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Montana Birding and Nature Trail
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Grasslands National Park, Saskatechewan, Canada

Wallace Stegner’s Homeland
“…the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forest.”
Wallace Stegner

The only national park in North America to preserve native prairie is a fitting tribute to the west’s great writer and conservationist Wallace Stegner, who grew up here among the now rare grassland birds and wildlife.

 

Species of Note

Birds
  • Sprague’s Pipit
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Baird’s Sparrow
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Chestnut-collared Longspur
  • Long-billed Curlew
  • Ferruginous Hawk
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Swainson’s Hawk
  • Mountain Bluebird
  • Red-naped Sapsucker
Other Wildlife
  • Pronghorn
  • Black-tailed Prairie Dog
  • Swift Fox
  • Bison
  • Eastern Short-horned Lizard
  • Prairie Rattlesnake
  • Yellow-bellied Blue Racer
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What to Do

The park is divided into east and west blocks. The west block has the best access, a visitor reception center at Val Marie, and driving tour. The Frenchman River Valley Ecotour takes visitors on a 2 /12 hour driving loop. Pick up a map, brochure and audio cassette at the visitor center first. You’ll pass through coulees, buttes and travel the valley bottom, view bison, and the only prairie dog colonies in Canada. You’ll also find marked hiking trails in the West Block.

Check with the park office for road conditions before heading to the remote east block, where you can drive and watch for wildlife in the major grassland riparian area of Rock Creek, among scattered aspen parks and in the Killdeer Badlands. The east block is a natural extension north from Bitter Creek Wilderness, also on the NE Trail.

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Field Notes

“Over the segmented circle of earth is domed the biggest sky anywhere, which on days like this sheds down on range and wheat and summer fallow a light to set a painter wild, a light pure, glareless, and transparent.”—Wallace Stegner ,

To enter Grasslands National Park is to immerse yourself in Wallace Stegner’s childhood home, inspiration for his semi-autobiographical novel, Wolf Willow. If you’ve headed here from Glasgow, Montana, you’re also going up in elevation. The landscape changes and lush green aspen groves in the heads of drainages are home to birds you’ll only see in one other place on the NE Trail (Camp Creek).

Here, the play of morning and evening light dances over grass edging up to shale badlands, silver sage and buffaloberry, snowberry and silverberry. A circling Ferruginous Hawk casts a passing shadow over a herd of pronghorn. Bison snort and paw the dust. The sound of trickling water of Rock Creek draws you closer. Wait here. The birds will come soon….

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Conservation

Drawing a line around the prairie isn’t enough to assure healthy habitat for grassland birds and wildlife. The prairie ‘s wild inhabitants evolved with bison that grazed the prairie. The park recently reintroduced bison. Managers and prairie conservationists are restoring habitat for endangered birds, animals and plants, including converting old homestead areas of non-native crested wheatgrass (with little wildlife value) back to native grass.

Canada’s system of protected heritage areas strives to represent each of its 39 natural regions. Grasslands National Park is a hotbed for endangered species, because so much of the Canada plains are tilled. The vast park is even vaster when you cross the border to connect to Montana’s Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area. Cooperation across boundaries is essential for the future of these globally significant grasslands.

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Cultural Connection

Canada’s last prairie frontier is rich in history, from the Plains Indians who followed immense herds of bison. Sitting Bull and Sioux followers took refuge here after the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Later, cowboys herded cattle across unfenced rangeland. By 1906, the Dominions Lands Act led to the end of ranching and the start of farming. Many homesteaders failed in the harsh landscape, but enough stalwart pioneers remained to form the small communities that still exist today.

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Viewing Tip

Where there’s water there’s life. The Frenchman River Valley in the west block nurtures water-loving willow and thick grasses. Aspen groves offer excellent birding spots. But life perseveres away from water, too. The tiny red samphire plant survives in barren, white salt flats.

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Helpful Hint

U.S. Citizens must bring a passport. Border crossings are open from 8 am to 9 pm, June 1-Sept. 15, 9 am to 6 pm, Sept. 16-May 31.

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Best Seasons

May-Aug: grassland breeding bids.
Sept: migrating songbirds

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Getting There

View Google Map

To reach the West Block, head to Val Marie on Highway 4, a one and a half hour drive north of Malta through the port of Morgan on Highway 241. The Park visitor center is located in Val Marie at the junction of the highway and Centre Street. The Park's East Block can be accessed near the town of Wood Mountain on Hwy #18, 37 miles north of the port of Opheim on the U.S./Canada border. Access to the east block remains limited with only a small portion accessible in dry weather. Visitors are urged to check with Grasslands National Park staff or the Rodeo Ranch Museum staff (summer only) in the Wood Mountain Regional Park to obtain information on the access routes and road conditions. Watch for the park signs and the beaver symbol.

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Facilities

West Block: Visitor center, gift shop, restrooms, camping. Gas and lodging available in Val Marie.
East Block: Limited services in Glentworth and Mankota, nearest towns.

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Contact

Grasslands National Park of Canada, P.O. Box 150 Val Marie, Saskatchewan, Canada SON2TO, Ph. (306)298-2257 . Email: grasslands.info@pc.gc.ca
Website: http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/sk/grasslands/index_E.asp

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