Evening clouds at cairns, AB (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

Evening clouds at cairns, AB (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

The grasslands: More wild than you might think

Summer intern Amy Russell (Photo by NCC)

Summer intern Amy Russell (Photo by NCC)

I am extremely lucky. I started working with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) as a summer conservation intern in 2016 and then returned for a second summer in 2017. During that time I have had the opportunity to discover and explore so many special places.

From the Rocky Mountains along the western border, across the foothills and the prairie grasslands, all the way to the Cypress Hills in southeastern Alberta, I have been privileged to see an abundance of wildlife, including many species at risk.

When people think of majestic landscapes they might think of the Rocky Mountains or mesmerizing ocean views, and, to some, the grasslands might seem mundane and ordinary. Grasslands, however, are complex and exciting, and support a wide array of species. Whether you are interested in seeing mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, plants or beautiful landscapes, the grasslands have it all. But, sadly, the grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, and they contain a high number of species at risk, some of which are not found anywhere else in Canada or the world.

This is one of the reasons why NCC’s work to conserve areas of native grasslands is so essential.

Since starting with the NCC, I have been very fortunate to witness the benefits of land stewardship. Conservation organizations like NCC work with landowners and ranchers to conserve the grasslands — as opposed to turning it over to agriculture — while protecting wildlife habitat, biodiversity and providing hardy and nutritious grass for grazing (for both domestic and wild animals).

The resulting biodiversity ensures a healthy ecosystem. Without these conservation measures, I would not have had the opportunity to encounter so many charismatic and unique species in such a short period of time, such as ferruginous hawk, loggerhead shrike, northern leopard frog and even a short-horned lizard.

Summer intern Amy Russell (Photo by NCC)

Summer intern Amy Russell (Photo by NCC)

Earlier this spring, my manager and I had an extraordinary encounter. Shortly after we arrived at an NCC property in the Milk River Ridge area, a pair of bald eagles emerged from a nearby nest to check us out. Then out of nowhere came a ferruginous hawk (a species listed both federally and provincially as endangered) and what happened next was a battle over the rights to that nesting spot in the tree.

In years past this particular tree has always been the home of a ferruginous hawk pair, so for a pair of eagles to have taken up residency there was quite unusual!  It was an epic battle in the sky with the hawk and the eagles clashing together, talons facing out, resulting in one bird or both flipping upside down before breaking apart. The eagles won out this season and went on to raise two healthy offspring, and the ferruginous hawk conceded defeat and ended up nesting in the nearby cliffs.

The destruction of native habitat has restricted these sightings to relatively small areas of the province; while seeing many of these species every time I go into the field, I realize that most people have never been so fortunate. These sightings confirm to me that our conservation efforts are paying off.

So to anyone who has not yet explored Canada’s grasslands and the experiences only they can provide: find some time to visit the grasslands, there is so much to see!

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