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The 932 km2 Parkland Dunes is located in east-central Alberta, southeast of the Town of Wainwright.

This AWA Area of Concern stretches from CFB Wainwright in the north to Sounding Lake and Neutral Hills in the south, encompassing the Wainwright Dunes, the so-called Cluster of Unnamed Lakes, Sunken Lake, David Lake, and the hamlet of Metiskow (population ~100). An uncultivated island in a sea of agriculture, Parkland Dunes is a relatively undisturbed area that overlaps two rapidly vanishing, and generally unprotected, natural subregions, Central Parkland and Northern Fescue.

    • Introduction
    • Concerns
    • Features
    • History
    • Management
    • Archive
    • Other Areas

    000000_map_web_east_hills_dunes_prarieParkland Dunes


    A small portion of Parkland Dunes is protected under the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act. Intended to preserve public lands for ecological purposes, this act created the 28 km2 Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve, designated in 1988. The reserve is located 40 km south of Wainwright and is accessible to the public by foot only.

    • Grazing
    • Industrial activity
    • Health of local wildlife
    • Maintenance of shorebird habitat, including for piping plover
    • Preservation of sensitive areas, including sand dunes and fens

    Township and Range map: JPG | PDF

    Natural Subregions map:  JPG | PDF


    • Entirely surrounded by agriculture, Parkland Dunes comprises both Central Parkland and Northern Fescue Natural Subregions.
    • Less than 1% of the Northern Fescue Grassland in Alberta is in its natural condition, and less than 5% of Central Parkland is protected.  Additionally, 80% of Alberta’s grassland is cropland.  Because the Parkland Dunes is poor farmland due to thin top soil, boulders, and sand, it has remained relatively undisturbed.
    • Nearby protected areas include Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park, Dillberry Lake Provincial Park, Ribstone Creek Heritage Rangeland, and Killarney-Reflex Lakes Rangeland.
    • Neutral Hills is a 50-km2 area of rolling hills filled with aspen groves, shrub communities, sloughs, fescue, and mixed grasslands.  It is critical wildlife habitat in the transition zone between Northern Fescue and Central Parkland Natural Subregions.
    • The Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve consists of stabilized and active dunes, outwash, and kame moraine.
      • The dunes themselves can be up to 30 metres in height and are sparsely covered by stunted aspen groves, shrubbery, and grassland.
      • Blowouts occur where there is little vegetation holding the sand in place.  After a blowout, the area is first colonized by grasses and sedges, then lichens, creeping junipers, and forbes.
      • Interdunal areas have groundwater at or just below the surface.
      • The Wainwright Dunes area drains into David Lake, partly via a large wetland.
        • Open meadows, patterned fens, and a unique sloped fen also occur nearby.
        • Fens are relatively open wetlands dominated by sedges, grasses, and low shrubs. They occur in depressional areas within the sand dune complex due to restricted drainage caused partly by beaver activity.
        • Fen patterning is evident northwest of David Lake.  This patterning consists of raised ridges known as “strings,” alternating with water filled depressions called “flarks.”  A rare fen north of David Lake has groundwater flowing down a hillside, resulting in a slope fen.
    • Sounding Lake, marking the southern-most boundary of the Parkland Dunes Area of Concern, is a large alkali lake that is at times completely dry.
    • Drilling has been occurring in various places in Parkland Dunes since 1919.
    • Local residents have generally practiced responsible environmental stewardship.  Grazing has not generally resulted in land degradation although some fencing has been allowed to deteriorate and grazing areas within the ecological reserve may need more careful monitoring.


    • The major watercourse in the area is the meandering, slow-moving Ribstone Creek. Much of the creek’s water is supplied by underground springs.
    • Slightly alkaline sloughs drain into Ribstone Creek via groundwater flow.
    • Water in the Wainwright Dunes area flows into David Lake, which in turn drains via groundwater flow into Black Creek.
    • Ultimately, all water from Parkland Dunes is part of the North Saskatchewan River Basin system, which flows eastward to Hudson Bay.

