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Sub-Boreal Interior and Northern Boreal Mountains

sub

Grassland Region

Area, ha

Ecoprovince

Sub-Boreal Interior

Northern Boreal Mountains

117,275

49,400

Sub-Boreal Interior

Northern Boreal Mountains

Ecosections

Area, ha

Peace Foothills

Misinchinka Ranges

Muskwa Foothills

Eastern Muskwa Ranges

Hyland Highland

5,450

3,660

36,910

5,765

6,725





Grassland Landscapes

This northern mountainous region is a mix of rugged mountain ranges, extensive high, rolling plateaus and deep river valleys. Elevations range from 750 metres in the lowlands to 2700 metres in the Cassiar Mountains. The rolling Nechako Plateau dominates the southern portion of the region with elevations from 1900 to 2300 metres.

Small areas of grasslands scattered throughout are an important component of this mountainous region of northeastern British Columbia. The Rocky Mountains are an important influence on growing conditions and the Peace River valley dominates the lowlands in the east. West of the mountains grasslands are most extensive in the Spatzizi River valley, while in the east grasslands of the Muskwa Foothills cover nearly 37,000 hectares.

Summers in these northern latitudes are cool to warm and winters are long and cold. Precipitation amounts increase from south to north and in many areas the ground stays frozen for much of the year, limiting the growth of trees. Rainshadows occur both to the east of the Coast Ranges and to the east of the Rocky Mountains, creating conditions where grasslands can dominate in some areas.

Areas without ice cover during the last glaciation maintained seed sources, including grasses, for later re-establishment of vegetation. Many of the grasslands species are found throughout the polar regions of the world. The most extensive grasslands occur in only three BEC zones.

Historical Impacts

These northern grasslands, where small settlements are few and far between, have been only lightly used since the arrival of Europeans. Livestock graze only lightly, but there are populations of large ungulates, including stone sheep, mountain goat, caribou and Rocky Mountain elk that may graze heavily at times during the year.

Plant Communities

Ecosections

BEC Zones with grasslands1

Major2 grassland BEC Subzones and Variants

Peace Foothills

Engelmann Spruce-Sub-alpine Fir Zone

Boreal White and Black Spruce Zone

ESSFmv4: Graham Moist Very Cold

Engelmann Spruce-Sub-alpine Fir Variant

Misinchinka Ranges

Engelmann Spruce-Sub-alpine Fir Zone

ESSFmv4: Graham Moist Very Cold

Engelmann Spruce-Sub-alpine Fir Variant

Muskwa Foothills

Boreal White and Black Spruce Zone

Spruce-Willow-Birch Zone

BWBSmw2: Fort Nelson Moist Warm Boreal White and Black Spruce Variant

SWBmk: Spruce-Willow-Birch Subzone

Eastern Muskwa Ranges

Boreal White and Black Spruce Zone

Spruce-Willow-Birch Zone

BWBSmw2: Fort Nelson Dry Cool Boreal White and Black Spruce Variant

Hyland Highland

Boreal White and Black Spruce Zone

BWBSdk2: Liard Dry Cool Boreal White and Black Spruce Variant

1. Click here to find out more about the Biogeoclimatic Ecosystems Classification(BEC) System

2. Over 3,000 hectares

ESSFmv4: Graham Moist Very Cold Engelmann Spruce-Sub-alpine Fir Variant: 8,040 hectares

Grasslands occur as openings in the higher elevation sub-alpine parklands of this variant, on the lee side of the Rocky Mountains through the Misinchinka Ranges and Peace Foothills. Elevations range from 1000 to 1550 metres, snow depths can reach 200 centimetres and vegetation varies from stunted trees to meadows and heaths.

Altai fescue grasslands occur on steep south-facing slopes. Where sub-alpine communities merge with alpine communities, alpine bluegrass and alpine fescue occur, along with low-growing shrubs and flowering plants.

Small openings in the boreal forests are found in many river valleys, from 900 to 1300 metres, while more extensive steppe areas dominated by Prairie sagewort and slender wheatgrass extend to subalpine elevations.

BWBSdk2: Liard Dry Cool Boreal White and Black Spruce Variant: 6,745 hectares

The grasslands of the Stikine River, on the west side of the Cassiar Mountains, are widespread in Spatzizi Provincial Park and on the steep, south-facing slopes of the lower valley. On the more northerly Liard and Yukon Plateau areas, altai fescue grasslands occur on flat to rolling areas. Common species in the many different communities are prairie sagewort, slender wheatgrass and northern wormwood. Altai fescue is also found in many different shrub-steppe communities with varying amounts of grasses, scrub birch and willow.

BWBSmw2: Fort Nelson Dry Cool Boreal White and Black Spruce Variant: 3,255 hectares

Almost all the grasslands in this variant are found on steep, south-facing slopes of the major river valleys, such as the Tuchodi River, in association with aspen forests or parklands. Frequent fires were lit to maintain forage for livestock and wildlife, with aspen encroachment from unburned areas. Fuzzy spiked wildrye is the dominant grass species.

SWBmk: Spruce-Willow-Birch Subzone: 35,790 hectares

sub1These ecosystems characterize the sub-alpine areas of this northern portion of BC. In the Liard and Yukon plateau areas they occur where cold air draining down into the valleys stunts tree growth. In the Muskwa Foothills they range from 800 to 1850 metres and most of the 580 centimetres of precipitation falls as snow. Prairie sagewort-wheatgrass communities dominate especially east of the Coast Mountains.

