Canadian Forces Base Suffield National Wildlife Area

Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield National Wildlife Area (NWA) borders the South Saskatchewan River in southeastern Alberta. The CFB Suffield NWA is unique and significant on a national scale with its large expanse of native prairie and 28 species at risk.

Description

The Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield NWA was created in 2003. It has an area of 45,836 hectares (ha) and is within CFB Suffield in Alberta, Canada. CFB Suffield is one of the largest blocks of largely uncultivated grassland remaining in the Prairies and is around half the size of Prince Edward Island. CFB Suffield NWA is the only NWA that affords protection at a scale large enough to achieve the survival and recovery of prairie grassland species that have been identified as species at risk. Native prairie grasslands are continuing to disappear at an alarming rate, and the establishment of this NWA serves as an important part in protecting prairie habitat for local and regional benefit.

See long description below
CFB Suffield NWA. Photo: Todd Kemper

The military has long recognized the unique and fragile nature of the Suffield NWA ecosystem with the military having protected the area since the base was established in 1971. No ground training occurs within the NWA in order to protect the integrity of native grasslands and wildlife habitat. However, nearby military training and past management strategies have resulted in some changes, such as the fire frequency in portions of the NWA.

CFB Suffield NWA contains many habitats. The NWA has rolling native grasslands, extensive sand hills and sand dunes, but also deep coulees and steep valley slopes carved by the South Saskatchewan River. One can find riparian sage flats and cottonwood forests in the valley bottom, and even small wetlands and occasional springs scattered throughout the NWA.

The large size, diverse habitats, large sand deposits, and position of the NWA near the northern edge of the dry mixed-grasslands make the NWA a refuge for wildlife. This includes a diverse assemblage of:

  • plants
  • mammals
  • birds
  • reptiles
  • amphibians
  • insects

CFB Suffield NWA is home to more than 1,100 known species with twenty-eight having been designated as species at risk in Canada. Many of these species have declined or completely disappeared elsewhere across the Canadian Prairies.

Many of the NWA's species at risk are emblematic prairie species. For instance, the burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, and Sprague’s pipit evoke images of vast expanses of unbroken native grasslands grazed by free-ranging herds of bison. Other species, like small-flowered sand-verbena and Ord's kangaroo rat are habitat specialists and require the open sand dune and sand hill habitats that are found in very few places across the prairies. Specific climatic and fire regime conditions are required to maintain such habitats.

The large size of CFB Suffield NWA provides a rare opportunity to protect unique and endangered prairie wildlife populations at a scale that is large enough to promote species’ recovery and ongoing persistence. Some species, such as the prairie subspecies of western harvest mouse, are not known to have viable populations elsewhere in the Canadian Prairies.

Find more information on CFB Suffield NWA in the summary table below.

Management

The Department of National Defence (DND) manages CFB Suffield NWA as part of the CFB Suffield. Environment and Climate Change Canada delegated authority to DND in an unprecedented arrangement that represents an exciting unique method of protecting nationally significant wildlife habitat on federal lands in Canada.

Under the Canada Wildlife Act, NWAs are protected and managed in accordance with the Wildlife Area Regulations. Being on DND land, the CFB Suffield NWA is also managed according to the National Defence Act. The primary purpose of NWAs is to protect and conserve wildlife and their habitat. For this purpose and according to the legislation, all activities in a NWA that could interfere with the conservation of wildlife can be prohibited. Consequently, most NWAs are not accessible to the public and all activities are prohibited. However, some activities may be authorized through public notice or the issuance of permits as long as they are consistent with the management plan goals for the NWA. For more information, consult the NWAs Management and Activities section.

More information on access and permitting for CFB Suffield NWA can be obtained by contacting the Environment Canada regional office.

Predation

The dominant predators of the grassland ecosystem are no longer present in the Canadian Prairies, creating an unnatural predator-prey dynamic. The prairie grizzly bear is extirpated and no longer found in the prairies, and the grey wolf is almost completely gone. The absence of the single keystone herbivore, the plains bison, and the absence of dominant large predators has resulted in significant changes to the grazing system, with unknown consequences.

The primary management focus of CFB Suffield NWA is the management of habitats to promote the recovery and the enduring survival of Canada's species at risk. For example, NWA management allows for cattle grazing on portions of the NWA. This is an important tool for management of native grasslands and wildlife that evolved in parallel with a keystone herbivore, the now extirpated plains bison. In areas of the NWA that are not grazed by cattle, ungulates such as pronghorn, mule deer, and elk are the dominant herbivores. Elk were intentionally reintroduced to CFB Suffield in 1997 and 1998 to partially fulfill the role of extirpated bison in the grassland ecosystem. Since the introductions, the population of elk has increased dramatically in the absence of predation. This population increase has led to some concerns for adjacent landowners and ranchers who suffer fence damage and feed losses from elk that range beyond the base. The Alberta government manages the elk herd at CFB Suffield as a provincial resource. A hunting program coordinated by the Alberta government and DND helps manage the elk population.

