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The northernmost extent of the Great Plains, Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region is one of the most diverse and least protected regions in the province.

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.

    • Introduction
    • Features
    • Concerns
    • Archive
    • Other Areas

    Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region falls within the northernmost extent of the North American Grasslands, or Great Plains, which extend from Mexico, through the United States and into the Canadian Prairie Province of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Alberta, the Grasslands cover an area of 95,566 km2 in the south-easternmost corner of the province (14.4% of Alberta), where the warm, arid to semi-arid climate is conducive to growth and success of native prairie species. The Grasslands are also distinguished by their permanent and temporary wetlands, covering approximately 18 percent of the Natural Region and a major attraction for migratory birds and waterfowl. Although it is facing enormous threats, Alberta’s prairie region contains some of the world’s best and most important remaining grassland, containing over 75 percent of Alberta’s species at risk. Only Texas and North Dakota retain a larger native prairie land base than Alberta.

    There are four distinct Natural Subregions that make up Alberta’s Grasslands: Dry Mixedgrass, making up the majority of Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region (48.7 percent); Foothills Fescue on the western boundary (15.5 percent); Northern Fescue to the north (15.9 percent); and Mixedgrass interspersed throughout the Natural Region (19.9 percent).

    Today, only 1.25 percent of Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region is protected under parks and other legislated protected areas. 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. Within the Grasslands Natural Region AWA has identified eight areas of concern and two major watersheds, including:

    Dry Mixedgrass and Mixedgrass Subregions

    Northern Fescue

    Foothills Fescue

    Status

    The Grasslands Natural Region is contained within the White Area (settled portion) of Alberta, containing a mix of private and public lands. The majority of the public land in the White Area has been granted as dispositions for various land uses including agriculture, oil and gas extraction and grazing. As of 2018, only 1.25% of Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region is protected under Parks and other legislated protected areas.

    Management

    The Public Lands Act governs public lands within the Grasslands Natural Region, particularly as it pertains to watershed protection [S. 54 (1)] and the unauthorized usage of public lands [S. 47 (1)]. Section 54(1) (d) states that “no person shall cause, permit or suffer the doing of any act on public land that may injuriously affect watershed capacity”.

    In 2008, the Government of Alberta promised to develop seven Land-use Framework regional plans that outline an approach to managing Alberta’s land and resources.  Of the seven regions, the Grasslands Natural Region is found in the South Saskatchewan Region, for which the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan was completed in 2014.

    Protected areas within the Grasslands (1.25 percent as of July 2018) are managed under several pieces of legislation. Provincial Protected Areas include eight distinct designations covered by three different legislative acts: the Provincial Parks Act; the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act (WAERNAHR); and the Willmore Wilderness Park Act.

    The Provincial Protected Areas allow variable amounts of human disturbance. The most stringent forms of protection, such as Wilderness Areas and Ecological Reserves, prioritize undisturbed wilderness, whereas other forms of protection, such as Wildland Provincial Parks and Provincial Recreation Areas, prioritize opportunities for recreation. More information on the provincial designations for Protected Areas can be found here.

    A significant portion of Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region is managed by the Government of Canada, and subsequently the Department of National Defence, under the Canadian Forces Base (C.F.B.) Suffield Military Reserve and Suffield National Wildlife Area (NWA).

    Area

    Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region falls within the northernmost extent of the North American Grasslands, or Great Plains, which extend from Mexico, through the United States and into the Canadian Prairie Province of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Alberta, the Grasslands cover an area of 95,566 km2 in the southeastern corner of the province, where the warm, arid climate is conducive to growth and success of native prairie species. The Grasslands are also distinguished by their permanent and temporary wetlands, covering approximately 18 percent of the Natural Region and a major attractant for migratory birds and waterfowl. Alberta’s southeastern grasslands 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, containing over 75 percent of Alberta’s species at risk. Only Texas and North Dakota retain a larger native prairie land base than Alberta.

    There are four distinct Natural Subregions that make up Alberta’s Grasslands: Dry Mixedgrass, making up the majority of Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region; Foothills Fescue on the western boundary; Northern Fescue to the north; and Mixedgrass interspersed throughout the Natural Region.

    Today, only 1.25 percent of Alberta’s Grasslands Natural Region is protected under parks and other legislated protected areas. 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. Within the Grasslands Natural Region AWA has identified eight areas of concern and two major watersheds, including:

    Dry Mixedgrass and Mixedgrass Subregions

    Northern Fescue

    Foothills Fescue

    Watershed

    The majority of the Grasslands Natural Region of Alberta is located within the South Saskatchewan River Basin, which begins at the confluence of the Bow and Oldman rivers and drains northeast where it eventually joins the North Saskatchewan River to become the Saskatchewan River.

