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Gibbons Prairie and the Sturgeon River Badlands

Article and photos by Patsy Cotterill

Wildflower News, February 2013

Originally published under “Parkland Plant Notes” in The Parkland Naturalist, April–June 2012, pp. 14-17 (it was published late!). and adapted with permission.

It was a summer of sun and violent thunderstorms, of butterflies and bees, of mosquitoes and hovering squadrons of dragonflies, of wanted verdure and rank and rampant weed growth, of burgeoning mushrooms… and, for some of us, a summer of sojourns in badlands… “Gibbons Prairie” and the Sturgeon River Badlands

There is nothing botanists like better than discovering a new, intact, natural ecosystem, especially if that site is already a protected reserve so that they do not have to fear loving it and losing it. And if that site is close to home so that it can be explored easily in all its seasonal transmutations, so much the better.

“Gibbons Prairie”, a stretch of escarpment along the Sturgeon River opposite the Town of Gibbons and owned by it, comes close as a discovery of the best kind. Here the river has exposed a 70-million year old reach of Cretaceous bedrock similar to that which occurs in Dinosaur Provincial Park, and home to some of the same badlands flora.

Gibbons Prairie Escarpment along the Sturgeon River
Gibbons Prairie Escarpment

Well, letʼs not get too carried away. “Gibbons Prairie” is not completely intact, nor is it adequately protected – so far. This summer we resumed the field trips, now making a serious attempt to document the plant diversity of the site. We started a little late, going out first on June 26, and so missing the prairie crocus in bloom and a number of other early flowerers.

70-million year old reach of Cretaceous bedrock
70-million year old reach of Cretaceous bedrock

We visited again on June 29, July 19 and August 27, and in total logged some 156 species as occurring in the area. Admittedly, not all these are prairie or badland plants; we included species from the poplar-wooded ravine to the south, small gullies of tall shrubbery and riparian areas, although most of these sites have not yet been fully explored.

Grass species numbered an impressive 29. We identified beautiful patches of porcupine and needle-and-thread grasses, the distinctive “eyelash” blue grama grass, intermediate oat grass, and plains muhly, as well as clumps of June grass and various wheat grasses, and here and there, solitary stems of plains reedgrass (Calamagrostis purpurascens).

I was extremely pleased to see plains rough fescue grass (Festuca hallii) in the mixture. A tallish but rather nondescript grass with tufts of fine leaves which are reddish at the base, plains rough fescue is easily overlooked, especially when it isnʼt in flower, and it does not flower every season. Once a major component of the grasslands of central and southern Alberta, it was extremely important as a forage grass, both for bison and to feed the stock of early ranchers.

Our local grass, Festuca hallii, is one of a complex of three closely related species, the other two being grasses of the foothills and mountains. The heritage importance of this complex is recognized in its status as the provincial grass of Alberta. Since fescue does not come back after native sod is broken, its presence is always a sign of nondisturbance.

Among the more uncommon species we found – i.e., those that cannot be found on similar bare escarpments of the North Saskatchewan River in the vicinity of Edmonton – was Nuttallʼs saltbush (Atriplex nuttallii), very much a badland plant. Among the four species of milk vetch (Astragalus) found at the site is the striking, bushy, twogrooved milk vetch (Astragalus bisulcatus) with long clusters of pink-purple pea-like flowers. This plant concentrates selenium where the element is present in the soil, which seems to make it smell bad. I once collected a plant from east of Regina but the stench was so nauseating as it dried out that I reluctantly had to throw it out.

Shining Arnica (Arnica fulgens), is common in the moister grasslands closer to the river. Narrowleaved Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) forms large patches in these same meadows. (Common in moist areas in natural vegetation on the east side of Edmonton, including the sandhill natural areas to the northeast, it does not seem to occur west of the City.)

Almost as satisfying as our explorations has been the liaison we have forged this summer with the Town of Gibbons. One councillor has experienced something of a revelation with regard to the site, and along with his plant-loving wife is now visiting regularly. At the Townʼs Pioneer Days event in July, with a colourful display assembled by ENG volunteer Judith Golub, we got the Town administration and the local museum (prairie is heritage too, right?) onside. The Townʼs budget next year should include money for re-fencing and re-gating the site to block access by ATVs. And there is talk of ENG leading regular public field trips and of engagement with the schools next year. Local naturalist Patty Milligan plans to start up a cross-county Master Naturalist program using Edmontonʼs program as a model, and suggests that newly graduated Naturalists could help steward Gibbons Prairie in the long term.

Admittedly there has been debate as to whether it is wise to advertise the prairie escarpment, given that cactuses are prized for garden transplants. However, most of us feel that a strong educational campaign to increase local appreciation provides the best protection for the cactuses and prairie in the long run.



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