December 1, 2018
Protect the Parkland Dunes
Wild Lands Advocate article by: Joanna Skrajny Click here for a pdf version of this…
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 within Alberta, Central Parkland and Northern Fescue.
AWA believes protection of the Parkland Dunes must be expanded to surrounding public lands currently leased for grazing purposes. The establishment of Heritage Rangelands would maintain the stewardship grazing offers while simultaneously conserving these landscapes for future generations.
|The Parkland Dunes is an oasis in an otherwise agriculture-dominated landscape. PHOTO © AWA FILES.|
With rolling hills of native grasses interspersed with lush aspen groves, peatlands, and vibrant wetlands, the Parkland Dunes is an oasis in an otherwise agriculture-dominated landscape. The 932 km2 Parkland Dunes is located in east-central Alberta, southeast of the Town of Wainwright. Parkland dunes 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).
AWA’s Parkland Dunes Area of Concern. Map © AWA : JPG | PDF
Marking the southern-most boundary of the Parkland Dunes Area of Concern is Sounding Lake, a large alkali lake that is at times completely dry and is recognized as an important and productive shorebird staging lake.
Neutral Hills is a 50km2 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.
Wainwright Dunes 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. 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.
Parkland Dunes comprises both Central Parkland and Northern Fescue Natural Subregions. Less than 5% of the Central Parkland Natural Region’s natural vegetation remains (Alberta Parks 2015) and currently, only 0.9% of the Central Parkland Natural Subregion is protected. The Parkland Dunes is one of the larger remnants of these Natural Subregions; due to thin top soil, boulders, and sand it has not been converted to cropland.
Within the Land Use Framework, the provincial government has noted the “North Saskatchewan Region is essentially the only region that can fill representation gaps in the Central Parkland natural sub region on public lands”. Therefore, AWA believes that all of the conservation areas that have been identified within this natural region must be protected.
Protection of the Parkland Dunes must be expanded beyond what has been identified in the report produced by the North Saskatchewan Regional Advisory Committee. There are additional public lands within the area, much of which are leased for grazing purposes. While the amount of native vegetation remaining in these areas is likely depleted, the area still needs to be conserved and would maintain a larger connected landscape for native fescue. The establishment of Heritage Rangelands would maintain the stewardship grazing offers while simultaneously conserving these landscapes for future generations.
The Parkland Dunes is composed of a mix of both private and public lands, which are largely unprotected. A small portion of Parkland Dunes is protected under the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act (WAERNAHR). Intended to preserve public lands for ecological purposes, this act facilitated the creation of the 28 km2 Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve, which was designated in 1988. The reserve is located 40 km south of Wainwright and is accessible to the public by foot only.
The southern portion of the Parkland Dunes is located within Special Areas No.4 of Alberta.
Management of the Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve is led by Alberta Parks but is also guided by the Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve Advisory Committee.
After a mass exodus of residents during severe droughts in the 1930s, communities responded by joining together in the creation of the Special Areas of Alberta. The Special Areas 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.
The Parkland Dunes are located in east-central Alberta just southeast of the Town of Wainwright. This area spans 932km2 and stretches from CFB Wainwright in the north to Sounding Lake and Neutral Hills in the south. The Parkland Dunes encompass the Wainwright Dunes, the so-called Cluster of Unnamed Lakes, Sunken Lake, David Lake, and the hamlet of Metiskow (population ~100).
Nearby protected areas include Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park, Dillberry Lake Provincial Park, Ribstone Creek Heritage Rangeland, and Killarney-Reflex Lakes Rangeland.
AWA’s Parkland Dunes Area of Concern. Map © AWA : JPG | PDF
All water from Parkland Dunes is part of the North Saskatchewan River Basin system, which flows eastward to Hudson Bay. The major watercourse in the area is the meandering, slow-moving Ribstone Creek, with much of the creek’s water supplied by underground springs. Slightly alkaline sloughs drain into Ribstone Creek via groundwater flow.
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.
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 dunes can be up to 30 metres in height and are sparsely covered by stunted aspen groves, shrubbery, and grassland. Level sandy areas known as outwash plains occur in the Parkland Dunes around David Lake.
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.
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.
Environmentally Significant Areas Map © AWA JPG | PDF
The Parkland Dunes are located primarily within the Parkland Natural Region, in the Central Parkland Natural Subregion. The southern tip of the Parkland Dunes contains the North Fescue Natural Subregion.
Natural Subregions Map © AWA JPG | PDF
The natural diversity of vegetation in the Parkland Dunes is connected to its geographic location as well as the variety of landform and hydrological features found there.
