Whole is Greater than the Sum

The climate, landscapes, watershed, soils, plants, and animals help make up the Scenic Views of Medicine Hat. The purpose of this section is to provide information about these parts, their importance, and how they rely on each other to produce a healthy environment that we can enjoy. This “Whole” helps support the social, economic, and environmental benefits we desire. Two of these benefits are outdoor recreation, and enjoyment and wellness. While enjoying nature we must be careful to avoid creating damage that results in reduced biodiversity and recreation value. Changes like reduced native plant cover, less wildlife and their habitat, and more invasive species indicate that that individual part(s) are not functioning properly. This can damage natural areas for recreation uses such as birding, photography, walking, and relaxing. Damage or loss to the parts results in less total benefits.

Conservation organizations such as the Society of Grasslands Naturalists, Medicine Hat Interpretive Program, and the South East Alberta Watershed Alliance, along with the City of Medicine Hat are at work to help reduce these unhealthy environmental impacts such as litter (garbage and waste) clean-up days, weed control, reclamation, and restoration projects. To achieve success we need all citizens and tourists to participate in stewardship actions.

Climate, Land and Water Scapes

Thousands of years ago advancing and receding glaciers shaped our landscapes through the processes of erosion, weathering, and deposition. Today we see the results of these processes are evident in the South Saskatchewan River Valley and associated landscapes such as cliffs, coulees, hills, slopes, waterways, and flats. Integrated into these landscapes are a variety of wetlands including creeks, drainages, ponds, and sloughs. Over the last 12,000 years, native plants and animals have become adapted to our semi-arid climate. These species are hardy and resilient; however, they are also sensitive to human-caused disturbance such as pollution, erosion, and soil loss. Some wildlife species are more sensitive such as the Northern Leopard Frog, Prairie Rattlesnake, Baird Sparrow, and Ferruginous Hawk.

In Southeastern Alberta we live in a semi-arid native grassland called the Dry Mixedgrass. The soils in the Dry Mixedgrass belong to the Brown Soil Zone which means these soils are less productive than some of our darker coloured soils found in the Foothills, Parkland, and the moisture areas of the Mixedgrass Prairie. Alberta Environment and Parks (2013) estimates the original Dry Mixedgrass covered some 4.8 million hectares. However, today our development has reduced this area to about 2 million hectares. We know that a percentage of these grasslands in our city are modified with invasive grasses such as Crested Wheatgrass and Downy Brome Grass.

It is important that we work together to help protect the remaining native grasslands in our city from further disturbance and loss. Achieving this protection will sustain and support the many benefits. You can help achieve this goal by controlling invasive species in your home yards, avoiding making new trails, and putting your garbage and waste in the nearest garbage container.

In Medicine Hat, you will find small to large patches of native grasslands in developed and undeveloped parts of the city including neighbourhoods, parks, sensitive environmental areas, and Reserve lands. Some examples include the hills found in the scenic views of Jeffries, McCutcheon and Echo Dale to Campground Escarpment; as well as Reserve lands such as Burnside and North East Crescent Heights. Recently the City’s Parks and Recreation Department is working on the protection and education of a native grassland area in Ranchlands. For more information about our green spaces and Parks see Fig. 12 on page 53; and for present and future residential development, see Fig. 14 on page 61 of the City’s Municipal Development Plan (2020 to 2050).

In our city, we have a variety of sites defined by soil features such as saline lowlands, sub-irrigated, sands, loamy, and shallow to gravel. These sites provide different opportunities for a variety of plant and animal species to live and grow. Some species may be found in many of these sites while others favour a particular site. For example, the Lazuli Bunting and Yellow Chat are birds that prefer brushy and wooded areas. The Prairie Cottonwood tree prefers the riparian areas that are periodically flooded, and have a higher water table. Nature’s variety of life (landscapes, sites, plants and animal species) provide many different kinds of passive and active recreation uses, enjoyment, and wellness in our city.

