Foothills fescue grasslands, AB (Photo by Leta Pezderic)
What are grasslands?
Around the world, large areas of grasslands are often found in the interior of continents, where there is not enough rain and snowfall to support trees. Pockets of grasslands also exist in the rain shadows of mountains, dry sand soils and on sites where natural disturbances such as fire prevent forests from growing. Grasslands are the most endangered ecosystem in the world.
Black oaks on the prairie and savannah, Rice Lake Plains, Ontario (Photo by NCC)
Where are grasslands found?
In Canada, grasslands include the vast prairies that stretch from Manitoba into Alberta. Significant areas of grassland also occur in central British Columbia. Smaller examples of grasslands, such as prairie and savannah habitats can be found in Ontario and the eastern part of Vancouver Island.
What ecological services do grasslands provide?
Grasslands provide many benefits to people. They:
- are important for soil and water conservation
- provide habitat for pollinators
- control flooding
- regulate the climate
- protect the quality and security of drinking water for people living in Canada’s prairie provinces
What species live in grasslands?
Grasslands provide habitat for hundreds of species, such as pollinators, swift fox, plains bison and an amazing array of grassland birds. Grassland birds are now one of the most threatened groups of birds in North America due to habitat loss, and includes chestnut-collared longspur, burrowing owl and Baird’s sparrow.
Burrowing owl (Photo by Don Dabbs)
What is the conservation status of grasslands?
There are many reasons why grasslands are endangered in Canada and around the world.
Grasslands are facing continued habitat loss and fragmentation. It is estimated that more than 70 per cent of Canada's prairie grasslands have been lost.
In British Columbia, grasslands cover only one per cent of the land mass, yet one-third of the province’s at-risk species rely on grasslands for at least some of their life cycle.
What is NCC doing to conserve grasslands?
In Manitoba, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is working to protect one of the country’s most endangered ecosystems: the tall grass prairie.
The tall grass prairie ecosystem is a type of grassland that once stretched from near present-day Winnipeg all the way south to Texas. Today, the largest intact blocks of tall grass prairie in Canada occur in the Tall Grass Prairie Natural Area. The area supports a variety of habitat types: wet and dry tall grass prairie, marshes and fens, savannah and dense woodlands, riparian (riverbank) areas and rivers.
Giant hyssop, tall grass prairie, Manitoba (Photo by NCC)
Thousands of species use these habitats, including many that are listed on national or provincial endangered species lists. Over half of the province of Manitoba's population of the endangered western prairie white-fringed orchid occurs in the Tall Grass Prairie Natural Area.
In BC, NCC has worked closely with conservation-minded ranchers to protect thousands of acres of the province’s most productive grasslands. With projects in the Okanagan, Thompson-Nicola and Kootenay regions, NCC is helping to ensure grassland habitat will remain intact and undeveloped for migratory birds, rare plants and larger mammals, such as moose and mule deer. These Okanagan valley-bottom lands are essential for migratory corridors for wildlife of all sizes, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.
In Alberta, more than 75 per cent of the province’s original mixed grassland has been converted to tame forage (cultivated fields) and annual cropping. Only 17 per cent of its original fescue grassland remains.
Sandstone Ranch, Milk River Ridge, AB (Photo by NCC)
The southeastern Alberta landscape is dominated by grasslands. NCC has identified strategic areas for conservation that have the best potential to support grasslands into the future, including some of the largest intact tracts of native grass in the province. These include the Milk River Ridge, Milk River Basin, Pakowki Lake and Cypress Uplands natural areas.
Southeastern Alberta is an important area for the many species that live there. Pronghorn, swift fox, ferruginous hawk and greater sage-grouse rely on the grassland habitat in this part of the province. Pakowki Lake, designated an Important Bird Area, supports migratory birds that pass through southeastern Alberta on their way to and from breeding and overwintering grounds.