|native spear grasses and sage at White Butte|
Saskatchewan people love grass—some of us prefer needle and thread (our provincial grass) in native grassland, and some of us prefer wide swards of Kentucky blue grass cut short so we can walk over its soft carpet and enjoy the beauty of a lawn or golf course.
There are people who think lawns are an abomination, but I’m not one of them. I love the scent of fresh cut grass and the landscaped aesthetic of a green stretch between clumps of trees. I spent thousands of hours golfing as a teenager, mostly because I liked the look of rolling hills of bluegrass with trees casting long shadows—it certainly wasn’t the satisfaction of a well-struck ball that kept me coming back. These days, I might golf once a year if a friend invites me, but I spend a lot of time walking through the wild grass that has made this land prairie.
In Saskatchewan, where cultivated land makes up more than 80 per cent or more of the land base south of the forest, we have room for many golf courses without harming native prairie. In fact, it is said that this province has more golf courses per capita than any other.
Now that our native grassland has dwindled down to small remnants in many areas, though, you would think there is no reason for golf courses and native prairie to come into conflict. Unfortunately, that is not the case. When we build golf courses in coulees and river valleys (e.g. Katepwa and Ochapowace), native grassland is destroyed to plant the fairways and create greens and tee boxes. There are more recent examples where native grassland ecosystems were permanently damaged to create golf courses in Saskatchewan, such as Dakota Dunes near Saskatoon.
These places are often passed off as “sustainable” or “ecological” golf courses, but this is a lot of rear-guard PR that has no data to back it up. A survey of the biodiversity of any “ecological” golf course will show that there are important species diminished or entirely absent from the landscape when it is compared to intact habitat nearby. Sure, robins, deer, foxes and other abundant species that tolerate or prefer disturbed landscapes will flourish, helping the course claim to be “wildlife-friendly”, but many of the rarer species and ecological relationships will simply disappear.
I found out recently that one of Regina’s only remaining patches of native prairie is being considered for a golf course. Speaking to friends who belong to the Regina Ski Club, I learned that a private golf course company is asking the Province to let them build a course on the southern half of the White Butte Recreation Site, a couple of miles east of Regina along Highway One.
|Walking trail sign for trails (in red) where a golf course is proposed at White Butte|
|looking north from the proposed golf course site|
White Butte contains two square miles of one of the rarest grassland types in Canada—Aspen Parkland. According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, less than ten per cent of the Aspen Parkland remains in Canada, though it once formed a wide swath of the northern Plains from southern Manitoba northwest to Edmonton.
Unlike almost all of the surrounding private subdivisions now filling up with starter castles, this piece of public land at White Butte has never felt the farmer's plow or the developer’s bulldozer.
The Regina Plains landscape area contains 1.1 million acres of land. Less than 0.1 % of it is native prairie. The rest has been plowed up to grow crops or paved over with roads and urban development. White Butte represents a big chunk of the public lands that are included in that miniscule 0.1 % remnant.
As unbroken prairie, it contains vital habitat for both the increasingly rare rough fescue grass and our provincial bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, which winters and breeds on the property. I have seen them dancing there myself in April right in the middle of where the golf course would be built. Two weeks ago a handful of birding friends came with me to look for Sharp-tails and we quickly found seven. They will no doubt be on their dancing grounds or “lek” very soon and then building nests. This is a species in decline in the province, as any experienced upland bird hunter or naturalist will testify. The Aspen Parkland is its preferred habitat and with urban sprawl near our cities, our provincial bird is getting harder and harder to find without a long trip south.
|The Sharp-tailed Grouse, our provincial bird, depends on White Butte for habitat|
It is entirely possible that the golf course builders have no inkling of how rare and important White Butte is in the Regina area. No doubt they are excited by the potential for savings in this opportunity. Leasing Crown land to build a golf course near Regina is much cheaper than having to spend many millions to purchase an adjacent piece of private land.
I wonder what the other golf courses in the Regina area would say to this. You have to think they would disapprove of a new course receiving what amounts to a government subsidy. There are twelve golf courses in the immediate Regina area by my count: Aspen Links (just across the highway at Emerald Park), Deer Valley, Flowing Springs, Joanne Goulet, Lakeview (par 3), Regent Park (par 3), Murray, Royal Regina, Sherwood Forest, Tor Hill, Wascana, and Green Acres. Widen the radius to an hour’s drive and you can rope in many more.
Twelve golf courses, but only three pieces of public land where you can hike or experience natural prairie near the city—Condie, Wascana Trails, and White Butte. The White Butte Recreation area provides ski trails and hiking trails maintained by the Regina Ski Club. The proposed golf course would be built immediately south of the existing ski trail network, but the members of the club passed a strong resolution to oppose the course nonetheless. Many of them are also nature lovers and they are concerned that the natural buffer zone of wild landscape to the south would be severely damaged by a golf course.
As well, snowshoers, hikers, bird-watchers, other naturalists and dog walkers use the natural area where the golf course would go. The day we looked for grouse I spoke to a man who was training his dog on the site. I asked what he thought of the idea. “That would be awful,” he said. “I like it the way it is.”
That pretty well says it all. I imagine that most people who like to visit White Butte would feel the same way, even if they are golfers. Most of us know that if you build a golf course on disturbed landscape like cropland, you can improve habitat, but if you build it on native prairie, you destroy it.
I have included some more photos from two recent trips to White Butte, but if you want to keep White Butte as wild prairie for future generations, please take a moment to send a letter or email to the Minister of Parks, Culture, and Sport:
Hon. Mark Docherty
Room 315, Legislative Building,
2405 Legislative Drive,
Canada, S4S 0B3
Or email (though letters are always better):
Better yet, phone him:
more images of White Butte
|looking for grouse|
|open area frequented by the sharp-tailed grouse|
|blue grama grass left from last summer|
|two northern harriers were doing their spring sky dance over the site|