Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Another good weather forecast led Shelley and I to a trip to Grasslands National Park on the long weekend.

Grasslands is split into two parts, the West Block which is more developed and has an "eco tour" road through it, and the East Block which is mostly undeveloped. Of course, I prefer the East Block :-)

If you look on Google maps you'll see the park as two solid blocks. But in reality the "park" is as much a vision as a reality. Much of the park is "projected" i.e. the land is not part of the park yet. I hope it gets completed, but you wonder whether that will happen in this age of shrinking budgets.

We left Sat. morning after the Farmers Market, stopping for lunch at Coffee Encounters in Moose Jaw. We arrived at the McGowan's entrance to the East Block around 4pm and hiked for about 2.5 hours (10 km) to a campsite I'd found on a previous trip. You could camp pretty much anywhere, but this spot has a commanding view and a rock outcropping for interest. The weather was warm and calm, hardly a breath of wind - unusual for the prairies!

The next day (Sun.) we packed up camp and hiked a big loop to the north and west. We saw deer, coyote, rabbit, owl, hawk. It was another beautiful day, a bit of a breeze, but that was actually pleasant since it got quite warm. We explored an old abandoned farm house and yard. Hard to imagine how isolated it would have been to live here before telephones (let alone internet).

One of our challenges for the day was to find drinking water. There are various creeks but most of them are intermittent muddy pools - not too appetizing. We ended up getting water from Wetherall Creek which was at least running steadily. The water was reasonably clear and tasteless, despite the cattle all around sharing the water and trampling the muddy banks. (Don't worry, we treated the water with Aquatabs)

We camped Sun. night at the foot of Red Butte. The weather Mon. morning was cloudy and cool with a sprinkle of rain. We hiked back to the car and headed home. In all we hiked about 45 km. It was nice to feel pleasantly tired albeit a little foot-sore.

I was disappointed to find so many cattle inside the park areas. We didn't see any in the area immediately around the entrance, but everywhere else they seemed common.There is a school of thought that says the prairies evolved along with buffalo, and to maintain their natural state they need to be grazed. But cattle are not buffalo. And with climate change we're never going to maintain the original prairie. One of the problems with cattle (as we found) is that they trash water courses, trampling them into muddy messes and destroying plants growing around them. Even if the cattle are at a low density overall, they tend to congregate, especially around water, where they also do the most damage. We've got plenty of cattle infested pasture land, I'd rather see the national park take a different path. I don't go to Grasslands National Park to wander through the cattle and cow pies. In the West Block they have reintroduced bison, which is great. If that's not feasible in the East Block for some reason, why not let the grasslands find their own new equilibrium? Change will happen regardless.

According to Environmental Assessment of the Grasslands Grazing Experiment in Grasslands National Park of Canada originally cattle were excluded here as in other national parks. But it was felt that the ecosystem was suffering from the lack of grazing. Maybe there's some truth to that. But look at what the experimental reintroduction of grazing involved - fences, corrals, dredging, pumping systems, generators, pipelines, and increased vehicle traffic. I'm sure that's all going to help the ecosystem.  And from what we saw, it doesn't seem like a controlled experiment. Fences are down in places and cattle are wandering in and out of the park areas.

1 comment:

  1. Although I agree with your thoughts on the cattle, there is another angle to the pro-cattle argument: biodiversity. Some species prefer overgrazed grassland (Horned Larks, Burrowing Owls). The same goes for fire - some species will come to an area for only the first year after it is burnt and then leave. The concept makes sense - biodiversity needs landscape diversity.

    I suspect the reason they don't have bison in the east block has more to do with the patchwork nature of the park and local resistance than anything else (if cattle can get into the park, bison could get out).

    I've also heard it argued (and not by anyone who has connections to the industry) that grass-fed beef raised on responsibly managed native grasslands are the closest thing we have to large scale sustainable agriculture.

    But again, I agree with you - I'd prefer no cattle in my National Park. We walked through a remote sheep field in Gros Morne (I'm pretty sure they must have brought the sheep in by boat) and it was annoying trying to avoid the patties.