Prior to settlement, the short grass prairie of southwestern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan (a.k.a. Palliser’s Triangle) supported large migratory herds of buffalo, antelope, and deer. With the near extermination of the buffalo in the 1880s, these wide-open spaces were soon filled with cattle, and the cowboys that herded them. As long as the snow pack was such that the cattle could paw through it to access the grasses, there would be a reliable and affordable food supply twelve months of the year.
The native grass, also known as buffalo grass or prairie wool, had already spent thousands of years adapting to the poor soil conditions and semi-arid climate of this corner of the Great Plains. With a root system reaching up to five feet in length, prairie wool matured in early August, and then retained its nutritional value as it dried. Indigenous peoples used the wool as a soft bedding and lining material for their cradleboards. Early settlers used the grass to feed their horses and build sod hut shelters.
Most of the short-grass prairie was plowed under in the early 1900s, and eventually proved unsuitable for farming (see map below). The dust bowl conditions of the Dirty Thirties are well known. Today, much of this land has returned to ranching, with the exception of a few native mixed-grass prairie ecosystems, one of which is protected within Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan.
All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.