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The Whaleback of southwestern Alberta encompasses the most extensive, least disturbed and relatively unfragmented Montane landscape in Alberta’s Rocky Mountain natural region.

AWA supports the further protection of the Whaleback under the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park and Black Creek Heritage Rangeland. AWA maintains that motorized use is inappropriate as it threatens the Whaleback’s unique biodiversity and deeply beloved natural character.

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

    Introduction

    The Whaleback region is protected by the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park and the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland; it is within AWA’s Livingstone-Porcupine area of concern. PHOTO © J. OSBORN

    The ‘Whaleback’ is the colloquial name for the 285 km2 region within the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park and Black Creek Heritage Rangeland; so named for the resemblance of its prominent ridges to the spine of a beached humpback whale. This region is situated in southwestern Alberta, approximately 140 km south of Calgary, just north of the Oldman River, and west of the Porcupine Hills. It is located within AWA’s Livingstone-Porcupine area of concern.

    The Whaleback is considered one of the best representations of montane landscape, flora and fauna in Canada, with very high habitat diversity. Montane compromises less than 2% of the province’s land area and occurs only where warm Chinook winds blow away the snow cover for much of the winter. The Whaleback is in fact the largest undisturbed stretch of montane landscape in Canada, and its biodiversity has brought it national significance. Its Chinook-cleared hills also make it home to one of the most important elk wintering ranges in the Alberta.

    Status

    The entirety of the Whaleback is protected under the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park (208 km2) and Black Creek Heritage Rangeland (77 km2). These protected areas were established by Order in Council in 1999 under the Government of Alberta’s Special Places 2000.

    Heritage Rangelands are established protect and preserve native grasslands by the continuation of cattle grazing while limiting industrial development. Recreational use is generally limited to foot access. Black Creek Heritage Rangeland diverges from this standard, as it permits some motorized trail use under an Act written for this explicit purpose, the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trails Act. The Wildland Provincial Park designation of the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park also serves to encourage opportunities for backcountry recreation. Motorized recreation has in recent years led to damage of the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park’s streams and riparian areas, as its trail systems host an inappropriate number of stream crossings in areas that cannot sustain such intensive use.

    Management

    Direction for the Whaleback’s protected areas, the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park and Black Creek Heritage Rangeland, is provided by the Bob Creek Wildland, Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Management Plan, released by the Government of Alberta in 2011.

    A number of provincial acts designate activities within the Whaleback’s protected areas, namely the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves and Natural Areas Act (WAERNAHR), the Forest Reserves Act, the Public Lands Act and the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trails Act. The entirety of the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park is found within the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve, an area managed primarily for its industrial and economic benefits, rather than its conservation. The two motorized vehicle trails in the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland were facilitated by the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trails Act and designed specifically to allow access of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) into both parks. Prior to this Act, no motorized recreation was permitted on Heritage Rangelands.

    Features

    Area

    The Whaleback is the colloquial name for the area surrounding the protected Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park (208 km2) and the smaller Black Creek Heritage Wildland (77 km2); the Whaleback falls within AWA’s Livingstone-Porcupine area of concern. A number of well-known geological features can be found throughout the area, including the Livingstone Gap and the Whaleback Ridge.

    The Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park and the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland can be accessed via the Cowboy Trail (Highway 22) or Highway 3. Claresholm and Lundbreck are the closest towns, located approximately 45 km to the East and South, respectively.

    AWA’s Livingstone-Porcupine Area of Concern. MAP © AWA: JPG | PDF

    Watershed

    The Whaleback falls entirely within the Oldman River basin, providing a large portion of water to the South Saskatchewan River that eventually drains into Hudson Bay via the Saskatchewan and Nelson Rivers. The Oldman is a key watershed for Southern Alberta, given the high percentage of water it provides to communities downstream, the habitat it provides to fish and wildlife populations, and its cultural and historical significance to the Indigenous peoples of the area.

    Geology

    The Whaleback is well known for the north-south oriented linear ridges that join the Bob Creek Wildland and Black Creek Heritage Rangeland; the most distinct of these ridges being the Whaleback Ridge. The Whaleback Ridge is a west-dipping thrust fault extending from the Oldman River north to Chimney Rock. It’s characterized by its massive, coarse-grained, light grey sandstone that was deposited roughly 70 million years ago. The majority of the area is underlain by folded and faulted sedimentary rock. Glaciation played a major role in defining the area’s surface geology, including its moraine, colluvial, fluvial, glacial-fluvial and glaciolacustrine parent materials dispersed throughout the area.

    The Whaleback Ridge. Photo © AWA FILES

    Environmentally Significant Areas

    The Whaleback’s status as one the largest continuous tracts of undisturbed Montane habitat has granted it national significance as an Environmentally Significant Area (ESA). The area’s low-disturbance backcountry and high species diversity also led to its designation under Alberta’s Special Places 2000.