Dry, steep subalpine slopes support glaucous bluegrass and northern wormwood communities with a diverse mix of grasses and sedges. Altai fescue grasslands are found on the Stikine Plateau on high-elevation valley bottoms. There are several shrub-steppe communities in the Muskwa Foothills east of the Rocky Mountains from Halfway River to the upper Prophet.

Other Grassland Communities

In the Sub-boreal Interior Ecoprovince grasslands cover less than 1,000 hectares in a forested landscape. Most are found on the Nechako and Fraser plateaus on west- and south-facing slopes. Areas of concentration include the area between North Cunningham Lake and South Trembleur Lake and the south end of Takla Lake.

The grasslands communities of this region contain plants that link them to many other areas where growing conditions may be very different. Southern grasslands plants such as junegrass, yarrow and prickly rose are common in northern grasslands. Fuzzy spiked ryegrass is found as far south as the Rocky Mountain trench and through the boreal forest in Alberta. Other species are also common in prairie grasslands, or in alpine and arctic locations.

Aspen parklands are found extensively in the Rocky Mountain foothills with a shrub layer of soopolallie, wild rose, twinflower and highbush cranberry. Cold basins and subalpine meadows often have large areas of fens, meadows and shrub-carrs where Barclay’s willow is a common shrub.

Key Plant Species

sub2Altai fescue (Festuca altaica)

  • A densely tufted grass 30 – 90 cm tall
  • many years’ leaves remain to create a hummocky plant
  • leaf blades long and may be folded or flat
  • open flower heads, often one-sided
  • dominant grass from low to high elevations in northern latitudes
  • found in Asia beyond the Bering Sea

Wildlife

Species diversity is high in these northern latitudes, helped by the many migratory bird species that move north for the summer. Garter snakes have limited distribution in the warmer variants while long-toed salamanders, spotted frog and Western toad are more numerous and associated with wetlands.

Some familiar southern grasslands birds such as the meadowlark, common nighthawk and vesper sparrow occur in northern grasslands along with many warblers, horned larks, mountain bluebirds and sparrows. Ducks and shorebirds use the many subalpine lakes and wetlands to breed or in migration. Ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse are found in shrub thickets and aspen copses, while a variety of raptors and owls prey on small mammals of the grasslands.

Check the list of wildlife viewing sites publications.

Unique Features

Stone sheep are one of two species of thinhorn sheep found in the mountainous northern regions of BC. The Sub-Boreal Interior and Northern Boreal Mountains grasslands are home to most of the world’s population of these dark-coated sheep. They rely on grasslands for much of their food, including grasses, some flowering plants and young willow and poplar sprouts.

The highest elevation cliffs and rocky areas adjacent to small grasslands are important areas for stone sheep in the winter. The windswept cliff areas have less snow and they are able to find the grasses they need. They also have more protection in these areas from their main predator - wolves.

The sheep move down to lower elevation sub-alpine grasslands, avalanche tracks and rock slides in spring, moving back up to alpine pastures for the summer. Cliffs also provide protection for lambing and raising young. Mineral licks are also important for stone sheep; some licks close to the Alaska Highway provide visitors with viewing opportunities in spring and summer.

Species at Risk

Red and Blue listed grassland elements in the Sub-Boreal Interior and Northern Boreal Mountains

Element

Red List*

Blue List**

Vascular Plants

Plant Communities

Insects

Reptiles and Amphibians

Birds

Mammals

Total Elements

17

4

0

0

5

1

27

27

0

16

5

0

1

49

*Red list: List of ecological communities, and indigenous species and subspecies that are extirpated, endangered or threatened in British Columbia.

**Blue list: List of ecological communities, and indigenous species and subspecies of special concern (formerly vulnerable) in British Columbia.

Few of the listed plant species in the northern half of BC are unique to the northern grasslands. Some blue-listed species include short-leaved sedge, Arctic bladderpod, milky draba and tundra milk-vetch.

Wildlife in these northern latitudes rely on several communities for their needs and few, if any, rely solely on the scattered, small grassland patches. The sharp-tailed grouse and short-eared owl are two listed bird species that use upland steppe while wood bison, grizzly bear, stone sheep and dall sheep use grasslands for foraging, resting and breeding.

A Species At Risk Profile: American Golden-Plover

Blue-listed in BC

The American Golden-Plover is known to breed in only one place in British Columbia, near Kliwguh in Spatzizi Provincial Park. The breeding population in BC is assumed to be small but there may be other undiscovered sites in similar habitats. Golden-plovers breed in large numbers throughout the Arctic.

A striking brown bird with long legs, black belly and white stripe on the head, American Golden-Plovers poke around for aquatic insects along shorelines or in shallow water. They nest on drier slopes away from the shore, preferring areas with short plant growth.

As with most shorebirds, American Golden-Plovers migrate long distances for the winter, the American Golden-Plover flying as far as Bolivia, Uruguay, southern Brazil, Northern Chile and northern Argentina. Their winter habitats, where agriculture, urban development and tourism are increasing and hunting is allowed, are not as secure as their isolated breeding areas.

For more information on species at risk in BC, visit our SAR page.

For definitions of technical terms, please see the GLOSSARY.

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