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 Grasslands of the

 Cariboo Chilcotin

 

 

The grasslands within our region are among the most northern in BC. Almost 40% of all BC's species at risk live in grassland ecosystems! Most of the grasslands of the Cariboo Chilcotin lie along the Fraser River Basin from Big Bar Provincial Park in the south, then north to the steep valley walls and golden terraces and benches of Churn Creek Protected Area, to the Junction Sheep Range Provincial Park, and Becher's Prairie. Smaller grassland patches are scattered all throughout the region, including the Williams Lake River Valley. Along with wildlife, the grasslands of the Cariboo and Chilcotin have sustained numerous ranches that have raised livestock on the grasslands since the 1850's.

 

Lying in the rainshadow of the Coastal Mountains, the canyons of these areas experience intense hot summers with dry, milder winters and often high winds. Spring comes early in the grasslands, allowing for a larger variety of plants growing there. The lower grasslands are the hottest, arid with prickly pear cactus, big sage and rabbit brush and the main grass being bluebunch wheatgrass. One of BC's rarest ecosystems is the 'bunchgrass' and excellent examples are provided by the Cariboo Chilcotin region's Churn Creek Protected Area and Junction Sheep Range Provincial Park are excellent examples. Other grasses found in the higher regions are Rocky Mountain fescue, needle-and-thread grass, spreading needle grass and porcupine grass. A perennial bunch grass that reaches over 120 cm tall, porcupine grass is red listed* in BC.

 

The steep clay and limestone cliffs that run down to the rivers on the edge of the grasslands house many birds including White Throated Swifts (blue listed), Rock Wren and Rosy Finches.

 

Bats feeding on moths, flys and beetles swoop over the sagebrush at dawn and dusk, and roost in the rock and talus slopes crevices.

 

Included among these bats are the red-listed Pallid bat. The Western Small-footed Myotis, the smallest bat in BC weighing in at less than a nickel, the Spotted Bat, the Townsend Big-eared bat and Fringed Myotis bat (all blue-listed) are four more of the at least ten different species of bats that live in our grasslands. All of these bats are at the northern limit of their range here in the Cariboo Chilcotin grasslands.

 

Glaciers retreating from the area millions of years ago left rocks and depressions scattered over the grasslands. The many marshes and lakes on the plateaus in the region supply breeding grounds for over 20 different species of water birds. These Cariboo Chilcotin grasslands are one of the most diverse areas for water birds in Canada.

The flat open dry grasslands of the region are the breeding and nesting site for BC's largest shore bird - the long-billed curlew (left). With wing spans of up to a metre and bills on the female reaching as long as 19cm, these birds require large areas of undisturbed grasslands. (Blue-listed)

 

Curlew pairs will defend a territory of 15-24 hectares in size and dive-bomb intruders. Feeding on grasshoppers, toads, nestling birds and berries, the long-billed curlew migrate back to the beaches of California and Jamaica once their young are strong enough to begin the flight.

 

Another bird of the grasslands is the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (below). Blue listed, these birds are now seen on less than 10% of their original grassland range. In flight the sharp-tailed grouse's pointed tail is accented by the white markings on either side of the tip. In spring the coos and stomps of the male sharp-tail announce a lek (breeding ground) where, if observed in their dance, these grouse display bright purple airsacs and yellow eyecombs to attract a mate.

 

 

Roaming the terraces and traveling the ravines of the Junction Sheep Range are the historic California bighorn sheep herds from which all other herds in North America were re-stocked. Sure footed, these bighorn sheep graze the dry grasslands and steep slopes along the Fraser and Chilcotin rivers. Predators of the bighorn sheep are cougar, coyotes and bald eagles (particularly preying on the lambs). Spring is lambing time and bighorn ewes (female sheep) travel in groups separate from the rams. In the fall the bighorn rams join the ewes and fight for dominance of the herd - often banging heads up to 40 times a day at combined speeds of 80 or more km per hour! Now blue-listed, the California bighorn sheep's continued survival depends on our success at preserving the grasses that sustain them.

Becher's Prairie, lying atop the Chilcotin plateau just west of Williams Lake, has been referred to as the Aspen Parkland of BC. Not only housing numerous birds, this area of grasslands along with the Junction Sheep Range Park, hosts a wide selection of butterflies, other insects, and snakes. The shy rubber boa, (blue listed) is occasionally seen warming on a sun heated rock or stretch of road in these grasslands.

Each butterfly needs its' 'host plant' or flower, many of which are provided by grasslands. Vibrant spring flowers of the grasslands include the brilliant yellow clusters of balsam root flowers, and the delicate yellow blooms of the prickly pear cactus. Both animals and hikers travel carefully through the grassland slopes where these spine-covered cacti grow in clusters. In autumn the low bushes of sage burst into bloom, covering the slopes in shades of yellow.

 

A rarely-seen, shy-by-nature mammal of the grasslands is the badger. Widespread until the late 1800's, there are less than 300 badgers left in BC, only 19 in our region. Now red-listed, the badger's loss of habitat has been mostly from land development. Since badgers are the only carnivores (meat eaters) in Canada that burrow to find and eat other burrowing animals - such as ground squirrels, marmots and pocket gophers - the badger is important in keeping the number of rodents in check.

In the Cariboo Chilcotin, researchers are working to save the badger and if you see a badger or a den site, you can contact the Cariboo Badger Reporting Line at 250.395.7853

 

The more we learn about the grasslands the more we see the vital role that even the tiniest of creatures plays in its healthy survival. Grasslands are fragile. Permanent damage occurs when they are driven over and the inhabitants are often sensitive to loud noises and intrusion. Please travel on grasslands with respect to all that live within them, enjoy them and be a part of their conservation.

*Species are ranked in BC by their risk of extinction:
Red Listed means the species is endangered.
Blue Listed is a species of concern due to characteristics that make them sensitive to human activities and/or natural events.
All reference to Red and Blue listings refer to the Province of BC's Listings.

This brochure produced by the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society.
Publication support received from the Vancouver Foundation.