    Livingstone-Porcupine ESAs. MAP © AWA: JPG | PDF

    Natural Regions

    The Whaleback is situated in the Rocky Mountains Natural Region. It straddles both the Montane and Sub-Alpine Natural Subregions, encompassing a transitional area between the two. The area also holds a number of grassland ecosystems, promoted by moisture deficits at lower elevations and on south and west-facing slopes at higher elevations.

     Livingstone-Porcupine Natural Regions. MAP © AWA: JPG | PDF

    Vegetation

    Montane: Douglas fir, white spruce, limber pine, low willow, dwarf birch, thimbleberry, creeping mahonia, buffalo berry, bearberry, snowberry

    Subalpine: Lodgepole pine, Engelmann spuce, twinflower, grouseberry, pine grass

    Fescue grassland: Rough fescue, Parry oat grass, California oat grass, June grass, slender wheat grass, northern wheat grass, hairy wild rye

    Rare and uncommon plants: dwarf fleabane, crested beardtongue, conimitella, silvery everlasting, meadow aster, yellow paintbrush, blue camas, Raynold’s sedge and western sweet cicely

    Wildlife

    The diversity and interspersion of vegetation types provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife; including approximately 150 bird species, 57 mammal species, 2 reptile species and 4 amphibian species. The location of the Whaleback allows for the overlap of numerous faunal elements ranging from grassland-adapted species (i.e. sagebrush vole, horned lark, tiger salamander), Cordilleran fauna (i.e. pika, Clark’s nutcracker, American dipper) and Boreal-Cordilleran faunal elements (i.e. northern bog lemming, snowshoe hare, willow flycatcher). Ten native species of fish inhabit the aquatic systems of the Whaleback, including the mountain whitefish, rainbow trout, westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout.

    Among the numerous bird species found in the area are the long-billed curlew, assessed as ‘special concern’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and the short-eared owl, federally listed as ‘special concern’ under Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Other avian inhabitants include the osprey, golden eagle, prairie falcon and loggerhead shrike.

    The Whaleback supports significant mule deer populations throughout the year, as well as the Livingstone-Whaleback area is considered one of the two most important elk wintering ranges in Alberta. The region also provides significant elk summer range and calving area. A total of eight large carnivore species inhabit the Whaleback at varying levels of abundance: including the grey wolf, coyote, black bear, grizzly bear, wolverine, cougar, lynx and bobcat.

    Cultural

    The Whaleback region is located on Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksikaitsitapi) and Piikani traditional territory. The area was frequently used for bison hunting, prior to the extirpation of bison from the area in the 1880s. The Kootenay, Rocky Mountain Nakoda and Flathead peoples followed the broad valley separating the Porcupine Hills and the Rocky Mountain Foothills on the eastern edge of the Whaleback area.

    Activities

    The Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park offers a number of low-intensity recreational activities including fishing, hunting, backcountry hiking and camping, and equestrian use. The Black Creek Heritage Rangeland offers fewer recreational activities to minimize disturbance to the rangelands, however equestrian use and hunting are still permitted.

    The Whaleback Ridge, and adjacent ridges along with the Livingstone Sub-Alpine unit to the west, provides outstanding hiking opportunities and breathtaking views.

    Concerns

    Off-Highway Vehicle Use

    Off-highway vehicle use is damaging to the environment and wildlife, including, sensitive and threatened species; it disrupts the wilderness experience for other park-goers.

    The 2004 Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trail Act introduced a modification to the Heritage Rangeland legislation to allow off-highway vehicle (OHV) access to the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland, which was banned under the legislation previously.

    The designated OHV trail system contains numerous stream crossings, causing serious harm to the native trout species, including federally protected westslope cutthroat trout. AWA is opposed to any recreational OHV access in protected areas and believes motorized use should not be allowed in either the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland or Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park.

    AWA has written to the Government of Alberta on multiple occasions to express concern over ongoing illegal use and inadequate enforcement of trail closures in the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park’s sensitive fish habitat.

    An example of damages incurred on the stream bed and riparian area by OHV use. PHOTO: © AWA FILES.

    Oil and Gas

    Two separate groups have attempted to gain access to the Whaleback for oil and gas development, namely the extraction of sour gas. In both instances, staunch public concern has prompted Alberta’s energy regulator to reject oil and gas development applications, as they are not in the public interest. AWA reinforces that industrial development in the protected areas of the Whaleback would be deeply inappropriate, given the area’s unique biodiversity and the sizeable impact that development would have on native species.

    History

    2018

    AWA writes to the Government of Alberta for a second time regarding inadequate signage and enforcement of the White Creek trail closure in the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park. AWA believes that motorized recreation should not be permitted within the Whaleback.

    2016

    AWA writes to the Government of Alberta regarding the inadequate enforcement of the recently closed White Creek trail in the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park. The White Creek trail was closed, effective August 16, given the inappropriate number of creek crossings and the presence of threatened populations of westslope cutthroat trout in White Creek.

