grasslands

Grasslands

At one time, large expanses of diverse grasses, wildflowers and shrubs stretched across much of Canada. Unfortunately, grasslands are now one of the most endangered ecosystems of North America. It is estimated that up to 75 per cent of Canada’s natural grasslands have been lost due to development and conversion to agriculture. In Alberta only 43 per cent of native grasslands remain. CPAWS SAB is working to protect what remains of native grasslands and the critical habitat they provide.

Grasslands are rich in varying landscapes ranging from the flat or gently rolling grasslands, to lush coulees (wooded valleys), wide river valleys, aspen bluffs, delicate and shifting sand hills, beautiful badlands and seasonal wetlands (sloughs) cradled in low spots everywhere and filled by spring runoffs. It is a land pulsating with life. The grasslands of southern Alberta provide many environmental, economic and social benefits to residents of the province, such as the maintenance of biodiversity and the protection of our air, soil and water resources.

Approximately 75 per cent of Alberta’s species at risk are found within the grassland natural region of the province. Many species, such as the threatened ferruginous hawk and the endangered swift fox require large undisturbed areas of prairie that contain suitable habitat and food sources for them to survive. A pair of ferruginous hawks can eat 300 gophers in a summer, providing a valuable service to farmers.

Maintaining full vegetation cover helps to preserve the fertility of the soil while filtering sediment and pollutants from the water. Native prairie cover also provides important pollination services for nearby agriculture as it offers pollinator species a place to live.

Native grasslands and pastures play an important role in climate regulation as they store large amounts of carbon in the soil. Some rangeland ecosystems sequester more carbon per acre than a rainforest. When grazed grasslands are converted for cropland production, much of the stored organic carbon gets released to the atmosphere, thus increasing carbon emissions.

The threat

These remaining grassland areas face multiple threats including: urban expansion, oil and gas activity, road construction, and conversion to agriculture. While the grasslands are often overshadowed by the dramatic Rocky Mountains, this region’s quiet beauty permeates the landscape.

What CPAWS is doing

In the summer of 2010, CPAWS SAB completed a preliminary assessment of environmentally significant areas within the grasslands of the South Saskatchewan Region (SSR) (For full report click here). Through this work, three areas of concern were identified based on their ecological significance and activities that could potentially threaten their integrity; the Milk River – Sage Creek Area, the South Saskatchewan Canyon – Chappice Lake Area and the Hays Reservoir and Bow River Area.

In 2011, CPAWS SAB took a closer look at the South Saskatchewan Canyon –  Chappice Lake Area and investigated potential management tools and options to conserve this critical grassland ecosystem. This work entailed a social research component conducting interviews with local stakeholders, grazing lease holders, and land managers to discuss issues in the area and potential solutions to address them. Through this work we learned more about the diverse threats facing the native grasslands of the South Saskatchewan Canyon area, including wind power developments, oil and gas extraction, and invasive weeds. Various solutions were discussed ranging from better communication between stakeholders and land managers to potential Heritage Rangeland designation for portions of the region. A full report detailing this research and the resulting recommendations can be found here.

By working with local stakeholders and land managers, we were able to include a local perspective in our recommendations. Our recommendations combine this essential local knowledge with grasslands science to ensure both the ecological integrity of the grasslands and their economic viability as important range land are ensured into the future. We would like to thank all those that took time to speak with us during this research effort and provide their perspectives and visions for the future of this important landscape.

CPAWS Southern Alberta is also part of the Prairie Conservation Forum, a coalition of approximately 50 organizations including: agricultural groups, conservation groups, land and resource management organizations, federal and provincial agencies, local/regional authorities and service agencies, industry, academia, and individuals. These members are all dedicated to advancing conservation of prairie landscapes.

With so much at stake for species at risk, carbon and water storage, and a part of Alberta’s cultural heritage, finding ways to conserve what remains of our native grasslands is essential for a healthy environment and healthy communities.

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