By Roberta Kravette
Imagine standing on a rounded ridge looking across an endless prairie grassland. A ferruginous hawk soars high above the undulating hills; the wind rustles the grass at your feet. To the west are the telltale signs of a prairie dog town, no sign of its inhabitants. The quiet and emptiness of the world around you literally seems to take your breath away.
And then, a small motion catches your eye. A bison head appears just down the ridge from you, then another, and another. Within a minute or two, a 30-strong herd of bison are staring at you staring at them. The endless plain is suddenly condensed into 100 meters of ridge-line, and the emptiness melts away. The bison turn as a group and walk down towards the prairie dog town, disappearing from the ridge as quickly as they had appeared.
Where: Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan, Canada
When: Year-round destination. Let’s talk about the best season and time for you.
Who: Adults and families.
Wildlife & nature photographers.
What Wildlife & bird watching, hiking (easy to challenging trails), camping, kayaking, horseback riding, etc
How: Fly into Regina, drive to the Park.
Grasslands National Park, may be everything a nature lover wants in a park: Camera-ready landscapes, extraordinary topography, photogenic wildlife, endangered species, and no crowds!
Located in southern Saskatchewan just above Montana, the Park preserves one of North America’s largest remaining expanses of native grasslands. The grasslands habitat supports a wide variety of plains wildlife – and a surprising number of endangered species.
And although the dramatic Rocky Mountains often overshadow the grasslands, there is a subtle and desolate beauty to the prairie. To stand in the endless plains is to feel both incredibly small and at one with nature. But if that is not enough, here are nine more reasons to visit Grasslands National Park.
Reason #1: The Second Fastest Land Animal on the Planet, Pronghorn
Although they are called pronghorn antelope, the pronghorn is one of a kind, neither antelope, nor deer, nor sheep. They are their own family (Antilocapridae). And they are the fastest animals in the western hemisphere. A pronghorn can reach speeds of up to 60 mph (96kph.) The only land animal on the planet that is faster than a pronghorn is the cheetah, but not by very much, (up to 75 mph/120km) and cheetah is a sprinter, able to run full out only in spurts (about 1500ft./450 m) The pronghorn can run at top speed for a far longer time. In a contest between the planet’s two fastest land animals, if the cheetah did not catch it immediately, the pronghorn would live to run another day.
Fun Fact: In the Pleistocene age, 2.5 million years ago, the ancestors of both cheetah and pronghorn roamed North America, together, the chases must have been amazing!)
The pronghorn in Grasslands National Park are elusive and magnificent creatures, massive and muscular. Take notice of the pronghorn's specially adapted eyes. They are thick-lashed, large and protruding; they allow pronghorns to see 360º, and to detect movement up to 4 miles away. Helpful talents when both you and your predators are living in wide-open prairie spaces. Tip: The male pronghorn has black markings on its face, under the chin. The female does not.
Listen to Mark Seth Lender speak about his experience with pronghorn at Grasslands National Park (National Public Radio, Living on Earth, 4th segment from top)
Reason #2: The Incredible & Rare North American Mixed Grass Prairie
In the popular imagination, the Great Plains exist as they always did, an endless seas of grass, but the reality is much different. Once covering over 1.4-million square miles (3.6-million square kilometers), grasslands formed a triangle from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba down through the Great Plains of the U.S. to southern Texas and stretched approximately 1,000 miles from western Indiana and west to the Rocky Mountains. Today, less than two percent of the great prairies survive.
A prairie grassland is a plethora of different grasses and wildflowers, undulating hills, coulees (ravines), buttes, and incredible wildlife. Native prairies are home to herds of grazing animals, such as bison, elk, deer, and rabbits. These animals support growth in the grasslands by adding nitrogen to the soil through urine and feces and creating open spots for plants that root is disturbed soils. Prairie dogs dig huge underground tunnel systems which aerate the soil and allowed water to reach several feet below the surface.
Grasslands were the continent's largest continuous ecosystem supporting an enormous quantity of plants and animals. Prairies began appearing 8,000 to 10,000 years ago and developed into one of the most complicated and diverse ecosystems in the world, surpassed only by the rainforest of Brazil.
The Best Place to Experience a Vibrant Prairie Ecosystem: Grasslands National Park
There are few places left to see the mixed grasslands as they existed before the settlers moved west, and Grasslands National Park may be one of the best. And the best way to experience this country is to walk it. The Canadian Parks Service understands that a “hike” means different things to different people. The trails are rigorously classified from “easy” to “difficult”. Want a few iconic images of a long-abandoned ranch as the sun sets? Larson Trail (easy, 1 mile / 1.6 km) is for you. But if you have a day to re-discover the land as it was for millennia before the settlers arrived, then the Broken Hills Trail (easy, 7 miles / 11.3 km) may be your best choice. Up for a little challenge? Try the Otter Basin Loop (difficult, 10 mile / 15.3 km).
Are you interested in seeing Grasslands National Park?
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Reason #3: Bison, The Icon of the Prairie
Behold the largest land animal in North America: The American or plains bison. Before the 1800's it is estimated that up to 30 million bison roamed the continent. By 1890, fewer than 2,000 remained. In 2005, they were reintroduced into Grasslands National Park after an absence of over 120 years.
The initial herd of only 71 individuals, (30 male calves, 30 female calves and 11 yearlings) has adapted quickly. Today, the Park's bison number has reached what the Park can presently sustain, upwards of 350 animals.
Bison are ruminants, you'll find them grazing on prairie grasses, or maybe "loafing," standing with eyes half-closed, heads drooping. No worries, they are just digesting their food. Bison also enjoy "wallowing" in the dust. This helps to remove parasites, spread their scent, and get rid of a bit of extra aggression, which should be a reminder: bison have little sense of humor. And they are fast. Stay well back. Hint: Watch the bison for signs of aggression. If it begins to pay attention to you, or the tail is up, it is time to leave. Use your binoculars for a closer look. Read these Wildlife Watching Safety Tips from Grasslands National Park.
Reason #4: Aerobatic Mating Rituals
The courtship rituals of ferruginous hawks are unforgettable. The breeding pairs soar in circles, then the male begins repeatedly diving and ascending until finally, they grasp beaks and talons, spiraling downwards together at incredible speed.
Their Latin name tells their story: Buteo regalis, the most regal of hawks. The ferruginous hawk is largest of all of North America's hawks with a wingspan of up to 1.5m (5+ft) and head to talon length reaching 56-69cm (23–28 inches.) The females are the larger of the species. Ferruginous means rust-colored, but in light-morph, they can be very light, looking like a brilliant white speck high in the sky.
They eat small mammals and have been known to congregate at prairie dog "towns," perching on a lone tree or rock outcropping. Waiting. Then striking fast.
The ferruginous hawk is a threatened species, habitat loss which also means loss of traditional prey, is mostly responsible for the decline.
All life in the prairie is connected. Many birds line their nests with warm bison hair, but bison bones and dung have also been found in the ferruginous hawk's nests.
Are you interested in seeing Grasslands National Park?
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Reason #5: Solitude & Silence
With only 10,000 visitors per year, this is the place to be if you are comfortable with only the wind as your companion. Major parks in the Canada and USA receive millions of guests per year; Grasslands feels empty by comparison. And maybe that is how a prairie should feel.
But what you really notice is the silence. Not complete silence, but an absence of man-made sound. This is nature's silence. The rustle of a sea of grasses, birdsong at dawn, the chip-bark of a prairie dog warning of the proximity of a ferruginous hawk, and the whoosh of wings when that hawk suddenly dives. The night's stillness is broken only by nocturnal hunters, on the land or in the air. This kind of silence cannot exist with "civilization."
Reason #6: A Famous Avian Courtship Displays
Greater sage grouse are an iconic species of the old west, famous for the male's mating display. He puffs himself up to a great size and spreads his impressive, pointed tail feathers, and dances and pops. Sounds improbable? Watch this video from the BBC.
The endangered greater sage grouse is found only in prairies where sagebrush grows. In Canada, that means solely in the southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta – less than 7% of their historic Canadian range. Today, the population of greater sage is at an all-time low.
The Park is a vital stronghold for this year-round resident. But although they have been slowly recovering at Grasslands National Park, the birds' numbers are still 46% lower than their 1995-2017 average of 41 dancing males.
Look to the Frenchmen Valley and Rock Creek tributaries for the best chance to to find the greater sage grouse.
Reason #7: Endangered Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs
The black-tailed prairie dog, once a ubiquitous resident of the vast prairie, has been dynamited, shot, trapped, flooded and poisoned nearly out of existence. It is also a poster-species for the inter-connectivity of nature. With the demise of the prairie dog, so went the black-footed ferret, and many other species dependent on using their underground tunnels and burrows for their own homes. Thankfully black-tailed prairie dogs are making a strong return to Grasslands National Park, the only place in all of Canada.
Be prepared to be enchanted by black-tailed prairie dogs. They are very social within their coteries (groups of one male, 3 to 4 females and young up to a year-old.) They play and chase groom each other and muzzle (looks like kissing!). Have your camera ready.
Reason # 8: The “Howdy” Owl
In some western regions of the American West, burrowing owls are often referred to as “howdy owls” due to their propensity to appear to nod when they catch site of you.
With its population in rapid decline, in no small part a result of the "war" on prairie dogs, the charismatic burrowing owl is a holy-grail species for many bird watchers. In 2018, their Canadian population totaled only about 270 mature adults. These small owls are unusual for many reasons. First, they burrow in the ground, preferring the old homes of prairie dogs, and second, they are active in the daytime – very unusual for owls. And when courting, the owls seem to "dance," hopping or flying up, wings extended dramatically, hovering, landing and starting again. It is quite a show.
The Grasslands National Park is the Canadian stronghold of burrowing owls, and a few pair are nesting here. Do not ask where the Parks staff are extremely protective of their guests, and they have help. The prairie dogs they live near are a natural alarm system. It is tough to sneak up in prairie dog country! If you do find an owl, stay well back, disturbance of the owls is very much against Park rules. This summer (2019) a pair chose to nest near a webcam, so they could be seen without being disturbed. A very considerate couple of birds.
Bonus Reason: The Grasslands is For the Birders
With over 216 species positively identified as of July of this year, including some very rare, threatened and endangered species, Grasslands National Park is a haven for prairie birds. Part of it has been declared a Canadian IBA (Important Bird Area). This is a four-season destination for bird watching and an important stronghold for some endangered and the threatened species.
Every Season Has Its Own Beauty
It is impossible to leave Grasslands National Park behind you. This is a landscape that seeps into your soul. You will continue to hear the prairie call, softly as you walk on city streets, remember the prairie dogs greeting the morning sun and stoic bison facing into the winter snow. And in the murky half-dark of the city-night sky, you will remember uncountable stars on the deepest black, throwing light and shadow over a landscape that stretches forever. It is impossible to leave this country behind – so you might as well come back again and explore another season at Grasslands National Park. Bring your camera.