    2011

    Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation releases the Bob Creek Wildland, Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Management Plan. This plan provides guidance for the management of the protected areas contained by the Whaleback.

    2004

    The Government of Alberta passes the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trails Act. The Act facilitates motorized recreation through the Heritage Rangeland via two designated access routes; these routes allow access to the south end of the Bob Creek Wildland.

    February, AWA staff write to the government of Alberta to express serious concern over the proposed Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trails Act. AWA strongly discourages any motorized recreation within Alberta’s protected areas.

    2003
    December, the Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) denies the Polaris Resources Ltd’s application to drill an exploratory sour gas well in the Whaleback as it is considered not in the public interest.

    August, AWA releases a submission as part of the Whaleback hearing to formally support the rejection of Polaris Resources Ltd’s application to drill an exploratory sour gas well in the Whaleback.

    July, AWA conducts a public opinion poll through the Dunvegan Group to determine how Albertans feel about the Polaris Resource Ltd’s prospective sour gas well in the Whaleback region. Respondents were provided with factual information about the Whaleback and the proposed sour gas well in the vicinity of protected areas. 67 percent of interviewees were opposed to the proposal.

    June, the Government of Alberta designates Heritage Rangelands as a new class of protected area under the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves and Natural Areas Act. The Black Creek Natural Area is redesignated as the Black Creek Heritage Rangeland, the first Heritage Rangeland in Alberta.

    1999

    The Government of Alberta announces its intention to designate the Bob Creek Wildland Park and Black Creek Natural Area under the initiative of Species Places 2000 and the direction of Whaleback Special Places Local Committee. Together, these protected areas represent 60 percent of the area conservationists had requested.

    Amoco Canada Ltd. donates their leases to Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC), this enables the protection of private lands not protected by the Bob Creek Wildland Park and Black Creek Heritage Rangeland.

    1994

    In response to the Amoco Canada Ltd. application to drill an exploratory sour gas well in the Whaleback, citizens attend a 10-day public hearing. The Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) decides that the exploratory sour gas well is not in the public interest, and denies Amoco’s application.

    1993

    Amoco Canada Ltd. submits an application to drill an exploratory sour gas well in the Whaleback.

    The Government of Alberta approves the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills Sub-Regional Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). In addition to other legislation, this becomes the guiding document for land-use planning in the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills Region, including land-use in the Whaleback.

    The Government of Alberta releases a draft of the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills Sub-Regional Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for public review. Subsequently, nearly 300 people attend public forums in Nanton, Claresholm, Crowsnest Pass and Lundbreck and comment on the IRP. Their comments are considered in the development of the IRP’s draft plan revisions.

    1985

    The Alberta Forest Service conducts a major removal of limber pine from an area of the Whaleback Ridge supposedly infected by mountain pine beetle. The selective logging was done despite inconclusive evidence that the area was in fact infected.  AWA asserts that a program like this is regrettable in an area whose primary use is for wilderness recreation and wildlife habitat.

    1980

    The development of the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills Sub-Regional Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) begins.

    1977

    The Government of Alberta releases A Policy for Resource Management of the Eastern Slopes, which places watershed management as a top priority of the Eastern Slopes, including the management of the Whaleback.

    1914-1932

    Sporadic, small-scale mining occurs throughout the area. Three mines operate near the mouth of Bob Creek: the Wilson-Dennis coal mine, the Bob Creek coal mine site and the Jeffrey Coal Mine.

    1883
    The Walrond Ranch is established just southeast of the Whaleback, encompassing 275,640 acres of foothills. The Ranch is one of four giants of Alberta’s cattle industry in the late-1800s and early-1900s before going bankrupt in 1907.

    1880

    Overhunting causes the extirpation of bison within the Whaleback; cattle grazing becomes the dominant land-use of the area

    1858

    Captain Blakiston maps the area as part of the Palliser Expedition. This expedition sought potential railway routes to cross the Southern Rocky Mountains.

    1792

    Joined by Peigan guides, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named of Peter Fidler explores the Whaleback region.

    Pre-Contact

    Indigenous Peoples have inhabited the Livingstone-Porcupine, the region surrounding the Whaleback, for over 12,000 years. These lands were part of the core overwintering territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksikaitsitapi), consisting of Kanai, Siksika, and Amksapi Piikani, were commonly known as the Piikani. They were one of the strongest military forces in North America.

    September 26, 2017

    Sustainable Forests and Communities

    August 3, 2014

    2004 Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trails Act

    2004 Black Creek Heritage Rangeland Trails Act, BILL 2 2004_BL_WH.pdf

    Read more »

    December 1, 2008

    Wilderness and Creativity – Reflections from the Whaleback

    Wild Lands Advocate article, December 2008, by Bob Blaxley   200812_ar_wla_whaleback_blaxley.pdf

    Read more »

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