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by Dave Yanko

GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK - The tenacious wind is an almost constant companion here where Saskatchewan greets Montana. It buffets the face and tugs at the grass as it ripples or dimples everything in its path. Topsoil would be gone were it not for the natural grasses tying it down.

Grasslands storm brewing
A storm brews where wild meets tame at Grasslands National Park.

Fewer than a hundred years ago, the blue grama, spear, fescue and dozens of other wild grasses that make up prairie sod were nothing but a barrier to the promised agricultural bonanza hidden beneath. The Government of Canada gave away land similar to this in return for a simple pledge from settlers to "break" it and plant wheat.

And what a magnificent job they did. Just north of the park, where this undulating vista grows level enough to sew grain, sits one of the most disturbed and over-exploited regions on Earth. Within the span of one human lifetime, the prairies went from diverse wilderness to become the most altered and simplified environment in Canada.

Mixed-grass prairie uplands, the Frenchman River Valley and, beyond, 70 Mile Butte.

Gone is the vast sweep of natural, mixed-grass prairie. And with it went the bison, prairie wolf, plains grizzly, elk, wolverine, black-footed ferret and greater prairie chicken - all extirpated from the region by human encroachment, hunting and habitat loss. The pronghorn antelope almost became extinct.

But here in the valleys, uplands and badlands of Grasslands National Park, a place that looks much the same as it did 100 years ago, a process is underway to re-establish the wild prairie and preserve its cultural resources. Natural grasses are being returned to spots where they've been lost and foreign species introduced by man are being removed. The swift fox and plains bison have been re-introduced to the area. Pronghorn numbers are on the rise.

Endangered species such as the burrowing owl and peregrine falcon find protection in the park, as do threatened or rare species like the loggerhead shrike, long-billed curlew, eastern short-horned lizard and an elusive snake called the yellow-bellied blue racer. Grasslands is the only place in Saskatchewan where signs warn to beware of rattlesnakes and the only place in Canada where you'll find prairie dog towns. From a scientific perspective, Grasslands is the only place in the world where genetic code for the plants and creatures of the wild, northern, mixed-grass prairie is being preserved in, what is hoped will be, perpetuity.

Pronghorn antelope
Pronghorn antelope

The end of one of the most storied chapters in North American history was written in this area when Sitting Bull sought sanctuary here after Little Bighorn -- the park is believed to contain one of the highest concentrations of archaeological sites in Canada. And it was here where the first dinosaur fossil in Canada was discovered in 1874. Grasslands is a place for the mind and the senses.

Right now, the park is divided into an eastern and western block. Once all proposed lands are assembled the blocks will be joined and the park will encompass 900 square kilometers (350 square miles). Compensation arrangements continue to be made with land owners, many of whom still ranch in the area. In fact, it wasn't long after the bison left that the cattlemen arrived.

Famous cowboy novelist and artist Will James in 1911 established a ranch in what's now the western block of the park - his homestead site is a featured stop on the self-guided driving tour of the Frenchman River Valley. James, whose real name was Ernest Dufault, was born in Quebec and moved west to pursue his dream of becoming a cowboy. Before long he was in Hollywood turning his novels into movie scripts and playing a central role in the creation of the mythical American cowboy.

James was one of many private ranchers who moved into the area following the disastrous winter of 1906-07, a winter of blizzards that killed thousands of head of cattle and drove out the huge, investor-owned ranching operations like the "76 Ranch", the biggest in Canada. Family ranches that replaced the big outfits learned to keep no more cattle than they could feed with hay during a bad winter.

The grasses used to fatten cattle sustained bison for hundreds of years. The bison, in turn, attracted predators, including the human variety. Plains Cree, Assiniboia, Blackfoot and Gros Ventre all vied for resources here. Evidence of aboriginal habitation is apparent in the tipi rings visible on many of the buttes above the valley. Cairns, effigies, buffalo drive lanes, burial sites and medicine wheels are not uncommon in the area.

Bison, and the sanctuary of the border, attracted Sitting Bull and 5,000 Lakotah (Sioux) here after they defeated Custer at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. The Lakotah camp in what's now the eastern block of the park was the centre of North American media attention in those days - white people on both sides of the border feared attacks from Sitting Bull or, worse, from a coalition of angry Plains Indians including the Lakotah.

