Kootenay Plains crucial part of Alberta history

The region is one of the largest unspoiled montane eco regions left in the province and the driest area in the Rockies

The Kootenay Plains of central Alberta stretching between two mountain ridges about a two hour’s drive west of Rocky Mountain House is one of the largest unspoiled montane eco regions left in Alberta.

These plains, situated on the banks of the upper North Saskatchewan River, are the warmest and driest areas in the Rocky Mountains.

It has open forests and grasslands and in the distant past the wood bison grazed there.

Years ago, with the moderate temperature and abundant wildlife, different First Nations tribes hunted in the area. Prehistoric camps have been found dating back some 5,000-plus years.

These plains include open dry grasslands, as well as aspen, lodgepole pine and white spruce forests. June grass, pasture sage, prairie groundsel and blue flax make up the grasslands. Kootenay Plains also provides important winter range for elk and mule deer.

In 1858, while participating in the Palliser Expedition, James Hector named this river and waterfall Siffleur after the siffleur, or whistling marmot, a small mammal that lives in the rocky areas. Hector was following the Siffleur River to the Kootenay Plains. | Duane McCartney photo

The Kootenay Plains is named after the Ktunaxa First Nations, historically called the Kootenay Indians, who lived in the valley until 1810. Peter Pond, an early explorer, visited the area in 1787 and noted the presence of the Kutenal tribe.

They were eventually driven out by the Peigan First Nation. During the 1800s, the Stoney and Cree moved onto these plains.

The Kootenay Plains are located on a historical trade corridor used by aboriginals as well as fur traders going between Alberta and British Columbia.

Later, David Thompson an explorer, surveyor and map maker with the North West Company, visited the Kootenay Plains in the early 1800s.

Thompson described the area as the land of bison and depended on successful hunts for his provisions.

Diverse wildlife such as this grouse is found on the Kootenay Plains. | Duane McCartney photo

In 1858, Sir James Hector of the Palliser Expedition reported that the wood bison, as well as other large game were being reduced due to over hunting and a strange disease. The large wapiti herds were apparently depleted by the early 1900s.

There were few Europeans in the area until 1902 when Tom Wilson of Banff established the Powerhorn Ranch and wintered horses on the plains.

Later, in 1905, Elliot Barnes raised Clydesdale horses at his Kadoona Tinda Ranch but it lasted only three years.

In 1905, Mary Schaffer, an American naturalist, painter and later a photographer, was the first non- aboriginal woman tourist to explore the Kootenay Plains.

Mary and her husband, doctor and botanist Charles Schaffer, had been working in previous summers on collecting plant specimens to illustrate the botany for the Canadian Rockies. Charles died in 1903 but Mary kept exploring the Rocky Mountains and collecting plants. She was able to publish the book Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rockies in 1907.

This bridge, which crosses the Siffleur River, is one of the longest suspension bridges in Alberta. | Duane McCartney photo

After her husband’s death in 1903, Mary embarked upon a series of explorations in the Canadian Rockies that were far more extensive than was thought proper for a woman at the time. Her most famous trips, in 1907 and 1908, led to the first recorded visit to Jasper’s Maligne Lake.

Throughout her travels she continued to take photographs that she would later hand-colour upon her return home and use to encourage others to travel in the Canadian Rockies.

In 1987, the Alberta government declared that the Kootenay Plains would become an Ecological Reserve. The 34 sq. kilometre area is now protected as a good example of montane ecology between the prairie and mountain environments.

It protects the diverse plant and animal populations for future generations. The surrounding area was the traditional hunting and camping grounds of the Stoney First Nations and is noted as a religious and sacred place for Native people.

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