How can you tell you are in a native grassland patch? You will find a biodiversity of native grasses, wildflowers (forbs), and depending on the site woody plants like Silver Sagebrush and Winter Fat. If you bend down, you will find growing in this “Prairie Wool” a low cover consisting of mosses, lichens, and litter (weathered plant material from previous year’s growth). Together, live plants and litter help to seal in the moisture and protect the soil from wind and water erosion. Common to all native grasslands is their use by a variety of wildlife species. Wildlife depend on these grasslands and riparian areas for their food, cover, travel corridors, and livelihoods.

Healthy native grasslands sustain a dominance of perennial deep rooted plants, and have three to four distinct vegetation layers (ground cover, medium and tall layers of grasses, wildflowers, and sometimes low shrubs). Bend down on one knee and look through the grassland you are in. Can you see the different layers and their plant species? For example, in the Ground Cover Layer mosses and lichen, and Low Pussy-toes; Needle and Thread Grass and Fringed Sagewort in the Medium Grass and Forb layer; Sand Grass and Wavy-leaved Thistle in the Tall Grass and Forb layer; and Silver Sagebrush and Winter Fat in the Low Shrub Layer.

Plants

There are many different kinds of plants that grow in the native grasslands and riparian areas of Medicine Hat. These native plants belong to groups called: grasses, grass-likes, mosses and lichens, wild flowers, shrubs, and trees. Please visit our brochure: Common Wildflowers of Medicine Hat . The kinds of native plants found on any given spot will depend on factors such as the soil texture, salinity, moisture, aspect, slope, disturbance, and other factors.

Plants of the native grasslands and riparian areas grow in plant communities. These are an association of plants that are dominated by a few species, or a characteristic physical attribute of the soil such as salinity or sands. For example, a plant community that you will discover common in the sandy sites of Medicine Hat is dominated by Needle and Thread, Blue Grama, and Sand Grasses, low grass-like sedges, Golden Aster, Fringed Sagewort, mosses and lichens. Woody plants you may find in these plant communities include a small cover of Common Wild Rose, Silver Sagebrush, and Winter Fat.

Along the river, creeks, and ponds you will find riparian plant communities. These plants are attracted to the increased soil moisture and in some cases, shade. A common plant community that you will find growing along the river at Police Point Park is dominated by the Prairie Cottonwood with an understory of grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs like Buckbrush, Western Clematis, and Wild Rose. In some of the more poorly drained areas you may find a variety of wetland plants such as: Tall Manna Grass, Reed Canary Grass, Common Cattail, Fox-tail Barley, wild mints, Cow Parsnip, and the grass-likes including Baltic and Spiked Rushes, and tall sedges.

In our city we have endangered species. These are at risk species which are considered to have the potential of becoming extinct. An example of an endangered plant species in Medicine Hat is called Tiny Cryptantha. Our city is one of the few places in Canada that has reported these endangered species. It is important that we protect the habitat where endangered species are found, and work together on their recovery.

There is another group of plants called Invasive Species, and include non-native grasses, flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. Many of these plants are defined and regulated under the Alberta Weed Control Act. These undesirable weed species can be found in both native grasslands and riparian areas. When invasive species take over a site, they can become problematic and costly to remove and control. Invasive species have a negative impact on wildlife habitat and wildlife species as such areas often produce less of their preferred food, cover, and other needs. For more information view the Alberta Invasive Species Council website.

Invasive species greatly risk the health and biodiversity of our native grasslands and riparian areas. When these invasive patches become large, they reduce wildlife habitat. For example, the invasive tree Common Buckthorn, can choke out the desirable native Chokecherry and Saskatoon bushes and trees at Police Point, and Kin Coulee Parks, and other green spaces in the city. Native fruit-bearing shrubs and trees are major sources of food for birds, particularly in the fall and winter months. Another example is the Common Burdock, found in moist and shady areas. This large leafy and tall stalky plant grows hundreds of burr seeds which can stick to animals and humans. In this way, the seeds can “hitch a ride” and find a new area to establish and spread, and create problems like choking out native plants and reducing biodiversity.

