The Beaver Hills area is part of the Dry Mixedwood Boreal Forest Natural Subregion (Achuff 1994), a transitional zone between the southern Aspen Parkland and the other northern boreal forest subregions. There are three disjunct areas representing this natural subregion in the province. The Beaver Hills comprise the smallest of the three, an island within the Aspen Parkland that is separate from a nearby larger band of Dry Mixedwood extending from the Cold Lake area west, then south toward Calgary.
Because of its transitional location and relatively undisturbed habitat, this part of the Dry Mixedwood Boreal Subregion supports a high diversity of plant and animal life. This ecological subregion has been called the most productive of the boreal subregions for wildlife, mainly because of the diversity of habitats available within it and productive shrub growth (Strong and Leggat 1992).
Up to 48 mammals, 152 birds and 8 amphibians and reptiles have been reported to occur within the Beaver Hills (Geowest 1997). Reflecting the transitional nature of this section of the boreal zone, this list includes both boreal species (moose, black bear, lynx) and grassland species (sharp-tailed grouse, mule deer). Waterfowl and wetland songbirds are abundant and diverse communities can be found on wetlands throughout the area.
Under the Canada Land Inventory system, a federal program that identified “productive lands” based on soil, vegetation, management practices and climate, the Beaver Hills were classed as having either “only slight limitations to the production of ungulates” or “no significant limitations to production”. The abundant small wetlands throughout the Beaver Hills were rated as good to excellent for waterfowl production based on abundant food and cover. Cooking and Hastings Lakes are both considered key waterfowl habitat and Beaverhills Lake to the east is listed as a RAMSAR site, a wetland of international significance.
A number of provincially rare plants and wildlife species occur within the Beaver Hills, in fact, rare species records are more frequent in the Beaver Hills than in the surrounding agricultural plains, and clustered in a band between the protected areas of Elk Island National Park and Miquelon Provincial Park. This image shows records of species ranked as S1, S2 and S3 provincially (<6 records, 6–20 records, 21–100 records in province, respectively) by the Alberta Natural Heritage Information Center (ANHIC). ANHIC is part of a national and global network dedicated to tracking population status of plant and wildlife species.
Many of these records are of plant species, but piping plover, peregrine falcon, Canadian toad and northern long-eared bat have also been observed. Colonial nesting sites for pelicans and herons, significant due to the sensitivity of these breeding birds to disturbance, are also shown this image.
The frequency of rare species records is likely related to the natural habitat available in the Beaver Hills relative to that in adjacent, agricultural lands. The protected areas that run the length of the Beaver Hills are also a factor: the lower level of human use in these zones helps provide secure habitat for these species. Secure populations in turn help foster populations in adjacent, unprotected “buffer” lands.
The value of the Beaver Hills to rare species is best illustrated by the trumpeter swan, a species still legally protected as an endangered species in the province, but recently delisted by ANHIC to an S3 rank, and nationally to Not At Risk status. The delisting was due in part to successful reintroduction in locations across the country, including Elk Island National Park. As the EINP population has grown, young birds have begun breeding on small lakes in the lands adjacent the Park. The fact that these birds are very sensitive to disturbance in nesting areas provides strong evidence of the habitat suitability of these “buffer lands” and their importance to sustaining viable wildlife (and plant) populations.