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The Milk River-Sage Creek area of concern is a diverse area encompassing the Milk River Canyon and associated badlands as well as some of the most extensive native mixed grassland, silver sagebrush and ephemeral wetland habitat in Canada.

It is one of the least fragmented, most extensive, and most geologically and biologically diverse grassland landscapes on the glaciated plains of North America. Its uplands, wetlands, and valleys constitute one of the largest undisturbed grasslands in Canada. The 3,760 km2 Milk River-Sage Creek area is a natural diversity hotspot in the grasslands of southeastern Alberta. Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) has been concerned about and working on protection of the Milk River – Sage Creek area since the 1970s. This involvement has led to the establishment of a significant but small (less than a township) grassland protected area along the Milk River Canyon and Kennedy Creek. We believe this area is of significant concern and as a diverse area encompassing the Milk River Canyon and associated badlands as well as some of the most extensive native mixed grassland, silver sagebrush and ephemeral wetland habitat in Canada it must be protected.

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    For generations, this wilderness has been protected by its isolation and by grazing patterns that have perpetuated the richness and diversity of the native grassland. Those factors are changing rapidly. There is a high degree of urgency to protect the area. The extreme southeastern corner of Alberta was once the forgotten corner but it is forgotten no more. Recent activity by oil and gas companies around the Cypress Hills gives every indication that it will turn parts of the study area into highly developed landscapes like the rest of Alberta.

    The future of the area as wild place and as a refuge for native plants and animals that have long disappeared from much of the Great Plains rests in our hands.

    “The area abounds in unique and rare natural phenomena, but it is the variety in both the rare and the common features that gives the area its tremendous value. Resting atop a badland butte and gazing across the Milk River canyon and rolling grasslands, one can contemplate the natural majesty of the Great Plains. For anyone who has heard the melodies of grassland birds riding the warm summer breezes or watched as a Golden Eagle drifts low over a coulee rim, Milk River-Sage Creek will always be one of the world’s special places.”
    – From: Milk River-Sage Creek, Survivor of the glaciated High Plains. A report prepared for World Wildlife Fund Canada, Edmonton by Cottonwood Consultants Ltd., Calgary, AB (2000).


    Within the 3,760 km2 Milk River–Sage Creek area of concern, 195 km2 (less than 1 percent) is protected under various provincial designations:

    • Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park = 17.2 km2
    • Kennedy Coulee Ecological Reserve = 10.7 km2
    • Onefour Heritage Rangeland = 111.7 km2
    • Milk River Natural Area = 55.4 km2

    Although there are a few pockets of privately held land, most of the area is public land, leased out to a variety of leaseholders. Some of the leaseholders, notably those with larger holdings, have a long history of efforts to conserve the native grasslands. More recently, some holdings have been purchased by private individuals with the specific intent of protecting the grasslands for biodiversity.


    Milk River-Sage Creek area is one of the least fragmented, most extensive and most geologically and biologically diverse grassland landscapes on the glaciated plains of North America.

    The Northern and Northwestern Mixed Grasslands in which the Dry Mixedgrass and Mixedgrass Subregions of Alberta are situated have been heavily impacted by human activities with extensive conversion to cropland, industrial use and settlements and fragmentation by roads and wellsites (Map of Alberta Transportation and Wellsites). More than 80% of the native prairie landscape in Alberta has been replaced by other uses.The fragmentation, degradation and loss of grassland habitats has led to a significant number of grassland species now being considered at risk in Canada (COSEWIC Grassland Species). Within the Great Plains of North America, over 460 species of animals and plants have been identified as being critically imperiled; imperiled or rare globally. Of those, 70% are either endemic or nearly endemic to the region. Their existence depends on their survival within the Great Plains, not somewhere else in the world. Nearly 45% of the mixedgrass prairie community types are considered at risk. The environmental change in the prairies of Alberta is underscored by the disproportionately large proportion of species there that are currently at risk compared with other Natural Regions (Status of Alberta’s Grassland Wildlife). There are numerous Canadian grassland species at risk that occur at Milk River-Sage Creek. Some of the COSEWIC species of concern include swift fox, mountain plover, sage grouse, soapweed, western spiderwort, short-horned lizard, Great Plains toad.

    Much remains to be done to reverse more than a century of loss and degradation of grasslands.