Where did these invasive species come from? Historically, they have established in Alberta through various means including transportation, shelter belt programs, and private property purchases and plantings. Ironically, many invasive species were planted because of their hardiness, erosion control, and beauty. However, soon these non-native species became aggressive and problematic (invasive). Once established, the seeds of invasive species can continue to spread in a number of ways, including: people, pets, vehicles, water, wind, and birds. Today, we find a number of invasive species in the city. To name a few, they include: Russian olive, Creeping Bellflower, Baby’s Breath, Leafy Spurge, Dame’s Rocket, Dalmatian Toadflax, Puncturevine, Downy and Japanese Brome Grasses. In addition, there are aquatic invasive species found in riparian areas and water bodies (Purple Loosestrife, Yellow Pale Iris, Water Milfoil, and Flowering Rush). Each year, the City of Medicine Hat takes action to help manage and control invasive species.

The City is presently working with conservation groups like the South East Alberta Watershed Alliance and Grasslands Naturalists to help control the establishment and spread of invasive species (regulated and unregulated). In addition, the support and help of property owners to identify and control invasive species in their properties is essential. Researching and planting only non-invasive species in your private properties will greatly help. Support is available through reading materials such as the Grow-Me-Instead brochure which provides a variety of non-invasive horticultural and native species choices. To learn more, visit the Alberta Invasive Species Council webpage on this topic.

Animals

Medicine Hat has a biodiversity of wildlife species including birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, spiders and other invertebrates. Some of these species are common year-round such as: the Blue Jay, Bald Eagle, Porcupine, Mule and White-tailed Deer, Coyote, American Badger, Richardson’s Ground Squirrel, Magpie, Raven, Prairie Garter Snake, and Cottontail Rabbit. Others are seasonal like the Turkey Vulture or Great Blue Heron who locate here in the spring to fall months. In the case of the Pronghorn, we may see these speedy ungulates in all seasons around the outskirts of our city. When there are bad snow storms and deep snow cover, the Pronghorn may come into the city to find shelter and food found in coulee draws and exposed grassland hills. There they will browse on Silver Sagebrush leaves and twigs, their staple winter food. In recent years, it has become common to hear reports of Moose in the environmental reserve along the Seven Persons and Ross Creeks, and in the Parks along the river.

For common birds species in our city, see the Scenic Views of Medicine Hat write-ups. There is also the detailed information Guide, “Birding Trails of Southeastern Alberta”. We also have a biodiversity of insects which are very important to the city’s ecosystem. These animals provide food for many other species. They also carry out important roles such as decomposition and soil building. This work is accomplished by the Wood Ant, and soil micro-organisms such as Roundworms (Nematodes). Another very interesting insect, called the Badlands Tiger Beetle is found in exposed sandstone and clay soils found on the exposed, south facing rims of grassland hills. A very fast runner, the tiger beetle family has been reported to run at speeds up to 2.5 m/second or about 9 km/hour. Discover their flashes of scintillating green, a hairy forehead, and an underbelly of blue-green. We also have dragon and damsel flies, butterflies, and bees. These are amazing creatures to observe them feeding on the nectar in wild flowers. We appreciate these pollinators, as they provide life giving food services to all creatures, including people.

For additional information about some of the animals, you may find in Medicine Hat go to the Grasslands Naturalists website.. There you will find brochures on the Common Butterflies of the Medicine Hat Area, and the Birding Trails Guide of Southeastern Alberta. Also visit in our website’s Resource Materials, the Field Guide called, Sprague’s Pipit ….Phantom Singer of the Prairies, prepared by Marty Drut, Medicine Hat Interpretive Program. Scenic Views contain further descriptions of several of the common birds you may find observe in our grassland, brushy, woodland, and riparian spaces.

