Coolest School Trip Spotlight: Grasslands National Park

What do dinosaurs and cowboys have in common? If your answer is that they’re both awesome, you wouldn’t be wrong. They share more than just that, though! At different points in history, they actually both lived and roamed in the Canadian prairies. Cowboys living in southern Saskatchewan in the 1800s may not have known this, but the area containing the richest resource for dinosaur fossils in the entire country was right under their feet – the Killdeer Badlands, which are a part of what has become one of Canada’s unique places of national significance, Grasslands National Park.

Trace evidence of a number of different historical eras can be found throughout the park, the best-known being the fossilized dinosaur remains found in the badlands. Having received their name from French explorers traversing through the North American mid-west who described the land as “bad lands to travel through,” these muddy, sparsely vegetated expanses of gullies and hills are great places to look for – and find – fossils of all kinds.

These lands, together with the rest of the land that makes up the park, are believed to have among the highest concentrations of archaeological sites in the whole country. In addition to the fossilized dinosaur bones that have been found in the park, something you may not know is that the very first T.rex coprolite to be discovered was unearthed in the park. What’s a coprolite? So glad you asked – it’s fossilized dung, of course!

Millions of years after the time of the dinosaurs, the Plains Indians who lived in the prairies also left behind traces of habitation on the land. Scattered around the park, there are estimated to be over 12,000 ancient tepee rings left behind by these groups of nomadic hunters, who had adopted a lifestyle that centered on the migration of great herds of bison and travelled extensively across the grasslands of the Canadian prairies. Herds of the Plains Bison, which at one point numbered in the millions, were nearly rendered extinct during 19th century. Today, Grasslands National Park is one of the few places in Canada that is home to this threatened species. Here’s a fun fact about the Plains Bison: their scientific name is Bison bison bison. Bit of a silly name for such a serious creature, don’t you think?

While the land certainly has an interesting history of occupants, its uniqueness in the national parks network is actually qualified primarily by the main ecosystem it protects. It is the only national park in all of North America to protect the fragile mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, which is part of one of the most endangered biomes in the world. The landscape and climate found within this ecosystem create a unique environment for specially adapted plants, animals and endangered species. It is home to an incredibly rare species called the black-footed ferret and in fact, it wasn’t until July of 2010 that for the first time in over 70 years in Canada, wild-born black footed ferrets were observed right in the park!

Another of the park’s claims to fame is its recent designation by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as a Dark Sky Preserve. This means that the park now belongs to a network of natural spaces that maintain a natural day-night light cycle that is billions of years old. Keeping this natural light cycle helps to preserve healthy hunting, foraging and reproductive behaviours for the wildlife in the park. Grasslands National Park has also been named the darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada, so make sure to leave time for a little night-time stargazing when planning your visit.

The unique blend of both the natural and cultural heritage captured within the boundaries of Grasslands National Park makes it a great summertime destination for budding archaeologists and keen adventurers alike. While there, you might get to see the fastest mammal on the continent, the Pronghorn Antelope, grazing in the vast expanse of open prairie, or you might chance upon a Sage Grouse – a peculiar but lovable type of bird, whose population has been reduced to only a handful in Canada. Travel through the Badlands and you’ll be travelling across sedimentary rock that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs, and keep an eye out for whitish clay patches in the rock, particularly in the Frenchman River valley. They may contain something called iridium, which is evidence of a momentous impact on the earth that may have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs...pretty cool!

Thinking about making a video about Grasslands National Park? Here are some ideas to get you started...

  • Join Sir George Mercer Dawson and Her Majesty’s North American Boundary Commission and discover the very first fossilized dinosaur bones in Western Canada in 1874! Where were the remains found? How significant was this discovery? What was the purpose of the expedition you were on? Keep in mind you weren’t originally out to find fossils! 
  • Follow the migration of the great herds of bison along with your fellow nomads. What kind of community would you have lived in? What kind of food did you eat and how did you get it? How often would you have had to move to stay with the herds of bison? 
  • Put on your cowboy hat and get ready for a long day of work as a prairie rancher. What was the landscape like before the Europeans began settling in the area? What would a typical day for a rancher have been like?  
  • Take a hike through the backcountry and get up close and personal with the park’s wild flora and fauna. What types of grass are found in the park? Are there any rare species of wildlife that you might happen to come across on your hike? What makes the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem unique?
  • Take part in the work that is being done to protect the different species at risk that live in the park. What are some of the species that are endangered? What type of conservation work is being done to help protect these species? What are the biggest threats to their survival?
  • Imagine you work for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and, along with the designation committee, it is your responsibility to evaluate whether or not to name Grasslands National Park a Dark Sky Preserve. What are some of the discussions that would have taken place around making this decision? If you’re feeling particularly imaginative, recreate an experience that a cowboy would have had under the dark skies of the park, or even an experience had by a dinosaur! What would they have seen when looking up at the night sky?