The ranchers come with the broad sweep of grazing land that feeds cattle spread across the surrounding fields. The science professionals come with Grasslands National Park, which sits just outside Val Marie. And the artists come, in part, with $750 fixer-upper homes and, in part, with Ms. Marchand, who moved to Val Marie 3 1/2 years ago to start Grasslands Gallery. The gallery now sits amid a small but burgeoning outpost of creativity on the Saskatchewan prairie.
At dinner, talk turns to back Keystone XL, and a debate erupts about the role personal energy use has in supporting the oil sands, and what the way forward might be.
“The pipeline in itself is the symptom of a problem that we have in how we live our lives – as though we have a right to destroy the basic planetary being that we live on,” Ms. Woodland says.
I ask Ms. Marchand her own thoughts on Keystone XL.
“I don’t really have an opinion on the pipeline,” she says. “At the same time, when there was enough noise to stop the original route” – a reference to pipeline changes mandated by the White House following protests in Nebraska – “I was cheering here in the middle of nowhere.”
WHERE THE BISON ROAM
The plains bison has somehow managed to get inside the wooden fence surrounding the new campground in Grasslands National Park. The sight of a great dark beast meandering among the picnic tables might be cause for panic. But it’s early season, and the campers haven’t yet arrived. A gate is opened, the bison cautiously strolls across a gravel road, then trots across the wind-blown prairie landscape to join a small clump of its peers on the hills.
It’s such a low-key scene that it takes a moment to recall how singularly remarkable this is: bison wandering a landscape that was for many years stripped of the species. By some estimates, as few as eight bison were left in Canada by the late 1800s. But since 2006, they’re back strolling the native prairie here in southern Saskatchewan, and doing so well – from a 71-head original herd to 312 last year and likely more than 400 this year once all of the new arrivals are counted – that plans are already being laid to trim the population.
I’ve come here because the Keystone XL pipeline will pass within five kilometres of the park boundary. I don’t expect Parks Canada staff to weigh in on the pipeline, given they’re federal employees and the Canadian government has proven itself ardently supportive of the project. But a visit here is a chance to see the pipeline route’s ecological history – in places preserved, in places in the process of being reborn.
Grasslands is an odd park: It has no mountains, no glaciers, no spectacular water features, few of the eye-popping landscape icons that Canadians tend to associate with our protected areas. It’s a young park, too: A final park agreement was only signed in 1988, and its borders have slowly expanded since then. And with “grass” in the name – is there anything more pedestrian to an average Canadian? – it has none of the name draw of a Banff or Jasper.
Grasslands, it seems, is a bit like much of the Keystone XL route: largely ignored by all but those who live there.
Not even friends and relatives of nearby residents tend to visit – an unfortunate reality Parks Canada is now seeking to amend, with a broad strategy that includes hiking trails and a lovely new campground, complete with giant inverted fish-hook-like structures that serve as lantern-hangers on the treeless plains.
“We want to become the local jewel,” says Colin Schmidt, a park product development officer who is taking me on a driving tour.
Bison are, for obvious reasons, one of the big draws. But the most entertaining – and in some ways, the most important – critter may actually be the black-tailed prairie dog. They congregate in “dog towns,” where hundreds of dirt mounds litter a landscape that looks like it’s been blasted by a cosmic shotgun. Some of the most intriguing aspects of these towns are invisible, the underground series of interlocking tunnels and living spaces, from bedrooms to nanny rooms and pantries.
Greener grass around dog towns provides grazing for pronghorns and bison. Sage grouse use them as courtship dancing grounds. The burrows themselves are used by burrowing owls, rattlesnakes and black-footed ferrets. Those ferrets are, like the bison, an almost-dead species attempting a comeback. Some 50 ferrets have been reintroduced to Grasslands since 2009; by last summer, only 12 were left.
“It’s pretty hard for them to acclimate into this new environment,” says Adrian Sturch, Grasslands manager of resource conservation.