    Protecting our grasslands is a priority and we need to pick the best remaining sites for protection. To identify the best remaining native grasslands, the project by Cottonwood Consultants searched for Alberta public (Crown) land areas with:minimal fragmentation by roads and wells; more than 50% remaining in native prairie in contiguous blocks greater than 1000 km2 ;significant rare species or habitat occurrences; areas with high soil or geological diversity; Environmentally Significant Areas (ESAs) ranked as provincially, nationally or internationally significant.


    Special thanks to Peter Lee, World Wildlife Fund Canada and Duke Hunter,
    Alberta Environment


    • Geologic features include :
      • rare igneous rock intrusions
      • extensive badlands
      • eskers
      • drumlins
      • kames
      • a diversity of fossils

    Township and Range map: JPG | PDF

    Natural Subregions map:  JPG | PDF

    Natural Regions

    • The Grassland Natural Region contains four Subregions, each with distinctive climate, soils, vegetation and wildlife.
      • Dry Mixedgrass
      • Mixedgrass
      • Northern Fescue
      • Foothills Fescue
    • Comparison of conservation attributes in selected blocks within the Dry Mixedgrass Subregion


    • Milk River-Sage Creek area is a natural diversity hotspot in the grasslands of Alberta. It has representative northern and Glaciated Plains bird and plant species and rare plant communities.
    • 211 birds, 127 breeding
    • 18 fish
    • 5 amphibians
    • 8 reptiles
    • 47 mammals
    • 82 butterflies and skippers (including almost all the rare and common grassland species)
    • 453 vascular plants (almost 90% of Alberta’s Dry Mixedgrassland vascular plant species)

    High concentration of species of special concern:

    • 50 birds (including over half the species of special concern in Alberta and all of the Grassland breeding bird species of concern in Alberta)
    • 5 fish
    • 2 amphibians
    • 8 reptiles
    • 22 mammals (including over half the species of special concern in Alberta)
    • 72 vascular plants (including almost 80% of the Dry Mixedgrass and Mixedgrass vascular plant species on the provincial tracking list, representing the largest concentration of rare vascular plant species in the glaciated plains of Alberta and, possibly, Canada)
    • Degradation and loss of grasslands means more Species at Risk

    Swift Fox

    (COSEWIC endangered, formerly extirpated)
    As a result of habitat change, trapping and predator-control programs, the Swift Fox was eliminated from Alberta almost 70 years ago. Milk River-Sage Creek is one of the strongholds of the reintroduction effort and individuals have been observed widely in the region. Swift Fox has been moved to the province’s RED LIST and it is designated as an endangered species.

    Mountain Plover

    (COSEWIC endangered)
    In 1874, Mountain Plovers were common along the 49th parallel, near the Milk and Frenchman Rivers. Populations have declined in recent years throughout North America and they are one of the rarest grassland species. Mountain Plover habitat is an example of a habitat “extreme” which is not currently considered desirable by range managers. It prefers to nest and feed in heavily-grazed native grassland.

    Sage Grouse

    (COSEWIC endangered)
    Sage Grouse are limited in Canada to the extreme southeastern part of Alberta and the southwestern part of Saskatchewan. The species has been extirpated from British Columbia and, although once widespread, it is now a local resident throughout its range. In Alberta, populations have undergone a “rapid decline”.

    Soapweed — Yucca glauca

    (COSEWIC vulnerable)
    In Canada, soapweed reaches the northwestern limits of its range. There are only two known populations, both occur in Alberta in the Milk River/Lost River area.

    Western spiderwort — Tradescantia occidentalis

    (COSEWIC threatened)
    Western spiderwort is known in Canada from southeastern Alberta, south-central Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba. Populations in southeast Alberta occur in the Pakowki Lake sand hills, northeast of Pakowki Lake. Continued stabilization of the dunes would be detrimental to the long-term survival of the western spiderwort.

    Short-horned Lizard

    (COSEWIC vulnerable)
    In Canada, this species is localized and rare, being restricted to southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta. In Alberta, the Short-horned Lizard is on the BLUE LIST as a species that may be at risk.

    Great Plains Toad

    (COSEWIC vulnerable)
    This toad is found in the southeast corner of Alberta. Total populations are unknown, but apparently declining. This species is on the RED LIST for Alberta.

    Environmentally Significant
    Areas map:  JPG | PDF

    August 2014

    One of the most dangerous fires occurs in the area, needing support from Montana and various local fire departments to control the spread of the fire.

