Forty-five years ago, Brenda Peterson, the daughter of a rancher, didn’t want Grasslands National Park to exist. In 1975, standing at a packed community hearing in Mankota, Sask., the petite, just-married university student studying education, her hair a mop of chestnut curls, spoke passionately against the park. The Saskatchewan Natural History Society first proposed the preserve in the mid-1950s, and, two decades later, the provincial and federal governments were finally considering it.
“I said, ‘My family has looked after this place since 1911,’” she recalls. “‘You think I’m just going to give it to the park? We’re doing a fine job.’” But her group’s protests failed. In 1981, Parks Canada and Saskatchewan signed an agreement to establish the park, and Parks Canada subsequently bought two ranches totalling 140 square kilometres in the Frenchman River area. But when conditions in the agreement about oil and gas exploration and water resource management proved to be unworkable, the acquisition of additional park lands stopped. It wasn’t until 1988 that Saskatchewan and Parks Canada revised their agreement and proceeded with establishing the park, which today is divided into the East Block and West Block and encompasses about 900 square kilometres. Almost overnight, it seemed to Peterson, parks staff posted DO NOT ENTER signs, outraging locals. “One time, they stopped my brother and said he was trespassing — on his own land,” says Peterson. “The park people didn’t know where the border was.”
Now, sitting comfortably on horseback, Peterson, 62, overlooks her family’s historical ranching lands from atop a massive ridge, the wind-whipped grass peeling down along the hillside. She squints into the sun, the horizon a sweep of greys and greens, browns and tans. Grasslands National Park, on the west side of Saskatchewan’s southern edge, represents one of the most threatened terrestrial ecosystems on the planet. For millennia, northern mixed-grass prairie grassland, a perfectly evolved balance of short, mid and tall native grasses, banded a sweeping swath of North America, running from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba down to eastern Wyoming and northern Nebraska. But since Confederation, grasslands ecosystems in Canada have plummeted to an estimated one-quarter of their former range. It’s even worse in the United States, where all but five per cent of native grasslands have been lost to agriculture and residential or commercial development. Today, 98 per cent of Grasslands National Park is critical habitat for imperilled species, including sage grouse, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls and the tiny swift fox.
For decades, community groups, biologists, researchers and park employees have raced to save this region’s threatened wildlife and delicate ecosystems, claiming that human meddling — including agriculture, oil and gas development, and the introduction of invasive species — is the root of the problem. At the same time, ranching families such as Peterson’s, whose cattle have grazed these rambling fields for more than a century, are frequently credited by ecologists for saving and protecting these lands.
Standing alone on the aptly named Million Dollar Viewpoint later that day, overlooking undulating grassy mountains and seemingly endless plains afire from the setting sun, I find myself wondering: once the land is broken, what does it take to fix it?
Today, 98 per cent of Grasslands National Park is critical habitat for imperilled species, including sage grouse, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls and the tiny swift fox.
Bumping along a camel-coloured road, Samantha Fischer’s pickup truck kicks up a plume of dust. Before becoming a resource management officer at Grasslands National Park, Fischer worked as an oil and gas consultant, doing environmental assessments in Alberta. In 2013, she started a master’s degree in natural resources management at the University of Manitoba, specializing in prairie birds and grasslands. She met her fiancée, a fourth-generation rancher, while working at the park, and the couple now live in nearby Val Marie.
As she drives, Fischer points out clouds of tiny songbirds flitting in the grasses around us. “There’s a chestnut-collared longspur,” she says, gesturing at a blur of tiny wings, just one of the park’s 26 species that are endangered, threatened or of special concern. “That’s threatened.”
The feeling of solitude on the grasslands, of being able to see for miles and not see a single building, is one of the remarkable things about this park, says Fischer. Instead, you might see rattlesnakes, bison (which were wiped out in the late 1800s but reintroduced to the park in 2005), blacktailed prairie dogs or dozens of rare birds. “When I first moved here and saw how many birds there were, I couldn’t even understand,” she says. “They were flying off the road in front of my car, and I was like, ‘What is this place?’”
Since the retreat of the glaciers, Indigenous groups, including Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Cree, Sioux, Blackfoot and, eventually, Métis, lived here seasonally, travelling in pursuit of bison and elk. Their archeological record includes campsites, vision quest sites, medicine wheels, lanes used for driving bison and more than 12,000 teepee rings. After the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn against Lt.-Col. George Custer and the American cavalry, Sitting Bull and 4,000 Lakota Sioux settled here.
As the bison dwindled, with the last recorded hunts in the late 1880s, so did the region’s Indigenous communities. In the 1800s, an influx of Métis and ranchers flowed into this region, which was widely regarded as Canada’s last frontier, followed by waves of immigrant families.
