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Grasslands National Park

Prairie Notes

A National Treasure...Canada's Grasslands

Grasslands National Park of Canada is a land of rolling hills, rugged coulees, and steep ravines. The West Block centres on the Frenchman River Valley and the East Block features the Killdeer "Badlands" and the Wood Mountain "Uplands". Grasslands National Park of Canada is where sky meets prairie at the northern extension of the great plains.

Human Story

Native habitation dates back to 10,000 years ago. By the 1600's, the Gros Ventre followed the bison herds in this area. More recently, the Assiniboine, Cree, Sioux, and Blackfoot also inhabited this grassland area on a seasonal basis. Campsites, tipi rings, vision quest sites, medicine wheels, and bison drive lanes are some of the cultural heritage.

By the 1880's, Euro-Canadian settlement had pushed farther west, bison herds were declining and so were other native species. Cattle herds replaced bison on the open range. Large ranches, like the 76 Ranch, held lease to thousands of acres of grazing lands. The cowboys who worked these ranches were the cowboys of the old west, their lifestyles romanticized on the silver screen.

MacDonald's national policy and the Homestead Act had a noticeable impact on this area by 1908. The Act allowed for grants of crown lands to potential farmers. Farmers took up the homestead challenge and put up fences, which changed a part of ranching forever. Today, farming and ranching coexist to form a unique blend of economies and south-western hospitality.

Establishing The Park

Efforts to protect the grasslands of this area and its native species have been going on for over 50 years by various individuals and groups. During the 1950's and 60's prairie conservationists promoted the protection of a significant area of natural grasslands. In October 1963, members of the Saskatchewan Natural History Society passed a resolution urging the federal government to establish a national park in south-western Saskatchewan. A study of potential park areas was conducted in 1965 in southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta, concluding that the Killdeer Badlands-Frenchman river area was the most suitable.

In 1975, a Memorandum-of-Intent setting out some of the terms and conditions for establishment of Grasslands National Park of Canada (GNPC) was signed by both governments. In accordance with the Memorandum, an independent Public Hearings Board was appointed in 1976 to determine the degree of support for the proposed Grasslands National Park. The Board reported that the Park proposal had the public's support and should proceed.

On June 19, 1981, Canada and Saskatchewan signed an agreement to establish the Park. Subsequently, Parks Canada purchased two ranches totaling 140 km 2 in the Frenchman river area. Acquisition of additional park lands ceased when the conditions in the agreement pertaining to oil and gas exploration and water resource management proved unworkable. Negotiations to resolve the impasse went on for five years.

In 1988, with help of a coalition of non-governmental conservation organizations , an agreement was reached between Canada and Saskatchewan to revise the 1981 accord and proceed with establishment of Grasslands National Park of Canada. The proposed park boundary encompasses approximately in two blocks. Currently, Parks Canada has acquired approximately 80% of the land. The agreement allows Parks Canada to acquire land on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis: allows Saskatchewan to uphold existing water use agreements and uphold international commitments: and, allows Parks Canada 30 years before Saskatchewan can terminate its obligations to the 1988 agreement. Grasslands National Park of Canada was officially proclaimed a national park under the new Canada National Parks Act on February 19, 2001.

The Saskatchewan Natural History Society (now Nature Saskatchewan) has played a significant role in advocacy of the park and in pro-active conservation measures. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has also assisted with establishment of the park. In 1991, Amoco Canada sold its title to mineral rights to Parks Canada.

Parks Classification

Grasslands National Park of Canada has been established to preserve and present a representative portion of the Canadian mixed grass prairie ecosystem.


The dominant landscape found in the park is rolling uplands and the river valley. During the retreat of the last glaciation, over 10,000 years ago, the ice melted and moved in two divisions toward the area known as the Frenchman River Valley. The northern division was higher in elevation than the southern division; consequently, the meltwater flowed south. The flow of water from the north was stopped by the southern lobe. Where the water hit the ice and ran along its margin an "ice stream" was cut into the land and became the present Frenchman River Valley. The huge amount of runoff changed the land-scape, creating coulees, buttes and creeks. The Frenchman River Valley flows south and is part of the Missouri watershed.

Plant Communities

The plants found in the coulees, on buttes and along creeks are indicative of the amount of moisture and type of soil present. The natural grasslands of south-western Saskatchewan are called mixed-grass prairie. In the park area the dominant plant forms are grasses. Common grass species are spear grass, wheat grass, and blue gramma grass. Grasses are only one element that makes up the natural cover of grasslands. Trees and shrubs such as aspen, green ash, wolf willow and buffalo berry take hold on the valley floors and in the coulees where there is more moisture. In drier locations, sage, rabbit brush, greasewood, mosses, lichens and cacti make up a significant part of the plant community. There is a succession of colours and aromas in the grasslands as the wildflowers bloom. Crocus, prairie onion, cinquefoil, rose, vetch, locoweed, violets, asters, fleabanes, goosefoot, and buttercups are just a few of the many wildflowers that are found in the area.


A fairly complete range of prairie fauna is still present, although several species have been extirpated from the area. Whether on purpose or through incidence, black-footed ferret, greater prairie chicken, bison, plains grizzly bear, prairie wolf, and wolverines are species that have been extirpated. Endangered species in the area include, swift fox, burrowing owl, mountain plover, greater sage grouse, and sage thrasher. The loggerhead shrike, peregrine falcon and Sprague's pipit are classified as a threatened species. Species of special concern are black-tailed prairie dog, red-headed woodpecker, ferruginous hawk, short-eared owl, long billed curlew, eastern yellow-bellied racer, and greater short-horned lizard. Common mammals in and near the proposed park are pronghorn antelope, mule deer, white-tailed deer, beaver, coyotes, red fox, skunks, porcupines, badgers, and bobcats. Birds include golden eagles, hawks, owls, grouse, songbirds, ducks and geese. For more specifics, see our species lists.

Aquatic Life

Sources of water in the Park area are limited. Surface waters are derived mainly from spring runoff and vary seasonally. Many creeks flow in the spring and early summer but dry up during the hot, windy summer. The usefulness of surface water sources is greatly limited because much of the substrata consists of marine shales or soft clays with high concentrations of salts or mud in suspension. Potable water is not available within the park.

Catfish and carp are two of the most common fish species that inhabit the Frenchman River, Rock Creek and a few tributaries that maintain water for a part of the year. Painted turtles occur in some numbers along the fresh and standing waters of the Park. Leopard frogs and chorus frogs can also be found.