    October 2013

    The Draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan is officially unveiled. The draft does not address conservation in native grasslands in any specific way; no legislated protection is proposed for grassland areas despite the large number of species at risk in southeast Alberta. AWA argues that Milk River Ridge, Wild Horse Plains and key stretches of wild rivers in the south should be legislatively designated as Heritage Rangelands.

    August 2013

    The Alberta government announces the closure of Onefour Research Farm, home to at least 23 federally listed species at risk. The majority of Onefour is provincially leased land and AWA calls for formal protection of these critical grasslands. In August, Minister of ESRD replies to AWA with an encouraging response that its protective value will be recognized.

    September 29, 2012

    The Milk River Management Society celebrates its 20th anniversary with a dinner and evening of presentations and awards in Aden, Alberta.

    July 2012

    AWA takes Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation Minister Christine Cusanelli and Assistant Deputy Minister Graham Statt on a tour of the Pakowki Lake and Milk River – Sage Creek areas, introducing them to Alberta’s southeastern grasslands, and many of the concerns AWA has for the area and its management. Also participating in the tour are representatives from the Prairie Conservation Forum.


    Poverty Rock, a 2000-acre parcel of land adjacent to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, is purchased by the Alberta government, and will be added to the park.

    June 26, 2009

    The Milk River Management Society installs traffic counters to establish current levels of vehicle usage. An old wellsite road gives vehicles access to the edge of the Milk River Canyon, leaving 80 percent of the Natural Area upland free of vehicle traffic. However, EnCana Corporation has developed a number of wells right next door, with gravel track access almost to the corner of the Milk River Natural Area. The Natural Area is currently unregulated with respect to vehicle use. The society is concerned that this could open the area to increased and undesirable use. Formally monitoring vehicle use will provide baseline information so that concerns can be expressed promptly if increases are detected.

    Summer 2008

    Researchers from the U.S. are attracted to the ungrazed spring wetlands in the Milk River–Sage Creek area and conduct detailed biodiversity research in those unique habitats.

    February 2008

    AWA becomes aware of a proposal to open the Wild Horse border crossing for 24-hour service and to expand Highway 41 into a major corridor in order to transport heavy equipment to the tar sands via a route other than the existing corridor through the Coutts border crossing. This would have dramatic negative environmental effects on the Milk River–Sage Creek area. AWA responds to the proposal with a Wild Lands Advocatearticle and letters to the Government of Alberta.


    The Milk River Management Society, of which AWA is a member, hires researchers to assess the ecological impacts of fire after a recent burn. The arrival of endangered mountain plovers after the burn in an area in which they had not previously been recorded shows the potential role fire can play in mixed grass ecosystems.

    February 14, 2002

    In a letter to Environment Minister Murray Smith, AWA expresses opposition to the pending sale of leases in the Milk River–Sage Creek area.

    December 20, 2000

    The Alberta government announces the establishment of the Onefour Heritage Rangeland Natural Area.

    July 18, 2000

    AWA requests that Premier Ralph Klein take immediate steps to:

    • Stop all industrial activity inside Provincial Parks and Natural Areas;
    • Immediately disallow the sale and renewal of any industrial leases inside protected areas;
    • Reconvene the legislature with the first item of business being to the introduction of effective park and Natural Area legislation to explicitly rule out industrial activity within protected areas.

    July 2000

    AWA announces that at least one petroleum company has requested that the petroleum rights in Milk River and Chinchaga be put up for sale. Although Environment Minister Halvar Johnson dismisses the announcement and claims that AWA is mistaken, AWA produces the leaked government document, dated May 23, 2000, which includes Milk River and Chinchaga on the list of land parcels to be sold in August and September. This results in the removal of two parcels of land from the sale list. AWA calls for transparency and openness so that there is no need to rely on leaked documents.

    May 9, 2000

    AWA, Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society (CPAWS), Federation of Alberta Naturalists (FAN), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) send out letters to CEOs of various oil companies requesting them to (1) write to the Premier in support of 10 new parks, (2) ask the government to implement the oil industry’s agreement with conservation groups to phase out existing petroleum developments from all protected areas, and (3) support legislation that protects these parks from industrial development in perpetuity.

    February 16, 1997

    Express Pipeline begins to transport petroleum.

    August 1, 1996

    Building of the Express Pipeline begins after the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa rejected appeals against the proposed pipeline.

    July 1996

    AWA and the Federation of Alberta Naturalists (FAN) appeal to the federal Court of Canada to overturn the decision made by the National Energy Board that determined that the crude oil pipeline project proposed by Express Pipeline is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects. Additionally, AWA and FAN would like the issue to be re-assessed and no further permits allowing construction of the pipeline be issued.