Unfortunately, there are wildlife that are considered “At Risk, May be At Risk, or Sensitive”. These include the Northern Leopard Frog, Long-billed Curlew, Prairie Rattlesnake, and Bullsnake. These animals require special attention and protection to prevent their possible extinction from our city. For further information about Alberta Species At Risk, visit the Alberta Wild Species Status website. This website lists at risk birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. For insects, see the Alberta Parks webpage.

Similar to plants there are also invasive animal species that are present in Medicine Hat. Of particular note are Gold Fish and Domestic Rabbits. Goldfish have been found in Connaught, College, and Leinweber Ponds, and may be present in other standing and moving water bodies. It is important that we do not release such invasive animal species into the wild. You can help by not releasing your pet gold fish in ponds, or allowing your pet rabbits to become feral in our neighbourhoods and green spaces. Both these invasive species can transmit diseases to our native fish species and Cottontail Rabbits. Additionally, pet rabbits may cross with our native Cottontail Rabbit and reduce their genetic biodiversity. Invasive animals compete with native wildlife for food and habitat resources. As with plants, once established they can spread quickly and are hard to eradicate. Biodiversity and the health of the environment is at risk when invasive animal species are released and allowed to spread and increase their populations.

People

The National Geographic Society defines the whole (ecosystem) as a “geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscapes, work together to form a bubble of life. Ecosystems contain living parts, as well as non-living parts. These include plants, animals, and other organisms, rocks, temperature, and humidity.”

People are part of Medicine Hat’s urban ecosystem. When you are enjoying the parks and open spaces, you are participating in our City’s rich culture and history as influenced by Indigenous peoples including the Blackfoot Confederacy and Metis, and the building of the City of Medicine Hat. For more detailed information see our Indigenous and City History sections.

Statistics Canada (2020) reports our City has a population of 65,527 people living in an area of about 112 square km. We have an estimated population density of about 585 people/square km. Using the period of time between 2017 and 2020, our population increased at a rate of about 0.37%; although the rate of change is very much dependent on our economy, employment, and other factors. The City of Medicine Hat’s Municipal Development Plan and Recreation Master Plan (2020-2050) estimates that in 2050 our population could reach 80,000 people.

Grasslands Naturalists estimates the present number of recreation users is likely greater than 30,000/year plus tourists. In the near future, we will likely see an increase in the demand for outdoor recreation, as well as increased recreation trails and facilities in our city. We are becoming better informed about the health and wellness benefits of outdoor recreation and its affordability. Presently the City is working on building an Environmental Framework and Master Plan.

On any given day, time, season of use, and the Scenic View being used, you can find families, individuals, and organizations enjoying the many parks, trails, and other open spaces in your city. All these people enjoy a variety of active and passive recreation uses, such as biking and walking, picnicking, and reading. It has been said, that our city has an abundance of green spaces and trails to appreciate a variety of outdoor recreation activities. On some days, such as the weekends and holidays, the recreation use can be high. During the week, and depending on the weather, the recreation use can be much lower. This ebb and flow of people using and interacting with our urban ecosystem for recreation enjoyment has many health, wellness, and economic benefits. Benefits are numerous and include personal fitness and health, and income to recreation business such as rental and sale of equipment, clothing and food.

However, if we are not careful, excessive human use can create a number of negative impacts and scenarios (pollution, erosion, invasive species). We can minimize these negative impacts by acting as stewards. This includes putting your bottles and cans into provided re-cycling containers (or taking them home), and putting garbage and waste into the nearest garbage container. Help monitor and control any invasive species you find in home properties (including back alleys and boulevards) and help prevent the spread of their seed into our green spaces. Remember to keep on the designated recreation trails and avoid creating new trails. Exposed and eroding soil reduces native plant cover, increases the risk of invasive species establishment, and can reduce wildlife biodiversity. Stewardship actions will help us reduce maintenance costs and taxes. These days it can be very costly to treat an area for invasive species, and to reclaim their disturbed area back to native plant cover and wildlife habitat.

Stewardship……….Let’s Just Do It!

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