by Nathan Entz
Oh, the prairies. Forever the butt of every Canadian joke when people talk about the beauty of this country. For some, it may seem like an endless sea of nothingness in the middle of nowhere. To those who really know what’s up, however, the grasslands are an absolutely fascinating and detailed ecosystem with more than meets the eye.
There are three categories of grassland in the Canadian prairies: tallgrass prairies, mixed grass prairie and fescue prairie which globally are known as northern tall grasslands, northern mixed grasslands, and northern short grasslands. The most common type currently found in Manitoba is fescue prairie found in the southwest region of the province.
Above: Early morning on the prairie (photo by Amanda Shave)
Grasslands provide humans with an abundance of recreational and commerce opportunities.
Grassland ecosystems make for exceptional farmland for well managed livestock operations. Where conversion of grassland to cropland replaces native flora with less ecologically valuable plants, proper ranching practices enable native plants to grow and provide food and habitat for native wildlife. Read more about how beef farming can support grassland conservation here.
With this region being home to a variety of unique species of flora and fauna, it inherently provides opportunities for bird watching, hunting, wild edible harvesting and basically anything that requires a big open field.
Grasslands provide important habitat for a variety of species, some of which would not be able to survive otherwise.
Wildlife have evolved intricate behaviours and physical adaptions to breed, hunt and avoid predators. A lack of proper breeding habitat may lead to predation or lack of viable food resources.
For example, Sprague’s Pipits, are an at-risk grassland species with a picky preference for nesting. This ground-nesting bird will tend to avoid non-native grasslands and refuses to nest in cropland. If it does not find adequate habitat it will either refuse to breed that year or fail to hatch and raise it’s young due to lack of habitat or food resources.
Above: Sprague's Pipit (photo by Christian Artuso)
Due to urbanization, agriculture and other land converting processes, grasslands are one of Canada’s most at-risk ecosystems.
Conversion of cropland reduces amount of native plant species and can negatively impact soil quality if unsustainable farming practices are used. Healthy grasslands are a strong defense against pollution and climate change due to their ability to store carbon in a process called carbon sequestration.
Prairie potholes are a unique feature found within the grasslands of North America that provide essential habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, and wading birds as well as countless other fauna. These ‘mini wetlands’ also provide the surrounding areas with flood prevention and temporary nutrient storage.
Native grasslands are dominated by perennial plants and therefore have a much deeper and intricate system then annual crops that need to be seeded repeatedly. These root systems allow water to penetrate or ‘percolate’ deeper into the soil and refill the ground water lying below the soil. When water is not able to sink into the soil, it gathers on the top of the soil and moves downhill in a form now called runoff. The runoff gathers nutrients as it flows over the soil and eventually drains into basins.
In Manitoba, a majority of runoff ends up in Lake Winnipeg where the nutrients gathered on its journey are deposited and have attributed to those gross green algal blooms that happen every summer. Once all that algae dies it consumes oxygen dissolved in the water and suffocates aquatic life that does not produce its own oxygen.
Above; Three-flowered avens (photo by Amanda Shave)
Few regions are as under appreciated as the Canadian grasslands.
Prairies may seem plain from a glance, but there is a whole world lurking below that swaying blade of grass just waiting to be discovered. So please, watch your step!
Tall grass prairies used to cover around 170 million acres in North America but now less than 4% remains. Manitoba was formerly home to 6,000 square kilometers of tall grass prairie which has now sadly been reduced to 1%. One of the last remaining tall grass prairies can be found at the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Gardenton MB and it’s worth a visit!
Fescue prairie is the more common grassland found in the parkland region, and fescue used to cover 255,000 square kilometers of the prairie provinces where now only 5% remains. It is found between mixed grass prairies and boreal forest and is dominated by fescue grasses. Fescue is a resilient and adaptable plant with good succession, meaning it has a good chance of producing more ‘offspring’ and providing more food and habitat for wildlife.
Mixed prairies used to make up approximately 240,000 square kilometers of the prairie provinces and it occupies the dry interior of the plains.