    June 20, 1996

    In a news release, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund announces that it has filed a lawsuit on behalf of AWA and the Federation of Alberta Naturalists (FAN) challenging a decision that would permit a crude oil pipeline to be built through the Milk River area. AWA and FAN allege that the joint National Energy Board/Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel failed to comply with key requirements under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

    January 1996

    AWA and other conservation groups want a proposed pipeline rerouted. The proposed pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Casper, Wyoming is slated to cut through nationally significant areas of undisturbed native prairie in the Milk River–Sage Creek area. A four-member joint panel examines the proposal and holds a series of hearings in which AWA’s Cliff Wallis states: “Even with the best reclamation technology we have today, we still do not known how to put it back the way it was.”

    AWA, the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, and the Alberta Fish and Game Association sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Express Pipeline to establish an advisory council to consult on the reclamation of disturbed areas to ensure the use of native grasses.

    September 14, 1995

    AWA and the Federation of Alberta Naturalists receive $34,240 to assist in the evaluation of the Express Pipeline (owned jointly by Alberta Energy Company Ltd. and TransCanada PipeLines Ltd.).

    August 11, 1995

    AWA and the Federation of Alberta Naturalists submit a joint proposal for federal funding to assist in reviewing the application to build the Express Pipeline.

    June 1995

    Express Pipeline applies to the National Energy Board for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.

    May 1995

    The Milk River Valley is nominated for the Special Places 2000 program.


    Express Pipeline Ltd. applies for approval of a pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Caspar, Wyoming. The application is later withdrawn.

    September 1992

    The Milk River Management Society prepares an Operational Management Plan for Milk River Natural Area and Kennedy Coulee Ecological Reserve, which is endorsed by the Alberta government.

    June 1990

    The Milk River Management Society is founded, with AWA being one of the founding members. Other members come from local government, the ranching community, other conservation groups, and provincial agencies. The society holds the lease for the Milk River Natural Area and advises on resource use and management of the Milk River Natural Area and Kennedy Coulee Ecological Reserve. The society is also responsible for administering the grazing contract and long-term research monitoring.

    October 22, 1987

    The 10.7-km2 Kennedy Coulee Ecological Reserve is established.

    June 4, 1987

    Hon. Don Sparrow, Minister of Forestry, Lands and Wildlife announces the establishment of the Milk River Natural Area—the province’s hundredth natural area.

    May 1985

    Alberta’s Advisory Committee on Wilderness Areas and Ecological Reserves recommends to the Minister of Recreation and Parks the establishment of a 72 km2 natural area/ecological reserve. They also ask for an inventory of special features; consideration of bison for management; revisions to legislation; participation of local residents in developing a management plan; and an integrated plan for the surrounding area. The long-promised integrated plan never materializes but most recommendations are acted upon. Though unsuccessful, the AWA submits a joint proposal with a local rancher to use bison for management.

    April 1984

    On a flight over the region, AWA discovers two large cattle watering holes in the Milk River–Sage Creek area. The two holes are estimated to be approximately 65 metres across and may entice cattle to graze in ecologically sensitive areas. The government decision allowing ranchers to create these holes was made without a single field study to examine the potential impacts to the surface drainage pattern and fragile plant life in the area.

    In response to criticism of sloppy management of Alberta’s first ecological reserve, the Milk River Canyon Reserve, the government appoints a planning committee to aid in the creation of the proposed reserve.

    March 21, 1984

    AWA and the Ecological Reserves Advisory Committee convene a meeting with 250 farmers, ranchers, scientists, and environmentalists to discuss the new Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, and Natural Areas Act. Many residents feel that the Act does not ensure that they will have any say in the area’s future. In response to this sentiment and out of recognition of the value of private stewardship, AWA helps create a task force to develop a plan for the preservation of the Milk River Canyon area.

    July 1983

    In a letter to the Associate Minister of Public Lands and Wildlife, Hon. Don Sparrow, AWA asks that no hasty decisions be made so that the value of the ungrazed grasslands in the Milk River–Sage Creek area can be assessed.

    June 1983

    AWA attends public meetings regarding ecological reserves in Claresholm, Foremost, and Lethbridge. The meetings make it apparent that a local lobby group is seeking grazing privileges in a portion of the proposed Milk River Ecological Reserve.

    April 1980

    A Lost River Ranches Grazing Lease Management Plan is released.