The latter were drawn by cheap land and the promise of a fresh start offered by the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which had been passed to encourage settlement and prevent the United States from claiming territory. The federal government encouraged these new Canadian homesteaders to “break the land” — and they did. Relations between farmers and local ranchers quickly soured, aggravated by relentless dust storms, roaring gales and punishing winters. Grasslands’ dry, inescapable winds evaporate water from this land faster and in greater quantities than the sky provides it, leaving it drier than almost any other place in Canada. Without grass to hold it down, soil simply dries out and blows away. “I leave to each and every Mossback [ farmer] my perpetual curse,” wrote one veteran rancher in his early 1900s will, referring to the tension between the two groups. “As some reward to them for their labours in destroying the Open Range. By means of that most pernicious of all implements, the plow.”
Within decades of opening the grasslands to widespread agricultural development, it was clear the government had made a big mistake, wrote historians D.M. Loveridge and Barry Potyondi in From Wood Mountain to the Whitemud: A Historical Survey of the Grasslands National Park Area, their 1977 survey of the proposed national park. “Its initial victim, the small ranchers, had to pay the price a second time, during the [droughts of the] 1930s.”
Herein lies the astounding irony, says Fischer. “What makes this place cool is that it was preserved because it was a working landscape,” she says. “Ranching is the reason that these huge tracts of native prairie stayed in this area.” Still, it took decades for relations between Parks Canada and locals such as Peterson to thaw. Starting in 1984, Parks Canada began buying lands from private landowners using a willing- seller-willing-buyer policy; if a rancher or farmer wanted to stay on his or her land, Parks Canada would wait until they were ready to sell. Parks Canada now owns 96 per cent of the West Block and 61 per cent of the East Block; private landowners hold the remainder. In 2001, Grasslands formally became a national park, and in 2009, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada declared it a Dark-Sky Preserve, one of only 22 across the country. This remains one of the largest, quietest and darkest protected places in the world.
Later that afternoon, I join Fischer and Shelly Larson, a Parks Canada visitor experience manager, for a half-hour hike up 70 Mile Butte, on the West Block’s westernmost edge. As we ascend, a ceiling of pebbly clouds drifts over the mottled, sweeping valleys below. From the top, viewed from the strangely level summit, the horizon seems to stretch forever. This peak served as a First Nations meeting place for thousands of years before it was commandeered as a mid-patrol RCMP resting stop in the late 1800s.
Beyond the park’s official borders are Nature Conservancy of Canada acreages, as well as untouched native prairie on privately owned land. “All this grass has roots that go down so deep that it’s storing immense amounts of carbon,” says Fischer, a pack slung over her shoulders. “If you plow that up, all that carbon is released, all that potential storage, and all that stability from flooding … there’s an intrinsic value to this landscape, and if we don’t protect it, it’s not going to be here.”
Larson, who works primarily in the West Block, married into a prominent ranching family from the area. Her work is about protecting this land, she says, not preserving it in amber. She points out the nearby Two Trees day-use area in the distance, using its large trees — unusual on the grasslands terrain — as a landmark. As it builds additional infrastructure and tourist facilities, Parks Canada is trying to develop visitor-friendly areas and interpretive sites on already disturbed land; Two Trees was once a privately owned homestead.
“If this hadn’t been ranched, this wouldn’t be a park today,” says Larson, as we descend, our view a crumbling valley of bearpaw shale. A handful of verdant farms sprawl in the distance, mostly growing forage for the region’s $5-billion cattle industry. In the distance, the south-flowing Frenchman River, part of the Missouri River system, weaves a meandering trail. Walking along a path beaten to bare rock, small, bushy pasture sage lines our way, a natural border for a carpet of wispy June grass beyond.
In 1994, almost two decades after she spoke out against the park, Brenda Peterson and her husband reached a deal with Parks Canada. They traded their family’s land inside the park for land outside, on its northern edge. “Time heals,” she says. “The park wasn’t going to leave, so it was wise to grow our ranch with the park as a neighbour.”
Seventeen years later, soon after Peterson retired from teaching, the park offered her a job. Now she works at the East Block full-time seasonal, supervising a team of employees, coordinating programs and providing support to campers and day trippers. Her job requires her to wear many hats. These days, for instance, she’s learning how to play the banjo, which she regularly takes up around the fire. And, at the same time, she’s always watching the fire with a sharper eye than most, because she’s also on the park’s standby firefighting crew. Fires are natural in this drought-prone ecosystem, and controlled burns, typically done in the early spring and very late fall, are part of the park’s management plan. But unplanned fires — sometimes caused by people, the rest of the time by lightning— are frequent here; Peterson says they fought one last year for 10 days. “The first day of the fire we were here, the campground was full,” she says. “We got it, but boy, what a fire. It burnt three miles wide and eight miles long.”
For those making the three-hour drive southwest from Regina or the five-hour drive east from Lethbridge, Alta., Peterson will sometimes prepare a home-cooked meal. She once fed a couple from Saskatoon who didn’t expect the park to be so remote. “In these times, it’s hard to believe that there would be nowhere to get a sandwich,” she says.
And for almost every Thanksgiving since 2012, she has cooked a turkey with trimmings for her own family, park staff, day visitors and any campers still at the park. “I have this opportunity to share my passion for the land with them, to share stories and the love for the same lands in a new way. I’m really proud of that …” she says, her voice drifting away, her eyes focusing on the fading horizon.
“We just want all our visitors to love this place as much as we do.”