When you picture Alberta's natural beauty, several distinct landscapes come to mind. These are Alberta's natural regions. Each natural region is further divided into subregions based on more specific landscape, climate and species types. Alberta's parks preserve representative examples of this environmental diversity for all time.
The Cypress Hills also contain wetland ecosystems (wetlannds are not a separate natural region).
The Montane Subregion is characteristic of the Rocky Mountain Natural Region, located over 300 kilometres west. Its presence this far east of the Rockies is one of the things that makes the Cypress Hills unique.
Lodgepole pine forest:
White spruce forest:
Red squirrels were introduced to the Cypress Hills in the mid-1950s and are now abundant in the pine and spruce forests. The squirrels are active and agile climbers and spend much of their time in late summer harvesting seeds and cones for winter food.
Aspen woodlands provide food and shelter for the slow-moving and solitary porcupine. Least chipmunk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose are often encountered close to or in woodland areas. Mule deer also venture a considerable distance from cover. The white-footed mouse lives here although it is not abundant. Nuttall's cottontail and snowshoe hare, bobcat and the occasional lynx prefer bushy areas and coulees for protection.
The montane forest provides excellent habitat for a variety of bird species.
Lodgepole pine forests are home to black-capped chickadee, yellow-rumped warbler, dark-eyed junco, pine siskin, hairy woodpecker, American crow, great horned owl, red crossbills, ruffed grouse, dusky flycatcher, orange-crowned warbler and white-crowned sparrow.
Aspen and white spruce forests contain mourning dove, house wren, American robin, veery, yellow warbler, black-billed magpie, mountain bluebird, rufous-sided towhee, gray catbird, brown thrasher, brown-headed cowbird, white-crowned sparrow, song sparrow, great horned owl, Swainson's thrush, least flycatcher, downy woodpecker, western wood pewee, yellow-breasted chat, common poorwill, turkey vulture and wild turkey.
Fescue grassland is found at high elevations on the Cypress Hills plateau. The dominant species of grass is rough fescue. This bunch grass of the foothills region requires a minimum of 45 centimetres of precipitation annually for growth. Other grasses in the area include Idaho fescue, wild and Parry's oatgrass and awned wheat grass.
Shrubby cinquefoil is abundant in grassland areas. Its beautiful yellow flowers add colour to the abundant purple prairie crocus, pink mountain shooting star, blue lupine and larkspur, and yellow gaillardia. The great number of showy flowering plants in this rich grassland give it a "flower garden" appearance.
Fescue prairie is home to Savannah sparrow, Baird's sparrow, vesper sparrow and western meadowlark. As well, the mountain bluebird has made an impressive comeback - it can be spotted flying between fence-post bird boxes.
Mixedgrass prairie is the predominant grass on the eastern part of the plateau and on dry south-facing slopes. It is also characteristic of the adjacent plains. The most common grasses are northern wheatgrass, spear grass, blue grama grass and various dryland sedges.
Prairie selaginella covers the soil surface in dry, exposed places. Two prostrate junipers (ground juniper and creeping juniper) are common on eroded slopes. Their extensive root systems help to bind the soil. Yellow umbrella plant, succulent narrow-petaled stone crop and moss phlox are common associates.
Early yellow locoweed, purple prairie clover and golden bean are examples of the many legumes that grow in mixedgrass prairie.
Grasslands in the Cypress Hills are home to Richardson's ground squirrel, thirteen-lined ground squirrel and northern pocket gopher. Ground squirrels are active during the day so visitors often see them; however, the pocket gopher seldom leaves its tunnels during the day.
White-tailed jack rabbit, red fox and coyote prefer open grassland. Striped skunk is occasionally seen. In the area immediately surrounding the Cypress Hills, pronghorn antelope feed on open grasslands.
The swift fox, which was once extirpated from the prairies, has been reintroduced in areas south of the Cypress Hills. The success of this reintroduction is being monitored.
Mixedgrass prairie provides excellent habitat for red-tail and Swainson's hawk, sharp-tailed grouse, horned lark, chestnut-collared longspur, McCown's longspur, lark bunting and sage grouse. Burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, bald eagles are golden eagles are occasionally seen.
The Cypress Hills also has wetland ecosystems (which are not a separate natural region). Wetlands encompass many different habitats including ponds, marshes, swamps and peatlands. These areas (where land and water meet) are wet for an ecologically-significant portion of the year.
With plants and animals from both land and water habitats, wetlands are highly productive environments. Wetlands function as ecotones - transitional zones with characteristics of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
Plants growing in or near creeks, lakes, ponds and spring-fed marshes make up the wetland vegetation of the Cypress Hills. Partly or wholly submerged aquatic plants like slender naiad, yellow water crowfoot, pondweed and duckweed are abundant in ponds and lakes. Yellow monkey flower and mare's-tail are inhabitants of running water in creeks and streams. Wetland sedges, cattail rushes, marsh reed grass and tall manna grass are rooted in the mud at the margins of ponds and lakes and in marshes. These tall grass-like plants provide cover for waterfowl.
The banks of many creeks in the Cypress Hills are wooded with willow, balsam poplar, river and swamp birch, and some white spruce. Primitive moisture-loving plants such as mosses, liverworts and horsetails live under this canopy. This habitat also features numerous orchid species as well as the early-flowering spring beauty, a montane plant that blooms as soon as snow melts in the spring.
Many fur-bearing mammals such as muskrat, mink and short-tailed, long-tailed and least weasels live along water courses in the Cypress Hills. Moose, which were introduced to the area in 1956, can be found in wetland areas in the park. The presence of numerous beaver ponds along creeks indicates heavy beaver activity in the area.
Trumpeter swans, which were once near extinction, have been sighted on rare occasions in the Cypress Hills area. Whistling swans (now called tundra swans), snow geese and Canada geese can often be seen on their migration south in the fall. Canada geese often establish nesting areas in the Cypress Hills.
Other wetland birds common to the Cypress Hills are mallards, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, American widgeon, lesser scaup, red-winged blackbird, yellow-headed blackbird, spotted sandpiper, killdeer, black tern, kingfisher, great blue heron, bank swallow, barn swallow and cliff swallow.