The North-West Mounted Police in 1874 established Wood Mountain Post with an aim to reducing cattle rustling and whiskey trading along the border. When Sitting Bull set up camp at Wood Mountain a couple of years later, however, the Lakotah leader became the Mounties' number one priority. The "old post", located just north of the east bloc near Wood Mountain Regional Park, is now a historic site featuring artifacts of that time and interpretive tours of two, reconstructed buildings.

Wood Mountain Rodeo, begun in 1890 and now the longest, continuously-running rodeo in Canada, is another Mountie legacy. The popular event takes place on the rodeo grounds in the regional park on the second weekend of July. The adjacent Rodeo Ranch Museum, a good place to review rodeo and ranching history of the district, also serves as the east block office of Grasslands National Park. It's a recommended stop before setting off into the rugged east block, particularly if you're not familiar with the area.

Grasslands east block
The park's east block attracts fewer visitors than the west, but offers it own rugged rewards.

The east block features the Killdeer Badlands, a rough-hewn landscape of eroded, stratified formations. There's only one signed trail in the area and it begins at the information board located at the "park entrance", which is simply the end of a gravel road. The trail leads several hundred metres (yards) to a valley edge and from there, as with most of the rest of the park, you're on your own. If you hike into the badlands below, keep an eye out for the pincushion and prickly-pear cacti - particularly on south-facing hills - and note permission is required to enter privately-owned land.

The west block offers two self-guided tours. Visitors taking the driving tour of the Frenchman River Valley can benefit by using the brochure available at the park office in Val Marie. The tour covers approximately 30 kms (18 miles) and can be completed in an hour if you don't leave your vehicle. You'll want to set aside more time, however, if you wish to do some exploring.

Check out the tipi rings and a buffalo rubbing stone sitting just a few dozen metres from the second stop on the tour, for example. Or roam around prairie dog town, home to hundreds of the cute and pudgy members of the squirrel family. Named by early settlers after the yipping sounds they make, the dogs are much larger and more sociable than gophers. It's easy to spend an hour watching them "kiss", groom and cavort with each other as they carry on with their business.

Just make sure to keep an eye on the sky - a good rain turns park roads into impassable muck. The rain clouds that chased us out of prairie dog town were preceded by a wind storm that tossed dirt and small stones at our vehicle. Our visibility was reduced to zero, forcing us to stop on a hill as we tried to leave the valley. Fortunately, the wind relented and we got out of the park and onto a highway before the rainstorm arrived.

Eagle Butte
Eagle Butte, in the west block, is prime hiking territory.

Hikers might want to set off for the top of 70 Mile Butte, so named because it marked a river crossing on the North-West Mounted Police trail between Wood Mountain and Fort Walsh, near the current-day Alberta boundary. The top of the butte sits about 100 metres (300 feet) above the floor of the Frenchman River Valley.

But to get a real feel for the wild, pre-settler prairie, take the 1.5-km hike along the Two Trees Interpretive Trail that loops across the top of the valley above the river. The trail meanders through a remnant patch of short- and mid-grass prairie where lichen and mosses sometimes outnumber the grasses -- conditions here can be as severe as those in the arctic.

Cactus abounds on south-facing hills.

Larks, pipits and buntings hiding or nesting in the grass and sage can startle as they fly up from beside your feet. Wolf willow, buffalo berry and aspen grow near the river and in coulees, where runoff increases moisture levels. We watched from a distance as a mule deer on the valley floor bounced up along ridges, occasionally disappearing into shallow coulees, until he reached the tabletop above.

Ferruginous hawks and turkey vultures are common sights in the big sky above the valley, but we weren't lucky enough this time to spot a golden eagle. Jackrabbits, weasels, badgers and whitetail deer are also common. We saw more than a dozen pronghorn antelope in and around the park, although none offered us a glimpse of the speed (80 km/hr) that makes the pronghorn the fastest mammal on the North American continent.

Rugged beauty is abundant in the badlands and valleys that make up this park. Writers, painters and photographers gain inspiration from her wild and windy landscapes. But what's protected here is a deceptively complex and dynamic ecosystem that revolves around natural grass. The soul of the park lies underfoot.

See If You Go for important visitor information. Also, check out Parks Canada's Grasslands page. Photographers and wildflower aficionados might wish to check the west block office for a list of flowers to watch for.

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