February 8, 2015

Cattle Grazing Makes for some Beautiful Alberta Country!

The following is a collection pictures I took when I was working with a rangeland research team out of the University of Alberta. They are certainly not in chronological order, but that shouldn't matter because I want to show you just how beautiful land can be when proper grazing management practices are used with cattle as the primary tool, which is something that I strongly promote and may cover more in later blog posts. I was involved with doing multiple projects at multiple places across this great province, from putting down litter bags to doing range health assessments. 

This is a ranch and the subsequent foothills near Stavely, Alberta, Canada. I was with a rangeland research crew putting out litter bags for a carbon study all over central and southern Alberta. The clouds certainly put a more majestic look to the graceful foothills sitting east of the Rocky Mountains. The fence off to the right is of an exclosure made by the provincial range management team to do research on effects of grazing and no grazing on plants and the Foothills plant community.

Waldron Ranch, about 200 miles south of Calgary and around 30 miles north of Pincher Creek. Recently late last year the Nature Conservancy of Canada put a permanent conservation easement on this land--all 30,500+ acres of it. This is just one little piece my rangeland team got to see and travel on--by foot only, we couldn't drive to where we had to put in the litter bags. It was a good three-mile hike to get to this very spot inland, and of course there was always the threat of grizzlies or black bears hanging around in this area. This was taken in the remaining days of May, so the grass hasn't quite reached its potential yet, even though it looks quite green and lush. This land is one piece of the remaining foothills fescue grasslands left in Canada. Yes, those are the famous Rockies way off in the distance!

This is right in the Rockies, just on edge of the Alberta-British Columbia border (behind where I took this picture) in southwestern Alberta, just a 30 minute drive west of Pincher Creek. The purple flowers in here are all mountain shooting stars, and I think the yellow ones are in relation to the onion or dill family, I never did get  the time to ID them. This area is part of the Rocky Mountain Grazing Reserve which stretches from Waterton Lakes National Park all the way north past Jasper National Park to, I think, Grande Cache, and east to Rocky Mountain House.

This was taken at the Kinsella ranch, one of the two research ranches owned and operated by the U of Alberta. What you're seeing is part of a grazing reserve that takes care of the last little bit of native Aspen Parkland vegetation left in Alberta. but there are several smaller grazing reserves that keep these native rangelands intact. If you're interested in what plants are shown in here, that silvery shrubby stuff off on the left is wolf willow. Aspen and Poplar trees are also primary in the landscape, and a little bit of pasture sage (silver stuff in the foreground) is also present. I can't remember what grasses were there, but I think there was a mix of fescue, needle grass, wheatgrass, brome, and other native (and a few non-native) species.

Northern part of the Mattheis Ranch (of the U of Alberta), north of Brooks, Alberta. Taken in late June, and quite the prairie sky! Oh it looks flat, but let me tell you this land is far from it. I'm pretty sure the settlers seeing all this from their wagons that came through here had the same thoughts, but didn't notice the gently sloping hills and valleys that created places for animals--and First Nations--to hide. Walking on this land myself I found quite a few hills and valleys that could make my colleague and I invisible from the cow herd, even from each other on occasion!

This is where the Dry Mixed Prairie lies, and it was supposed to be dry, but due to climate change and a lot of awesome thunderstorms rolling through during my multiple stays on this ranch, and the amount of rain we'd get from the storms, I don't know much about the "dry" part anymore. But damn, it got hot some days! Plus 35 to 40 degrees Celsius in the sun, but you couldn't wear shorts and a T-shirt long without significant amounts of bug spray because there were deer flies and horse flies out for blood. Literally! I got bit a few times, but at least I could feel them before those nasty P.O.S insects started digging in for dinner. And don't get me started on the mosquitoes. You'd think the real boreal parts get it bad with mosquitoes!

Anyway, this ranch had a huge host of plant life. This area is actually the more wetter part of the ranch. Those clumps of green in the background are invasive cicer milkvetch moving in. That's the bad thing. The good thing is that the cows love them and eat them down to almost nothing when they're in to graze. Lots of needle-and-thread grass, blue grama, wheatgrass, no fescue (too dry and hot), and a lot of forbs like pasture sage, prairie sage, milkvetch (I think we counted at least four or five different species of milkvetch), pincushion and prickly pear cacti, sweet clover, and many others. Even seen some poisonous arrow weed too.

I couldn't get a good picture of the more drier part of Mattheis Ranch, but this one should suffice:

These are definitely pronghorn right in southern Alberta, and they were one of the several wildlife I got to see during my summer job. This is the more drier part of the ranch (more eastern part), with a lot of vegetative sand-dunes in the background, and plenty of different types of vegetation.

Rumsey Grazing Reserve north of Drumheller. Hard to believe this is actually north of Drumheller by just 20 some miles. This is Aspen Parkland area, and yep those are cows grazing in the background. Oh it's hilly all right, it's fun walking up and down those what we range nerds and ranchers call "knobs and kettles," landscape formations formed by the receding glaciers that covered and carved out this land many, many years ago. I was helping with range health assessments on this land, and seen a lot of rose and raspberry bushes to clip and walk through. We had nettles and thistles too. And yes I did get to step in a very fresh cow pie, not that I complained about it. :)

It looks dry because it was dry. But certainly not "overgrazed." There was a lot of vegetation for those cows and calves to eat, and the area they were grazing was quite large, so they had a lot of land to cover.

This is in Cypress Hills Provincial Park, right in the very southeast corner of Alberta. This picture didn't do much justice, but I can assure you it was one of the more beautiful places I've been to. You wouldn't believe how much plant biodiversity was here! I think one quadrat (just a small, 2 ft x 2 ft square) yielded about 30 species of plants alone, from Purple Lupine (purple flowers you're seeing here), to Brown-eyed Susans (yellow flowers in this pic), juniper, fescue grass, different wheatgrasses and brome grasses, prairie rose, several different species of cinquefoil and milkvetch, clovers, blue bells, yarrow (the white flowers you see in the foreground), and many others.  And this is all managed by grazing cattle. That's all Douglas Fir in the background, the trees that make up Cypress Hills park that are like an oasis in the middle of a prairie. Here's a few more pictures around where we were doing our range assessments:

Now these are just a fraction of the pictures I took while I was out on the summer. But I hope you get a sense of how great landscapes really look when properly managed using managed grazing techniques, and enjoyed the armchair scenery trip of parts of Alberta, Canada. 
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