    The areas surrounding the Milk River drains into the Milk River basin, which rises in Western Montana, meanders through Alberta for 160 km, and loops back to the United States. Eventually, the waters reach the Missouri River and then the Gulf of Mexico – it is the only Canadian river to do so. The flow of the Milk River is shared by Canada and the United States under a 1909 International Boundary Water Treaty.

    The lush river valleys, permanent marshes, temporary wetlands, and shallow lakes of the Grasslands support a wide diversity of life, including numerous migratory birds and waterfowl.

    Geology

    Similar to many other of the regions in Alberta, the Grasslands in Western Canada and Northern United States were once considered inland seas, leading to the deposition of carbonate rocks, limestones and evaporites.  The Grassland Natural Region was located in the foreland basin of the Rocky Mountains and shows depositions of coal, shale, and other erosional constituents.  This accumulation of coal beds occurred during the Cretaceous period (145 M to 66 M years ago), as sediments were deposited east of the Rocky Mountains.

    During the Quaternary period, around 2.5 million years ago, the most recent ice age occurred, and after seas had regressed Alberta began to experience a period of extensive cooling and glaciation. This ice age contributed to some of the present day geology, as the Grassland Region and almost all of Alberta were subsequently covered by the Laurentide ice sheet.  Formations and structures can be found across the grasslands, showing evidence of glaciation.  Drumlins, hummocky moraines, erratics and eskers are evident in the Cypress Hills and the surrounding Mixed Grasslands, and can be seen across Alberta.  Much of the Grasslands substrate is comprised of glacial till, which can vary in levels of clay, sand or gravel, and contain conglomerate rocks.  There is a smaller presence of loess, a periglacial (or glacier-adjacent) formed clastic topsoil, which can be found in Cypress Hills.

    Environmentally Significant Areas

    The Grasslands Natural Region contains areas of environmental significance to international, national and provincial communities. To find out more about the specific environmentally significant areas, visit AWA’s areas of concern that contain the Grasslands Natural Region:

    Natural Regions and Vegetation

    About 25 percent of Alberta’s rare vascular plant species occur in the Grasslands Region, and about 55 rare species occur in Alberta only in the Grasslands. Trees and shrubs grow only along rivers and streams and in terrain that is protected from the desiccating winds and hot summer sun.

    As one moves north and west from the semi-arid, largely native prairie of southeastern Alberta, moisture increases and the land merges with extensively cultivated prairie areas – most of the native biodiversity has been lost in these areas.

    Dry Mixedgrass Natural Subregion

    • “Mixedgrass” refers to the mixture of short and mid-height grasses. The most widespread grasses in this subregion are blue grama, needle-and-thread, June grass, and western wheat grass. In spring and summer, many species of wildflowers are sprinkled among the grasses.
    • Shrubs include silver sagebrush, silverberry (also known as wolf willow), buckbrush, and prickly rose.
    • Along river valleys, tall forest and shrub communities thrive, including plains cottonwood, willow, and thorny buffaloberry.

    Mixedgrass Natural Subregion

    • Climate is similar to the Dry Mixedgrass Subregion, with slightly cooler and moister conditions.
    • Dry, sandy sites contain needle-and-thread grass, northern wheatgrass, sand grass, and June grass. On moister soils, blue grama grass, needle grasses and northern wheat grass thrive.
    • Species on the slopes of the Cypress Hills include plains rough fescue, western porcupine grass, and sedges.
    • Ravines, coulees, and other sheltered areas provide habitat for shrubs, including buckbrush, silver sagebrush, silverberry, and prickly rose.
    • Tree species include plains and narrowleaf cottonwood and balsam poplar along the Oldman River, and balsam poplar in the Cypress Hills.

    Northern Fescue Natural Subregion

    • Vegetation is transitional between prairie and parkland, showing characteristics of both regions
    • The Northern Fescue Subregion is naturally dominated by plains rough fescue, Alberta’s provincial grass.
    • Grasses on the driest sites include blue grama, northern wheat grass, sand grass, and June grass. Moister sites contain western porcupine grass, plains rough fescue, northern wheatgrass, and porcupine grass.
    • Other plant species include balsam poplar, aspen, plains cottonwood, willow, sedge, bulrush, and common cattail.

    Foothills Fescue Natural Subregion

    • Foothills Fescue is characterized by cooler summers, a shorter growing season, warmer winters, and more precipitation than the other three Subregions.
    • Herbaceous plants are diverse, including species not common in other Subregions, such as sticky purple geranium and silvery perennial lupine.
    • The prevalence of mountain rough fescue, Parry oat grass, and bluebunch fescue distinguish this Subregion from the others.

    Wildlife

    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. These species thrived within the abundant niches of the Grassland landscapes: glacial landforms, permanent and intermittent wetlands, badlands, sand dunes, and river valleys with coulees, ravines, and cottonwood forests. Now, the Grasslands Natural Region is known for its high concentration of species listed as Special Concern, Threatened, Extirpated, or Endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

    Some of the rare species currently present on Alberta’s native plains include Ord’s kangaroo rat, Sprague’s pipit, swift fox, Great Plains toad, yucca moth, and mountain plover. Common species among the four Natural Subregions include:

    • Carnivores: Coyote, American badger, red fox, swift fox
    • Ungulates: Elk, pronghorns, mule deer and white-tailed deer. Historically, bison roamed the Canadian prairies prior until they were hunted nearly to extinction in the 1870s and 1880s.
    • Small mammals: Richardson’s ground squirrel, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, white-tailed jack rabbit, Ord’s kangaroo rat (rare), and deer mouse
    • Birds: Ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, prairie falcon, sharp-tailed grouse, horned lark, McCown’s longspur, chestnut collared longspur, Baird’s sparrow, mountain bluebird, upland sandpiper, western meadowlark, lark bunting
    • Reptiles and amphibians: Western hognose snake, chorus frog, leopard frog, plains spadefoot toad and garter snake

    Cultural

    Grasslands hold great cultural significance to Indigenous Peoples, who have inhabited the plains since time immemorial. The Grasslands of Alberta are the territory of the peoples of Treaty 7, including Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy), consisting of Kanai, Siksika, and Piikani Nations.

    An area called Aisinai’pi (or Writing-On-Stone), in AWA’s Milk River-Sage Creek Area of Concern, holds particular significance to the Blackfoot Nation as the site holds thousands of petroglyphs, hundreds of pictographs, and is known to be a spiritual meeting place. Thousands of cultural artifacts, including tipi rings, stone circles, medicine wheels and buffalo jumps are located across the plains.

    Sandstone pillars in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. Photo © G. Wark

    Conversion of native prairie
    The Northern and Northwestern Mixed Grasslands have been heavily impacted by human activities with extensive conversion of native prairie into cropland, settlements, and for industrial use and development. With this comes significant fragmentation by roads and associated infrastructure such as wellsites. More than 80 percent of the native prairie landscape in Alberta has been replaced by other land uses. AWA is concerned that this development and land conversion is encroaching on the few remaining intact stretches of native grassland in Alberta.

    In order to conserve Alberta’s native prairies, which are already highly developed, Alberta must achieve a mixture of protected areas, well-managed public lands and conservation on private lands through thoughtful stewardship, sustainable grazing and conservation easements.

    Energy
    Oil and gas poses a number of threats to the Grasslands Natural Region. Given the scarcity of native grasslands in Alberta and their limited protective status, oil and gas exploration along with thousands of orphaned wells threaten to convert what grasslands remain. In addition to surface disturbance, energy development introduces invasive species into the prairies through roads and other forms of linear disturbance; these species will outcompete native grassland vegetation, further reducing the abundance and distribution of native prairie habitat.

    A newer threat exists in developing wind farms and coalbed methane. Although wind farms are a promising form of renewable energy, their land-use footprint is considerable and care needs to be exercised to ensure that future wind farms do not encroach upon Alberta’s native grasslands.

    Species at risk
    The environmental change in the prairies of Alberta is underscored by the disproportionately large number of species there that are currently at risk compared to Alberta’s other Natural Regions. This environmental change is the result of fragmentation, degradation and loss of grassland habitat. 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 percent are either endemic or nearly endemic to regions within Alberta. The continued existence of these at-risk species depends on the survival of the Great Plains. Some of the COSEWIC species of concern include swift fox, mountain plover, sage grouse, soapweed, western spiderwort, short-horned lizard, and Great Plains toad.

    Water Allocations
    Water licenses in the South Saskatchewan River basin have been over allocated, largely for irrigation purposes. During dry seasons, insufficient water remains in sections of the Bow and Oldman river sub-basins to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems; current summer flows in the South Saskatchewan are at 15 percent of what they were in the early 1900s (Schindler and Donahue 2006).

    Water shortages are expected to escalate with climate changes: research indicates that Southern Alberta will experience significant decreases in annual streamflow and increases in water demands from both cities and irrigation districts (Islam and Gan 2011).   By 2050, it is expected that the Red Deer River will see a 13% decrease in stream flows during the summer months (ICLEI Canada, 2011).

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With rare exception cattle ranchers have been the best of guardians of the land entrusted to them. May we continue to be conscientious caretakers of this precious resource and hand it on to another generation unspoiled.
- Gerald Brewin, Rancher in the Taber area 1929 - 2016
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