Sand dunes includes, but is not limited to, the following vegetation:
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.
Fens: characterized by dwarf birch and willows as well as numerous types of sedges and peat mosses. Western wood lily, blue-eyed grass, wire rush, and silverweed grow in the open, moist meadows along David Lake.
Neutral Hill: 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.
Amphibians and reptiles found in Parkland Dunes include chorus frog, wood frog, plains garter snake, Canadian toad, and leopard frog.
Mammals: 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.
Insects: Rare butterflies, skippers, and moths have been sighted in Parkland Dunes.
The Parkland Dunes belong to the traditional territory of the Maskwacis Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy. It was a good hunting and wintering ground because of a solid supply of timber and plentiful hunting. Tipi rings, arrow heads, and cairns are prevalent artifacts found 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, such as extreme droughts, forced many people to leave.
Currently only 0.9% of the Central Parkland and 1.3% of the Northern Fescue Grasslands Natural Subregions are protected within Alberta. AWA believes protection of the Parkland Dunes must be expanded to surrounding public lands currently leased for grazing purposes. The establishment of Heritage Rangelands would maintain the stewardship grazing offers while simultaneously conserving these landscapes for future generations.
Surface disturbances such as drilling, renewable energy development and road building pose serious threats to the ecological integrity of the Parkland Dunes, through habitat fragmentation, loss of native grasslands and the introduction of invasive species. Drilling has been occurring in various places in Parkland Dunes since 1919. AWA believes that no new development should be permitted within native Central Parkland Habitat, as less than 5 percent remains in natural condition. Protection under a Heritage Rangeland designation would provide protection against new industrial activities whilst simultaneously continuing to maintain the stewardship grazing offers.
Over the past century, development has prevented natural fire regimes from taking place, as a result, shrubs and trees have been taking over grasslands associated with parklands (Bird 1961). There is a real threat that the parkland regions will be converted to forests if natural fire disturbances are not re-introduced to the landscape. In Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve, there has been a noted absence of fire, with the last recorded fire in the 1980s. Shrub encroachment has been substantial and has led to the “squeezing out” of species associated with the grasslands and dunes ecosystems, including a decrease in sharp tailed grouse.
AWA believes that prescribed burns within the Parkland Dunes are needed and critical to the continued health of the Parkland ecosystem.
AWA supports continued domestic livestock grazing on public lands in the Grassland and Aspen Parkland Natural Regions, including protected areas, where it is compatible with ecologically-based management objectives. AWA believes that legislated protection for our candidate areas is essential for long-term protection that safeguards public and community interests. The need for a long-term commitment to protection through legal designation has been confirmed time and again by industrial and commercial incursions into de facto wildlands. By working with communities, we believe that we can define legislated protection that satisfies local long-term interests and that protects the valued ecological components
Within the Parkland Dunes, 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 Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve may need more careful monitoring.
The North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (NSRP) Regional Advisory Council (RAC) Advice is finally released. AWA believes protection of the Parkland Dunes must be expanded beyond what has been identified in the report produced by the North Saskatchewan Regional Advisory Committee. There are additional public lands within the area, much of which is leased for grazing purposes. While the amount of native vegetation remaining in these areas is likely depleted, the area still needs to be conserved and will maintain a larger connected landscape for native fescue. The establishment of Heritage Rangelands would maintain the stewardship grazing offers while simultaneously conserving these landscapes for future generations.
King’s College undergraduates complete several years of field monitoring, with support from the Government of Alberta and the Buffalo Park Grazing Association to investigate wildlife friendly fencing on the Reserve. They find that the safest passage through the fence, and the most preferred crossing choice for wildlife, is through open gates.
AWA provides detailed comments for the North Saskatchewan Regional Advisory Committee and identifies the Parkland Dunes as a protection priority.
A May 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.
On January 25, 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.
AWA repeatedly expresses opposition to the pending sale of leases within Parkland Dunes and requests that the Minister of Energy withdraw this lease offer.
On June 6, 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.
On July 17, 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.
On January, the Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve is established.
On November 12, Alberta’s Energy Minister 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.
On October 9, AWA issues a call to action to members, asking for support for the designation of the Wainwright Dunes as an Ecological Reserve.
On April 12, in a letter to the Chairman of the 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.
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.
Treaty 6 is signed between the Plains, Wood Cree and Queen Victoria in Central Alberta and Central Saskatchewan.
The Parkland Dunes are part of the traditional territory of the Maskwacis Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy. It was a good hunting and wintering ground because of a solid supply of timber and plentiful hunting.
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