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June 2010 issue

Biodiversity: Tallgrass Prairie

A Prairie Still Standing Tall, Barely  

Once covering 6,000 square kilometres in Manitoba’s Red River valley, the tallgrass prairie has all but vanished from the Canadian landscape.

By Jim Chliboyko
Tallgrass has virtually vanished from the prairies, impacting 10 endangered species.
Photo: Graham
Interactive map See a map comparing the original range of the tallgrass prairie to its current reach.

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Multimedia Discover videos, interactive features and photos on the ideas, science and communities behind our biodiversity issue.
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  • What is Biodiversity?

    The word invokes the splendour of our world. In 2010 we celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity, yet many living things are in imminent danger of going extinct. Read more »
  • Clayoquot Sound

    Biosphere Reserves such as Clayoquot Sound aim to prove that rich natural environments go hand-in-hand with vibrant economies. Read more »
  • Citizen Science

    From studying slugs to searching for swans and monitoring pine martens, citizen scientists keep watch over our changing world. Read more »
  • 50 Million Trees

    Ontario has an ambitious plan to reforest the most populated part of Canada. But first it must grapple with landowners and fragmented landscapes. Read more »
  • Goodbye Tallgrass Prairie

    Once covering 6,000 square kilometres in Manitoba’s Red River Valley, the tallgrass prairie has all but vanished from the Canadian landscape.
    Read more »
  • Invasive Species

    Are “invasive” species hitching rides to new habitats all that bad for our ecosystems?
    Read more »
  • Freegan Living

    Gerard Daechsel lives as a freegan, an anti-consumerist who forages necessities from what others throw away.
    Read more »
  • The Jordan Basin

    Six years ago, an ecologically rich wedge of ocean in the northern Gulf of Maine became Canada’s first marine biodiversity showcase. Has it lived up to its promise? Read more »
  • Multimedia

    Discover videos, interactive features and photo essays mapping the ideas, science and communities behind our biodiversity issue.
    View now »

Cultural references to it abound in Manitoba but tallgrass prairie has almost vanished from the Canadian landscape. Once covering 6,000 square kilometres in Manitoba’s Red River valley, it is now relegated to less than one percent of its historic range, largely a victim of agriculture, urbanization and industrialization.

Compare the original range of the tallgrass prairie to its current reach
Compare the original range of the tallgrass prairie to its current reach.
“It’s one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems,” says Kyle Lucyk, director of Winnipeg’s Living Prairie Museum. Manitoba has Canada’s largest area of tallgrass prairie, but there are also small pockets in southwestern Ontario.

An estimated 1,000 plant and animal species are ecologically tied to tallgrass, including 10 endangered species.
Tallgrass prairie is known for its sealike swaying grasses and the density of its various native flora. It prospers in disturbance-prone environments — disturbance that was provided historically by fire and bison, which prevented the ecosystem from morphing into woodland.

The remaining patches of tallgrass provide vital host plants for pollinators such as monarch butterflies, overwintering sites for badgers, shrews and animals and even a buffer against spring flooding, all the while rejuvenating the soil. An estimated 1,000 plant and animal species are ecologically tied to tallgrass, including 10 endangered species. Canadian sightings of the rare Poweshiek skipperling butterfly occur only in this biome, which also hosts the largest Canadian population of the Western prairie fringed orchid.


“Many pollinators use these prairie plants in their life cycle,” says Lucyk, “and they have to return to these plants. Agriculture depends on these pollinators, and these pollinators depend on these prairie plants.”

Studying the loss of tallgrass prairie over time, researchers at the University of Manitoba have found that its range has declined by more than one-third since the 1980s. They noted that smaller areas of tallgrass prairie, in particular, have suffered; 21 square hectares appears to be the threshold for whether a patch can thrive or expand farther. But the researchers also found that the average patch size increased, perhaps because smaller patches are disappearing.

“They’re at the point where they’re so degraded, they’re not self-sustaining,” says University of Manitoba researcher Nicola Koper. “We’re not in the position where you can just leave them on their own. They’re too small at this point.”

Conservation organizations have stepped forward to maintain the tallgrass prairie, using prescribed burnings, controlled grazing and haying and other activities to strengthen it. Populations of small white lady’s-slipper and Western prairie fringed orchid thrive in well-hayed areas.

“The areas where there’s been active management have had increases in size and quality,” says Koper. “Benign neglect doesn’t work with tallgrass prairie.”