See long description below
Bull Elk. Photo: Todd Kemper

Natural gas

When the CFB Suffield NWA was formally established, more than 1,100 shallow gas wells, along with an associated pipeline network and other infrastructure, were already present within the NWA. The Province of Alberta owns the mineral rights underlying the NWA, while the federal government owns the surface rights. Agreements between Canada and Alberta to provide access to natural gas beneath CFB Suffield were established in 1975. As of 2020, Agreements have not been updated since the creation of the NWA or the passage of new legislation including the Impact Assessment Act, the Species at Risk Act, or the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

EnCana Corporation filed a proposal to install an additional 1,275 shallow gas wells within the NWA in 2005. The proposal was referred to a Joint Review Panel under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) due to the potential for significant environmental impact and a high level of public concern about the project. The recommendations of the Joint Review Panel relative to this proposal are available through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry.

On November 30, 2012, Canada's Environment [currently Environment and Climate Change Canada] Minister Peter Kent announced that Cenovus Energy’s proposed Shallow Gas Infill Development Project at the CFB Suffield NWA in Alberta would not be granted federal approval to proceed. The government decided that the significant adverse environmental effects that would be caused by the project were not justified under the circumstances. At the time, this was the first decision statement under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012.

Directions

GPS: 50.30, -110.28

Public access to the NWA is strictly prohibited by authority of the National Defence Act. However, management of the NWA allows for some permitted research and habitat management activities, but require a permit. This is in accordance with the conservation objectives of the NWA management plan. Hunting is not permitted on the base for public safety reasons. For more information on permitting for CFB Suffield NWA, contact the Department of Defence, CFB Suffield, Range Sustainability Section.

Map of the area

See long description below
Map of Canadian Forces Base Suffield National Wildlife Area
Long description

This map shows a portion of southeastern Alberta. The boundaries of CFB Suffield NWA are indicated. The NWA is separated into two pieces, both of which border on the South Saskatchewan River. The NWA is located to the west of Hilda, north and west of Red Deer Lake, and north-east of Ralston Suffield. The scale on the map is in kilometers. Permanent water, intermittent water, roads and highways are all indicated on the map. A small inset national map shows the NWA’s location in Canada.

This map is for illustrative purposes only. It should not be used to define legal boundaries.

Summary table

Summary table for Canadian Forces Base Suffield National Wildlife Area
Category Information
Protected area designation NWA
Province/territory Alberta
Latitude/longitude 50°30' North / 110°28'35 West
Size 45,836 ha
Reason for creation of protected area To protect and conserve native prairie grasslands and wildlife, including species at risk.
Date created (gazetted) 2003 - Legal Description
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management category IV - Habitat/Species Management Area
Additional designations Includes three Environmentally Significant Areas (ESAs) (Alberta ESA #292, #286, #287) rated as nationally significant.
Keystone or flagship species
Main habitat type
  • dry mixed-grasslands.
  • sand hills.
  • riparian corridor.
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) 28 species in the NWA are listed as species at risk in Canada, including:
Invasive species Numerous invasive and agronomic species including, but not limited to:
  • crested wheat grass
  • smooth brome
  • Japanese brome
  • downy brome
  • intermediate wheat grass
  • alfalfa
  • white sweet-clover
  • yellow sweet-clover
  • absinthe wormwood
  • Canada thistle
  • narrow-leaved hawksbeard
  • perennial sow-thistle
  • dalmatian toadflax
  • leafy spurge
  • shepherd's purse
  • flixweed
  • Russian thistle
  • Mexican fireweed
Main threats and challenges
  • shallow gas development
  • altered grazing and fire regimes
  • non-native and agronomic invasive species
Management agency Department of National Defence - CFB Suffield, Environment and  Climate Change Canada (Canadian Wildlife Service)
Public access and usage Public access to this area is strictly prohibited by the National Defence Act.

Note: If there is a discrepancy between the information presented on this web page, any notice posted at the NWA site and the law, the law prevails, as it is the legal instrument authorizing the activity.

Contact us

Environment and Climate Change Canada - Prairie Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Protected Areas Unit
Eastgate Offices
9250 - 49th Street NW
Edmonton, Alberta
T6B 1K5

Toll-free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)
Email: ec.enviroinfo.ec@canada.ca

Canadian Forces Base Suffield
Range Sustainability Section
NWA Coordinator
P.O. Box 6000, Station Main
Medicine Hat, Alberta
T1A 8K8
Canada

Telephone: 403-544-4011 ext. 5184

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