987 Proposed Middle Sands Ecological Overview)
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