    Environmentally Significant
    Areas map:  JPG | PDF
    Environmentally Significant Areas:

    • Much of Parkland Dunes is Nationally Significant, including some areas lying within CFB Wainwright and towards Sounding Lake. The Wainwright Dunes and Neutral Hills are also considered Nationally Significant.
    • Parts of the portion of Parkland Dunes falling within the boundary of the Wainwright base are Nationally Significant because it is an extensive sand plain, river valley, calcareous (alkaline due to the presence of calcium carbonate) fen, and wetland complex in Canada’s Aspen Parkland.
    • The Sounding Lake area is Internationally Significant because it is the breeding area of the piping plover, a COSEWIC endangered species. It is also a productive shorebird staging lake.
    • The small alkali bodies of water that make up the Cluster of Unnamed Lakes are also Nationally Significant because they are among the few breeding areas of the piping plover.
    • The Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve is Nationally Significant because it contains relatively undisturbed high landform diversity, a variety of wetland types, aspen groves interspersed with grassland, and eolian (wind-shaped) landforms with associated vegetation.  It is also a solid representative of the Central Parkland Natural Subregion, significant staging area for waterfowl (David Lake), and key habitat for mule deer, white-tailed deer, and several rare plant species. It also contains the dancing ground of the sharp-tailed grouse.
    • Neutral Hills is Nationally Significant because of the unique ice thrust ridges that characterize the area, the highly diverse landforms, and habitat for terrestrial breeding birds, as well as the fact that it is part of a transition zone between Grassland and Parkland Natural Regions.

    Open dunes (C. Olson)


    • The natural diversity of Parkland Dunes is connected to its geographic location as well as the variety of landform and hydrological features found there.
    • Vegetation found in the sand dunes includes but is not limited to the following:
      • Bearded wheat grass, Canada wild rye, June grass, prairie sagewort, prickly pear, poison ivy, rose, chokecherry, and trembling aspen in stabilized areas
      • Foxtail, northern wheat grass, prairie crocus, gaillardia, yarrow ,and species of sedge in between the dunes
      • Lichens, mosses, horsetail, sand grass, golden aster, creeping juniper, and bearberry in recovering blowouts
    • Characteristic grassland vegetation varies significantly, depending on location and conditions, but includes Hooker’s oat grass, June grass, sheep fescue, interior bluegrass, and rough fescue.  Low shrubbery (wildrose, silverberry), willows, and sections of aspen and balsam poplar woodland also exist within the grassland.
    • Spring flower blooms are impressive in the grassland because of the subtly beautiful crocus, pale comandra, three-flowered avens, bluebell, late yellow locoweed, golden bean, mouse-ear chickweed, and wooly cinquefoil.
    • Western wood lily, blue-eyed grass, wire rush, and silverweed grow in the open, moist meadows along David Lake.
    • Fens are characterized by dwarf birch and willows as well as numerous types of sedges and peat mosses.
    • Neutral Hill is habitat for rare and endangered plants like few-flowered rush, taraxia, western wood lily, shining arnica, yellow paintbrush, scratch grass, Nevada bulrush, sand spurry, few-flowered aster, giant hyssop, and American dragonhead.

    Parkland Dunes lakes (C. Olson)


    • Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds of all sizes are found in various locations in Parkland Dunes in the spring and fall.
    • Sounding Lake is favoured habitat for the endangered piping plover. This bird prefers to nest on pebbly beaches free of vegetation.  Because fluctuating water levels are needed to keep the beach free of vegetation, nest areas change depending on whether it is a wet or dry year.
    • Sloughs in the Neutral Hills attract eared grebe, mallard, pintail, red-winged blackbird, spotted sandpiper, and killdeer.
    • In coulees, dense woods, and shrubs, one can find red-tailed hawk, eastern kindbird, least flycatcher, cedar waxwing, yellow warbler, house wren, robin, and black-capped chickadee,
    • Surviving in the shrub thickets of the grassland are Swainson’s hawk, sharp-tailed grouse, horned lark, Sprague’s pipit, cowbird, and vesper sparrow.
    • Amphibians and reptiles found in Parkland Dunes include chorus frog, wood frog, plains garter snake, Canadian toad, and leopard frog.
    • Numerous masked shrews, white-tailed prairie hares, coyotes, Richardson ground squirrels, beavers, deer mice, red-backed voles, muskrats, porcupines, least weasels, badgers, and mule and white-tailed deer also call this territory home.
    • Rare butterflies, skippers, and moths have been sighted in Parkland Dunes.


    • Legend has it that the Neutral Hills were once flat like the prairies. Inhabited by warring peoples plagued by violence and hardship, a Great Power caused the hills to rise up out of the prairie.  Awed by the creation of the hills, the inhabitants held a meeting, made peace, and feasted together.
    • Historically, this land was considered a neutral area for the Cree, Sarcee, and Blackfoot people, as well a good hunting and wintering ground because of a solid supply of timber and plentiful hunting.
    • Tipi rings, arrow heads, and cairns are prevalent in the Neutral Hills.
    • Explorer John Palliser surveyed this area in the 1800s and reported that the land “has no potential for farming […] and […] much would not sustain life.” His warning went largely unheeded.
    • The first white settlers were cattlemen, who arrived in 1897.
    • With the completion of the railway to Consort in 1911, numerous settlers began to cultivate the land.  The density of settlement was unsustainable and severe hardship forced many people to leave.


