A Case for Protecting Native Grasslands

Prepared by the Society of Grasslands Naturalists March 2020.

Introduction

The purpose of this document is to provide information to support the protection of native grasslands, which are also referred to as rangelands, prairie wool, and unbroken prairie. It is the hope that future generations can continue to reap the harvests of good planning, wise investment, and stewardship

This document has been prepared by request after informal discussion with planning officials at the public presentation about the Brier Run development.  However, the information gathered is generally applicable also to other patches of native grasslands in Medicine Hat and Area.

The following relevant observations have been gathered from publications by, and conversations with the Society of Grasslands Naturalists, SEAWA, “Cows & Fish”, and instructors in environmental awareness and education in the field of ecology.

Some people wonder about the importance of protecting native grasslands and riparian areas in city and suggest that conservation efforts are better applied to the vast landscapes of natural prairie that exist in the Crown and private ranchlands in Southern Alberta.  Grassland Naturalists believes that everyone in all jurisdictions needs to contribute to the protection and conservation of native grasslands and riparian areas.  In doing so, the City can obtain return on their investment from ever increasing valuation of the natural capital. We have a few remaining large patches of intact native grasslands and several smaller patches of native grasslands. Some of the areas within these native grassland types may be disturbed (modified).

A traditional financial business case for conserving natural areas is difficult to create for specific instances of unbroken prairie.   Instead general estimates of the monetary value ecological services of grasslands are listed.  However, planning decisions on specific spaces must also be guided by qualitative considerations important to humans, as well as long-term health of communities of all species that rely on natural spaces.

Historically, the comprehensive Medicine Hat River Valley Study (1977) made important recommendations for the City of Medicine Hat to create a backbone of protected natural spaces from which appropriate development could radiate. The study recommends that:  “All replotting reviews and special studies should include thorough consideration of the recommendations in this report and should be structured to complement and implement them.” (pp. 167).  Recommendations in the River Valley Study and those in this document are in harmony, though the latter covers a larger scope.

Within the City of Medicine Hat, and the tri-municipal area, native grasslands are found in both small and large patches in Ranchlands, Police Point Park, Burnside, Echo Dale, Brier Run, Ross Creek, Hillsides, and West of the City including the Echo Dale Regional Park. The City’s Parks and Recreation has in place a number of stewardship strategies and actions that support the protection of native grasslands in specific parks, namely, Police Point Park, Echo Dale Park, and Ranchlands Environmental Reserve. Native grasslands also grow near creeks and rivers such as Seven Persons and the South Saskatchewan River. The plant communities vary, depending on whether they are on upland sandy soils, on sunny or shady sides of coulees, or near water.

However, today these and other native grasslands are at a higher risk to being disturbed.  Development within, or close to these grasslands and seeding of non-native species that are aggressive and invasive, such as crested wheatgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and Cicer milk-vetch. Some of seed may be unintentionally introduced by the purchase of environmentally friendly seed that has not been screened through a certificate of analysis (e.g. weeds and noxious grasses such as downy brome). All acres of native grasslands in southern Alberta, including Medicine Hat are important to invest in and will benefit the city and its taxpayers for present and future generations

Three important phenomena form the basis for the need to launch strategies immediately to protect grasslands.

  1. Ecological Services. Native grasslands including riparian area are an important source of Natural Capital and provide many Ecological Services.
  2. Native grasslands in SE Alberta, and indeed throughout the world, are at risk.  Grasslands are the most rapidly disappearing ecosystem. Conservation areas need to be in place before development plans can responsibly proceed. The City of Medicine Hat has the present opportunity to identify and put in place strategies and actions that will help protect native grasslands, including riparian areas, that will form a backbone around which future urban development can expand, for the mutual benefit of present and future generations of people and other species.
  3. Many development plans as well as the MDP and IDP are in process without prior commitments to conserve natural space. Both the climate and biodiversity emergencies are products of cumulative effects of local actions everywhere.  We all at every level, from household to municipality to nation, need to do our part to learn, plan and act responsibly. Attention to every bit of unbroken prairie will prevent further unexpected loss of our natural heritage. All acres of native grasslands in southern Alberta, including Medicine Hat are important to invest in and will benefit the city and its tax payers for present and future generations

The following pages expand on the above three phenomena.

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