We have lost more tall-grass prairie than any other type of prairie in North America. Less than 1% of Manitoba’s tall-grass prairie remains; the rest has been converted to agriculture or urban centres. Historically, tall-grass prairies would have been maintained here through an interaction between natural fires and large grazing ungulates, such as bison. Rich soils, warm summers and abundant precipitation allows tall-grass prairies here to succeed quickly to forested ecosystems; historically, fires and grazing would have suppressed woody vegetation, and would have maintained high biodiversity of this ecosystem.
Tall-grass prairies in Manitoba are primarily now represented by the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, near Tolstoi, and small fragments such as the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg. While we have already lost many tall-grass prairie species, such as greater prairie chicken, plains grizzly and plains bison, several species at risk, such as the western prairie fringed orchid and Poweshiek skipperling, are protected by these protected areas. Our research group is particularly interested in how habitat loss and fragmentation has influenced both vegetation and avian communities in Manitoba’s tall-grass prairies.
Mixed-grass prairies contain some vegetation species that are common to both short-grass and tall-grass prairies. It represents a gradient from east to west of relatively wet to relatively dry grasslands. Like tall-grass prairies, natural disturbances, such as grazing by ungulates and natural fires, played an important role in the evolution of mixed-grass prairies. The vast herds of plains bison found here historically have gone, and many prairie species struggle to adapt to this altered landscape.
Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan represents the most important protected area for conserving Canada’s prairies. It represents a range of ecosystems associated with mixed-grass prairies, including a diversity of riparian areas, silver sage-dominated lowlands, badlands, and acres of rolling mixed-grass upland prairies. Numerous species, including burrowing owls, short-horned lizards, Sprague’s pipits, prairie rattlesnakes, golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, black-tailed prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets are protected here. Our research group is studying effects of bison and cattle grazing on grassland biodiversity in and around Grasslands National Park. For more information on this research project, see our “current research” link and www.grazingbiodiversity.org.
Prairie wetlands are highly productive ecosystems, exhibiting high levels of biodiversity and performing crucial ecosystem services such as water filtration and flood control. Much of the wetland habitat throughout the Great Plains has been lost as the result of agricultural and urban development and expansion. Furthermore, prairie wetlands and the species they support are threatened with excessive nutrient inputs and pesticide contamination. With the economy of prairie Canada being inextricably linked to the agriculture industry, the threat of continued wetland habitat loss and degradation remains. Conservation and protection of the remaining wetland habitat is, therefore, becoming increasingly important. In order to maximize conservation efforts, research on prairie wetlands is needed to identify how agricultural activities impact prairie wetland species and habitats. With a better understanding of how agriculture affects prairie wetlands, measures can be taken to develop upland and wetland management strategies that are compatible both with sustainable agriculture production and healthy wetland habitats.