Can Native Grasslands Be Restored After Industrial Development?

The prairie grasslands have seen major changes since Europeans settled the landscape and brought with them the plow. Oil and gas drilling over the last 60 odd years has also had its impact on the integrity of grassland ecosystems. Approximately 68% of native grassland in Alberta has been converted to other land uses, making it one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world [1].

The Foothills Restoration Forum is a group of stakeholders with an interest in maintaining and restoring these valuable landscapes to its original state. Since 2006, members have worked together to fill gaps in the native grass knowledge base, which will allow us to sustainably preserve these lands for future generations.

Recently, the FRF held its annual fall information session in Claresholm where everyone from scientists to ranchers and industry gathered to share information and give updates on the conservation work happening in the grasslands. The theme this year was Grasslands: Evolving Issues & Management.

 Rough fescue grasslands overlooking the Oldman River from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Rough fescue grasslands overlooking the Oldman River from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

James Hargrave and his family have ranched near Medicine Hat for over 100 years. As you can imagine, they have seen a lot of changes on the land, especially in the last 30 years. The oil and gas footprint increased drastically during the drilling bonanza of the last decade, and James shared his experience dealing with industry. Reclamation of native grasslands is extremely difficult. Once disturbed, the soil is susceptible to invasive weeds and may never fully recover. On the Hargrave Ranch, they have seen reclamation change over the years. For a long time, using crested wheatgrass was the norm. This highly competitive species introduced from Eurasia has been wildly popular on the prairies until recently. It is a very aggressive species that does well in dry climates, which made it a favorite for industry to reseed disturbed sites. But as James points out, crested wheatgrass has relatively poor forage value (cattle will only eat it in the spring) and it chokes out the more valuable native species, which drastically lowers biodiversity. By using seed mixes that favour species like western wheatgrass and other native grasses, sites can be reclaimed to a state that works for the rancher and the fauna that depend on it. The point being, restoration is possible, but it takes a lot of time and the right strategy. 

 Pipeline construction leaves a scar on the prairie that is difficult to reclaim.

Pipeline construction leaves a scar on the prairie that is difficult to reclaim.

Restoration is possible, but it takes a lot of time and the right strategy.

Another concern on native prairie grasslands is the spread of invasive species. Rod Foggin from Cardston County shared an update about spotted knapweed in Alberta. When it comes to preventing the spread of invasive weeds, early detection is key. Landowners and anyone spending time in the field can download a smartphone app, EDD MapS Alberta, to help track and report invasive plants. It is much easier and more cost-effective to prevent invasives, rather than try to eradicate them after they've established!

Brent Smith from Medicine Hat College gave a presentation that had the whole room glued to the front. In his talk, entitled “The Biophysical Economics of Rangelands,” Smith argued that as the feasibility of oil production decreases, the industrial farming practices of the prairies that rely so heavily on fossil fuels will become unsustainable. If this is the case, much of this cultivated land will be returned to perennial forage, which will help fight climate change due to the carbon sequestering nature of grasslands. Smith admits that this is his only his prediction, but it is a riveting one. The ecosystem services provided by rangelands are currently not taken into account in the cost-benefit analysis when making land-use decisions. If we were to take ecosystem services into account like carbon sequestration, water filtration, and biodiversity, the value of native prairie would be billions more than we currently value it. Only time will tell how this will play out, but for those of us who value grasslands, it would be a welcome part of the future.

 The author, clearly valuing the native grass talk at the FRF

The author, clearly valuing the native grass talk at the FRF

The OWC attended the Forum to give an update on our Watershed Legacy Program, which is our way of supporting rural stewardship in the Oldman Watershed. In 2016, the WLP was able to help fund 11 projects that benefit water quality. If you would like to help us support on-the-ground stewardship, visit the WLP page and volunteer or donate to our program!

The people involved with the FRF are a passionate bunch, and they work they do is something that needs our support. The restoration of native grasslands is something that benefits us all, even if we don’t realize it. Check out the Foothills Restoration Forum at: