The fur trade began to influence the traditional lifestyle of local aboriginal peoples in the early 1860s. At this time, the fur trade had already declined due to waning populations of furbearers. The discovery of gold in the Cariboo further increased the non-native presence in the Churn Creek area. The first nonnative residents of the Churn Creek area were pack train operators bringing supplies to the gold fields at Barkerville and Quesnel Forks. They were followed in the 1880s by an influx of Chinese miners, who created a dam at Koster Lake, and ran ditches to placer mines on the Fraser River. Around the same time, sheep and cattle ranchers began to run their herds in the area. What we know today as the Empire Valley Ranch began as many small ranches and homesteads. By 1910, several ranching families built the Empire Valley's first school near Brown Lake. At this time, a bridge was constructed over the Fraser River, replacing the ferry and cable car that had operated since the 1860s. The bridge still features the original towers and cables, but it is now rebuilt to provincial standards.
By the 1940s, gold was discovered on Blackdome Mountain by Lawrence Frenier. However, ranching remained the economic mainstay, with some logging as well, until Churn Creek was designated a protected area in 1995.
The Churn Creek Protected Area has a long history of First Nations use extending back nearly 7,000 years. Archaeological evidence includes cultural depressions from pithouse (kekuli) villages, and surface remnants of stone tools. The principal First Nations groups occupying the Churn Creek area were the Ts’ilhqot’in (Chilcotin) and Secwepemc (Shuswap), each further divided into tribal divisions and bands.
Research suggests that a distinct culture based on hunting and gathering had developed on the Interior Plateau as early as 7,000 years ago, with river fishing developing sometime later. It is suggested that First Nations peoples lived in essentially permanent pit house villages during the winter months, and were largely nomadic during the remainder of the year to procure food and other resources. Some divisions of the Chilcotin and Shuswap peoples were important trading partners, and often shared winter villages and fishing sites.
As days lengthened in the spring, people ventured from these permanent villages and began gathering fresh roots and vegetation. Summer homes were structures made with lodge poles and a bark or mat covering; hides were considered too valuable to use for this purpose. Midsummer was trout fishing time, followed by berry picking and salmon fishing. Fishing - with dipnets made of roots, gaffs, and fish traps - was carried out at Perkins Rock and at the confluence of Churn Creek and the Fraser River. Both salmon and sturgeon were plentiful. In the late autumn, people hunted for deer, elk and bighorn sheep. (During the early 1900s, moose moved south and displaced elk from the Cariboo-Chilcotin.) Hunters used bows of wood and sinew, and arrows with points chipped from obsidian. Deer hunters used such techniques as calling and setting up corrals. Processing food so people could survive the winter was a vital and continuing task during the summer and fall seasons.
At the low elevations of the bunchgrass grasslands, spring arrives early. First Nations people gathered and ate such plants as mariposa lily, nodding onion, and prickly pear cactus. Big sagebrush bark could be woven into cloth, while the leaves were used in a medicinal tea, and were burned for their purifying smoke. At higher elevations, arrow-leafed balsamroot, Saskatoon berries, and chokecherries provided nutriment. People would deliberately burn tracts of grassland to encourage the regrowth of herbs, and prevent the encroachment of Douglas-fir trees onto the grasslands.
It is an offence under the Heritage Conservation Act to damage or remove artifacts from any cultural heritage site.
The primary role of the Churn Creek Protected Area is to conserve and restore nationally significant grassland ecosystems and wildlife populations. These grasslands represent the northern extent of large bunchgrass grassland ecosystems with their centre of distribution in central Washington. What makes Churn Creek so ecologically significant is its mosaic of grasslands, shrub-steppe, wetlands, kettle lakes, and dry open forests. Such diversity of habitats supports tremendous diversity of living creatures. This diversity is distinctive in the province's protected areas system, making Churn Creek the most significant grassland protected area west of the Rockies.
The Churn Creek grasslands are a product of the “rain shadow” created by British Columbia’s coastal mountains, and are therefore characterized by dry, hot summers, and cold, low-snowfall winters. These grasslands are located in deeply incised, heat-trapping valleys. In this area, annual rainfall and snowfall increases with elevation, with annual precipitation ranging from 300 to 400 mm. By early July, drought conditions typically prevail. On most low- to mid-elevation sites, summer droughts are too severe for trees to become established; forests are restricted to moister sites such as steep, cool aspects, and shady ravines. Drought tolerant perennial bunchgrasses, scattered shrubs, and microbiotic soil crusts dominate the landscape. The ecology of grassland plants and the lichen crust is extremely interesting. Many grassland plants are highly sensitive to disturbance - please do not remove them or destroy their habitat. Ground lichens can take over ten years to recover from damage caused by one vehicle. This damage is intensified by each passing vehicle, allowing erosion to set in.
Driving over the grasslands is an offence punishable by law. Please obey any posted signs showing a vehicle in a circle with a line drawn through it; this sign means No Motorized Vehicles Beyond This Point.
Although grasslands occupy less than 2% of the province’s land area, they support a third of the province’s threatened and endangered species. The grasslands of the Cariboo-Chilcotin contain a tremendous diversity of wildlife species. The Churn Creek Protected Area captures much of this diversity, stretching 25 km along the Fraser River and incorporating arid grasslands, cool, moist deep ravines and riparian areas, grassland/forest edges, dry Douglas-fir forests, and moist high elevation pine and spruce forests. Some of the threatened wildlife found in the Churn Creek area includes
Lewis’ woodpecker, Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, peregrine falcon, Swainson’s hawk, bobolink, flammulated owl, pallid bat, fringed myotis, rubber boa, and the gopher snake. The Protected Area also includes critical winter habitat for approximately 2500 mule deer, year-round habitat for 300-500
California Bighorn sheep, and populations of black bear, cougar, bobcat, lynx, and small mammals. Significant concentrations of bird, bat, amphibian, and reptile species can also be found in the Churn Creek grasslands; a number of these species are at their northern breeding limits.
In addition to its diversity of terrestrial habitats ranging from grassland to open forest, Churn Creek incorporates a number of kettle lakes, streams, and large creeks. Since the small lakes, marshes, and creeks either remain ice-free or thaw early in the spring, they also provide important staging and stopover areas for migratory waterfowl, and year-round habitat for muskrats, reptiles and amphibians.
Visitors should be aware that the Protected Area includes black bear habitat, and that black bears are an important component of the Churn Creek Protected Area. Never feed or approach bears or other wildlife.