Tall grass prairie patch protected

One of the fastest-vanishing habitats on Earth now has protected status after Nature Conservancy Canada worked to conserve a swath of tall grass prairie one-third the size of the Wheat City.

Nearly 2,700 hectares at Lake Ranch, 194 kilometres northeast of Brandon, provides a habitat for grassland birds listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, including the Sprague’s pipit and the bobolink. Migratory wetland birds like the western grebe also flock to the area.

It’s one of the largest land conservation projects the Manitoba region of Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) has ever done, said Cary Hamel, the Manitoba region’s director of conservation. The group partnered with the federal government through the Natural Heritage Conservation Program part of Canada’s Nature Fund.

“All natural areas are important in their own way, but this one is really special because it has tall grass prairie, hundreds and hundreds of hectares on it, and there’s so little tall grass prairie left,” Hamel said.

Tall grass prairie is considered one of the most endangered habitat types on the planet, while also being the least protected, Hamel said.

“There’s not a lot of parks and things like that that protect prairies, and they’re being converted at a really rapid rate.”

Clearing the prairie to make room for human habitation has meant that only one per cent of tall grass prairie remains in Manitoba, Hamel said.

“It’s down to all kinds of things — cities expanding, changing land use.”

The good news is that many agricultural producers are invested in protecting habitats like tall grass prairie because it’s the ideal land for cattle to graze on.

“A lot of the prairie conservation projects of NCC and other organizations are really about partnering with livestock farmers and ranchers to conserve not just those lands but their way of life,” Hamel said.

The protected land at Lake Ranch will continue to be used for the livestock operation that was established there nearly 100 years ago. Livestock use has conserved what little tall grass prairie was left, thanks to the positive role grazing animals play in the prairie ecosystem, Hamel said. As cows graze, their hooves aerate the soil, and their manure enriches it.

For that reason, Hamel is still hopeful that it’s not too late to save Manitoba’s tall grass prairie. In the 15 years he has worked at NCC, he said he has seen a lot of people come together in a way that helps the environment they live in.

“People in rural areas, agricultural and Indigenous communities and conservation agencies are on the same page, even if they speak a different language. It’s really all about conservation, and I haven’t talked to a single person yet that doesn’t want to live in a landscape that is healthy.”

The NCC hopes to raise $25,000 over the next five years, which will enable it to work with more grasslands in Manitoba.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun