Alberta's Endangered Grasslands
The North American grasslands, or Great Plains, extend from Mexico, across the U.S., and into the three Canadian prairie provinces. The northern portion of this vast ecoregion is referred to as the Northern Great Plains and covers more than 720,000 km2, sweeping across five states and two provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The Northern Great Plains Ecoregion - credit: WWF
Because temperate grasslands are particularly suitable for agriculture, an estimated 99 percent of the non-urban grassland landscape is either under cultivation or livestock grazing. An estimated 57 percent of the Northern Great Plains remains untilled. Only about 1.5 percent of the Northern Great Plains is located in protected areas such as parks and reserves – less than any of the 13 other terrestrial global biomes, which average 7 percent. No protected area anywhere in the North American Great Plains has restored the full complement of native species and ecological processes, and unfortunately, this is not a management goal for any Great Plains protected areas.
In Alberta, the Northern Great Plains in the southeast give way to the foothills fescue grasslands to the west and the northern fescue grasslands and aspen parkland to the north and northwest. Although it is facing enormous threats, Alberta’s prairie region contains some of the world’s best and most important remaining grassland. Only Texas and North Dakota retain a larger native prairie land base than Alberta. But today less than 1 percent of Alberta’s Grassland Natural Region is protected.
A mere 150 years ago, tens of millions of bison, elk, pronghorn, and mule deer; thousands of birds and waterfowl; and many other wildlife species shared the prairies with wolves, grizzly bears, and other predators. Diverse glacial landforms, permanent and intermittent wetlands, badlands, sand dunes, and river valleys with coulees, ravines, and cottonwood forests created a diverse landscape. Spear grass, June grass, wheat grass, oat grass, blue grama, and rough fescue covered the land from horizon to horizon.
Prairie Coulees, Suffield National Wildlife Area - credit: N. Douglas
The sad story of the decline of that rich landscape includes the displacement of wildlife, native plants, and First Nations people. Settlement, industry, and agriculture have had a devastating effect on wildlife, wild waters, and natural ecosystems. The grasslands region is now considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America. Most of the non-urban landscape of this region is either farmed or grazed by domestic cattle, with the additional threat of oil and gas development and its concomitant infrastructure of roads, well sites, and pipelines. Extensive fragmentation, invasion of non-native species, and loss of habitat is reflected in the number of endangered and at-risk grassland species in the southeastern corner of Alberta.
In the midst of the overwhelming threats to this endangered ecosystem, there is good news: provincial, national and international initiatives to protect grassland species through conservation of their habitat are moving forward. Governments at all levels have recognized the importance of our grassland heritage, rural economies are needing and seeking renewal, conservation easements are increasingly popular, and much of the required scientific research has been completed.
“The prognosis for survival of the remaining native grasslands in prairie Canada is poor. Range ecologist Robert Coupland recently calculated that the Canadian prairie is one of the most intensively developed landscapes in the world.”
- Environment Canada Website
AWA's vision for the grasslands is to conserve the full biodiversity of the grassland natural region and establish large contiguous areas of native grassland that are protected in perpetuity both for their intrinsic value and for the benefit of present and future generations.
Our goals are:
- To work at both public policy and grassroots levels.
- To encourage an informed and active public; to provide a strong base of easily accessible, historical and current public information on Alberta’s areas of concern.
- To create a network of colleagues, experts, and local citizens to encourage conservation and awareness of new economic opportunities.
- To promote ecosystem management and restoration of grassland and parkland ecosystems, including river basins.
- To promote the establishment of a core protected areas network.
South Saskatchewan River - credit: A. Teucher