At 1,466m, this is often described as the highest elevation in mainland Canada between Labrador and the Rocky Mountains. It is an island on the Canadian prairies. It was once a seaside resort. It has a bloody past.
Rewind 68 million years, the Bearspaw Sea, which covered most of southern Alberta, had started a retreat to the east leaving a forested, semi-tropical land. Over millennia, various layers of sedimentary rock were deposited. Importantly, between 11 and 50 million years ago, a conglomerate layer of rock was deposited, the result of the formation of the Rocky Mountains to the west and the uplift of the Sweet Grass hills to the south. Rivers cascading off the Sweet Grass hills carried cobbles and gravel to this area. This conglomeratic rock layer is hard — but the cement that binds it is porous, filtering the rainwater that falls on this land — and as soft layers of sedimentary rock in the surrounding area were eroded, this area became an isolated island, surround by a prairie sea. As the glaciers moved across the landscape, this island kept its head above ice, unaltered by the Ice Age.
This is Manâtakâw. This is the Beautiful Upland. This is the Cypress Hills.
At various times, this area was home to — a meeting point for — or a conflict zone between various American Indian and First Nations peoples including the Cree, Assiniboine, Atsina, Blackfoot, Saulteaux, Sioux, and Crow. To the Cree, this area was known as Manâtakâw: the Beautiful Upland.
The headwaters of Battle Creek are found here. “Battle Creek” is an apt name for this part of the world; downstream is the location of the Cypress Hills massacre, where 23 Assiniboine were murdered on June 2, 1873. In 1876, Chief Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapaa Sioux, sought refuge in the Cypress Hills, after he had routed Colonel Custard at the battle of the Little Big Horn. The nascent Northwest Mounted Police (now RCMP) granted Sitting Bull and his people sanctuary.
Its history is as rich as its biodiversity and ecological importance.
The waters of Battle Creek, which gently seep up from the ground in the Park, ultimately flow several thousand kilometres southwards, into the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the Cypress Hills form a major north-south continental divide — other rivers drain northwards, to Hudson Bay and James Bay. Surprisingly the headwaters, are currently not protected from cattle grazing. Local ranchers are permitted to graze their cattle in the Park for a nominal fee, much lower than market rates. While the rough fescue grasses in the Park certainly require grazing, this agricultural activity is not being managed in a sustainable way, and it is not generating any significant income for the Park.
Few areas of the Park, it seems, are off-limits to the cattle. And yet the 2011 Cypress Hills Provincial Park Management plan speaks to the need for grazing only in grassland ecosystems.
There is little in the way of riparian vegetation in the headwaters areas. The headwaters, instead, rise up onto heavily trampled ground, caused by the hooves of cattle, and small pools of water have formed in the dimpled land. Cow-pies are abundant. This is not as headwaters should be.
Another area of concern is prairie grassland.
The dominant grass type in Cypress Hills is rough fescue, and the protection of fescue grasslands is extremely important. Prairie grasslands represent one of the most at-risk ecosystems in the world and, to date, only 1.7% of Alberta’s grasslands are represented in the provincial protected areas network. In particular, these areas are stressed by intense urban, agricultural and oil and gas development.
Grasslands provide a number of essential services to the environment. They play a key role in protecting water quality, serving as a biological filter to cleanse water of contaminants, they reduce the risk of flooding by absorbing excess water during heavy rainfall, and they help conserve soil by protecting it from erosion. Without the grasslands and their root systems holding the soil in place, wind and water would carry away precious prairie topsoil.
The rough fescue grasses are incredibly nutritious for grazing animals — elk, deer, cows and buffalo. And, a symbiotic relationship exists between grazers and the health and diversity of these endangered rough fescue grasses. The Park needs the cows to graze the rough fescue, thereby increasing species diversity and stopping the encroachment of fir and lodgepole pine trees into the Park’s grasslands. It seems that active management (like herding cattle) is lacking. Better fencing – and wildlife friendly fencing – could certainly see to that. Water issues can be solved with wells and solar pumps. If money is the issue, why are Parks almost giving away the grazing for free? Why does a provincial park tolerate riparian areas being trampled? Should we not expect more from a protected area?
The Cypress Hills grasslands are home to an incredible array of species from shrews, bats, rabbits, cougars, coyotes, elk, moose, deer, beavers, antelope and raccoons to several species of butterfly, many invertebrates, and countless birds and ducks. These grasslands are also home to the endangered greater sage grouse which recently benefited from a court-ordered emergency protection order thanks to the hard work and persistence of the legal team at Ecojustice. Only an estimated 150 birds remain in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
According to ESRD research, even grizzly bears could be supported by the landscape from the Cypress Hills to Milk River Ridge. But social and industrial use precludes their successful establishment just as it impacts those populations in the busier parts of the Rockies. Unfortunately, pioneering wolves that have tried to reclaim this land have been promptly shot by local ranchers.
The grasslands of this area are of significant importance, as is the appropriate stewardship of those grasslands. Science tells us that cattle should not be left to roam free over most of the areas of the Park, especially the headwaters and riparian areas. However, primarily due to financial reasons, the execution of appropriate stewardship seems to be out of reach for the time being.
This area is rich in geological, pioneering and aboriginal history. It’s also significant in environmental importance and in species diversity. Not least, it is rich in its incredible beauty. We should all do our upmost to keep it that way. We should all do our upmost to keep it Manâtakâw.