    The Alberta government commits to undertaking an integrated land-use study. After a year of waiting, conservationists are frustrated to learn that the study is nothing more than a limited area grazing plan. No public input is accepted. The Minister of Recreation, Parks, and Wildlife tells AWA, “The comprehensive land use plan will ensure the preservation of the outstanding natural features.” Instead, there are more roads, fencelines, exploration wells, stock-watering facilities, uncontrolled vehicle access, and grazing in previously ungrazed sensitive areas in the proposed ecological reserve.


    Alberta Parks Division undertakes a comprehensive study of the resources in the Milk River area. The study recommends park status for 700-km2 area. The Public Lands Division accepts a proposal for an ecological reserve on a tract of land that was formerly property of local ranchers and responsible environmental stewards, the Ross family.

    June 18, 1975

    In a letter to Minister of Environment D. Russell, AWA alerts the Minister that the Environmental Impact Assessment Report prepared by Alberta Ammonia does not mention the potential impact of the pipeline on the aesthetic and recreational uses of the proposed Milk River–Lost River Wilderness.

    May 6, 1975

    In letters to the Premier, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (now known as the Energy Utilities Board), and the president of Alberta Ammonia, AWA expresses opposition to the proposed routing of an ammonia pipeline through the Milk River area from Raymond, Alberta to Garner, Iowa.

    March 1975

    AWA makes a formal presentation to the Alberta Land Use Forum suggesting that the area may be best protected by a Wildland Recreation Area designation.

    January 1972

    AWA approaches the Minister of Lands and Forests proposing the creation of a Wilderness Area in the Milk River–Sage Creek region.


    As demand for dwindling public grazing lands grows, new legislation restricts the amount of land a lessee can hold. The holdings ranched by the Ross family since 1910 far exceed the new limits set by Alberta Public Lands and, despite protests from Alberta Parks and AWA, large areas are removed from the Lost River Ranch lease. Most deleted lands become a new provincial grazing reserve, while a remote, largely ungrazed area south of the Milk River Canyon is proposed as an ecological reserve.


    The PFRA conducts further studies.


    A water development committee proposes that the gap near the Milk River Forks (the confluence of the North and South Milk Rivers) would be a good place for a dam. Pursuit of this option is not followed due to reasons such as hilly terrain, lack of local interest, and potential international implications.

    February 1941

    Order in Council PC 682 of the Privy Council of Canada rules in part: “So far as the interests of Canada are concerned, it appears that it would be preferable to have a reservoir on the St. Mary River at Spring Coulee Alberta instead of the recommended reservoir at St. Mary Lakes in Montana, and to have a reservoir at what is known as the Forks Site in Alberta on the Milk River instead of the recommended reservoir at Verdigris Coulee.”

    1923 – 1924

    Subsequent investigations by the Department of the Interior indicate that the Forks Site would be a much better site than the Verdigris Coulee proposal and more detailed studies are undertaken.

    October 1921

    The International Joint Commission makes a recommendation: “The Commission finds … that the quantities of land in this international region susceptible of development far exceed the capacity of the rivers in question even under the most exhaustive system of conservation.… Every effort should be made to obtain the maximum efficiency in irrigation from these waters.… The Canadian Reclamation Service [should proceed] with the proposed Verdigris Coulee Reservoir in Alberta.”


    The cultivation of Alberta’s grasslands begins. Most of the Milk River area escapes the plough because of its drought-prone nature.


    A Northwest Mounted Police outpost is established at Kennedy’s Crossing, where the Milk River flows into the U.S.


    Captain Featherstonhaugh of the British North American Boundary Commission explores the Milk River area.


    The Milk River is named by Captain Meriwether Lewis for its muted colour, similar to the colour of tea with milk.

    February 1, 2008

    New U.S.–Fort McMurray Highway Proposal Bad News for Native Prairie

    Wild Lands Advocate article, February 2008, by Joyce Hildebrand 200802_AR_WL8.pdf

    Read more »

    February 1, 2004

    Milk River – A Hotspot of Biodiversity

    Wild Lands Advocate article, February 2004, by Cheryl Bradley 200402_AR_MR.pdf

    Read more »

    October 1, 2001

    Milk River – Sage Creek: Coming to Terms on a Grassland Wilderness

    Wild Lands Advocate article, October 2001, by Cliff Wallis 200110_AR_MR.pdf

    Read more »

I needed something to pare the fat off my soul, to make me grateful again for being alive. And I knew… There is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life.
- Colin Fletcher
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