Related content and resources:
Photo Club
View a gallery of Eamon Mac Mahon’s photos of Canada’s forests and read a one-on-one interview with the photographer.
The International Year of Biodiversity
Learn more about the International Year of Biodiversity and what you can do to contribute to this U.N. initiative.
50 Million Trees
Get involved in your community with Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Program. Donate or organize your own plant, because every tree counts.
Return to the Wild
Explore and learn more about the diversity of Canada’s wildlife in the Return to the Wild project.

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Comments on this articleView all comments (13) | Leave a comment

Teachers and environmental outreach coordinators can run their own Citizen Science project using free online tools at

Submitted by Paul on Friday, March 25, 2016

Citizen scientist can submit wildlife and plant sightings into community database at 'Wildlife & Plant Sightings'

Sightings data are organized into basic reports and easily searchable.

Amateur to professional can contrinute their citizen science here.

Submitted by Paul Lindgreen on Monday, January 24, 2011

This story requires the eyes of an ornithologist on the water counting birds. Birds as indicators tell us about the world below. Having just returned from the Jordan Basin region I can attest to the rich Biodiversity that I saw as I counted birds. Dovekie, N. Fulmar, Greater Shearwater..... This Bioregion is important to both the United States and Canada. It behooves all of us to work together diligently to understand this region of the Ocean. Remember also that it is our RIVER Ecosystems connected to the Gulf of Maine that ultimately determine the biodiversity of the GOM.
Pollution in the GOM is a death sentence. Dioxins and mercury must be removed from the Penobscot River and all streams and culverts must be reconnected to the SEA-RUN FISH.. These are the Keystone Species of the GOM and determine the Health of both the United States and Canadian people.

Submitted by Michael J. Good, MS on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Good article, but most professional foresters will recongnize that most of the photos do not depict an old growth forests, but a variety of second growth or fire-origin sites.

Submitted by collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

With respect to the statistics Candace quotes from the Int'l Union for Conservation of Nature Red List Is it 12% of all birds or 12% of all species of birds. Quite a different number I would think.

Submitted by Collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

The excellent article by Fraser Los entitled “50 million trees” is welcome. While the article focuses on Ontario Government plans to reforest Southern Ontario the author also mentions efforts being undertaken in Northern Ontario. To expand on these remarks…

The Forest Health and Silvicultural Section of the Ministry of Natural Resources advises “in 2008, approximately 92 million trees were planted in Ontario, with 49.8 million of these in the Northwest Region”. Survival rates for Pine Spruce are typically 80 to 85% in the Thunder Bay area and are affected by lack of rain, higher temperatures and frost. Tree plant numbers for 2009 will be available in March 2011.

As one flies or takes a survol by Google over the vast expanse of Northern Ontario, one can’t help but wonder about the sustainability of the Boreal Forest. For example, in some areas notably near the Ogoki reservoir, there are any number of 10,000 hectare clearcuts. Huge areas are unplanted and without sufficient seed trees left standing for natural regeneration. Considerable piles of over cut and uncollected wood lie north of Armstrong. As forest tenure is being renogiated, often with the same companies that have left this mess, Northerners can’t help but wonder if there will be any improvement?

Also, the deplorable conditions experienced by many tree planters, mosty Canadian students, needs examining. Migrant workers picking crops in Southern Ontario have much better accommodation, food and standards than experienced by northern tree planters who are often forced to work in cold rain and snow while sleeping in tents. Certainly miracle planters might attain 5,000 trees under ideal conditions, however most struggle to plant 1,000 or 2,000 trees to meet their camp costs, clothing, travel and to have meagre savings for education.

A article on the future of the Boreal Forest and sustainable forestry in Northern Ontario would be welcome.

Submitted by Paul Filteau on Friday, June 18, 2010

Evolution happens with or without our consent or assistance. Yet it's hard to see the good in some of the growing numbers of invasive plant species. Good article, thanks.

Submitted by Tina on Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Informative and well-written article. Nice to see attention being paid to this important, though sadly neglected, issue in Manitoba.

Submitted by Tom Penner on Friday, May 28, 2010

Here is a slideshow from this year's Guelph Rotary Forest tree planting at wich about 1,000 people helped plant trees:

Submitted by Janet Baine on Thursday, May 27, 2010

We should cherish and protect the old-growth rain forests and what's left around us.

Submitted by james on Thursday, May 27, 2010

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