    • The entire Parkland Dunes area was glaciated and surface materials were deposited by glacial meltwaters.  The resulting sandy terrain was subjected to northwesterly winds, which formed the Wainwright Dunes.
    • The Neutral Hills consist of glacially contorted bedrock, folded into the discontinuous hills, known as ice thrust ridges, which can be seen today.
    • Some of the hills rise upwards of 122 metres above the surrounding plains.
    • Erratics as well as steep, rough coulee walls formed by erosion are common in the Neutral Hills.
    • Level sandy areas known as outwash plains occur in the Parkland Dunes around David Lake.

    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.

    May 22, 2009

    An AWA site visit is concerning in terms of missing and broken fencing that allows free ranging of cattle. Overgrazing of higher spots in the dunes is evident. Amphibian researchers are present and their lack of willingness to walk into the Ecological Reserve is a disappointment as they are seen driving their two four-wheel drive vehicles into the reserve that is clearly marked with signs that no motorized access is allowed.

    January 25, 2008

    The Alberta government announces that the Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve and the Dillberry Lake Provincial Park campground, hiking trails, and backcountry areas will be closed until the end of March while staff members work to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease.  Chronic wasting disease is a fatal nervous system disease that alters the brain tissue of deer and elk. Affected deer and elk gradually lose weight and waste away.

    2002 – 2004

    AWA repeatedly expresses opposition to the pending sale of leases within Parkland Dunes and requests that the Minister of Energy withdraw this lease offer.

    June 6, 2000

    Protected land in Alberta’s Parkland Natural Region is tripled with the addition to the list of Alberta’s Special Places of Killarney-Reflex and Ribstone-Edgerton Natural Areas, combined with an extension to Dillberry Lake Provincial Park.

    July 17, 1995

    AWA expresses concern that intensive energy exploration, including drilling and road-building, will have negative impacts on the piping plover (“Protecting the Plover,” Calgary Herald).


    AWA works to build relationships with residents of Neutral Hills in hopes of garnering support for protective status.

    January 1988

    The Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve is established.

    November 12, 1987

    Energy Minister Neil Webber announces the approval of a Special Warrant to cover the costs of conducting a seismic program in the Wainwright Military Reserve.  Oil and gas rights will later be put up for public offer.

    October 9, 1986

    AWA issues a call to action to members, asking for support for the designation of the Wainwright Dunes as an Ecological Reserve.

    April 12, 1984

    In a letter to Donn Cline, Chairman, Wilderness Areas and Ecological Reserves Advisory Committee, AWA expresses concern for the Wainwright Dunes and encourages the Ecological Reserve designation.


    Wainwright Buffalo Park Reserve is turned over to the Department of National Defense.

    1939 – 1945

    Wainwright Buffalo Park Reserve is used as a prisoner-of-war camp and training camp.


    Wainwright Buffalo Park Reserve is cleared of all animals in order to become a National Defense Area


    Oil is discovered and the first oil wells drilled in the Parkland Dunes area.


    The Town of Wainwright is established.


    An area within Wainwright Dunes is set aside as a reserve for bison, and hundreds of bison are relocated from Montana.  This reserve is variously known as National Buffalo Park Reserve, Wainwright Buffalo Park and Buffalo National Park.  Unfortunately, the area eventually becomes overcrowded and the herd becomes riddled with disease.

    After a mass exodus of residents during the depression, communities in the Parkland Dunes area responded by joining together in the creation of a seven million-hectare land base known as the Special Areas of Alberta. The Special Areas of Alberta officially came into being with the Special Areas Act in 1938  and is managed by a board of directors and an elected Advisory Council. Part of the mandate of the board is to maintain land in an economically and environmentally viable state.

    Alberta Special Areas
    map:  JPG | PDF

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    North Saskatchewan Region – Time to speak up for Headwaters, Bighorn, Foothills and Parkland

    Dear Wilderness Defender, This is an important opportunity to speak up and contact your elected…

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    Dear Premier Notley and Minister Phillips, Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) appreciates the opportunity to comment…

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    December 1, 2017

    Wainwright Dunes Wildlife Friendly Fencing

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