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Secret Garden
Illustrations by beastfromeast/iStock

Secret Garden

Tallgrass prairies not only mitigate global warming, they’re home to biodiversity that took millennia to develop. Now they’re among the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Alumni trying to preserve the last grasslands show us what we stand to lose.

By Sean Moore

One day long ago, before Winnipeg was Winnipeg, back when kids gave a piece of buffalo sinew as payment to watch a magician perform, Mme. Jean Baptiste Gauthier, a schoolteacher and mother of 14, sat in her house and quietly sewed. A shrieking squeal burst from her yard. She ran outside to find a bear attacking her pig. She scolded the bear as though it were a student who broke every classroom rule, and so the bear stopped, looked at her, and decided to walk away. 

The prairie surrounded Gauthier’s house; the grassland bear was proof of that. And up until the late 1880s, as people recollect in the book Women of Red River, you could still see a bison trail leading through what is now Winnipeg’s downtown toward a watering area. Few bison walked the path though because by then, these vital residents whose grazing kept the prairie healthy were virtually gone: John Deere’s plow enabled settlers to sever the grass’s once-impregnable weave of five-metre-deep roots, exposing a rich soil. The grassland turned to farmland. And so began the swiftest and most dramatic change of a landscape in human history.

In 2015 Manitoba became the first jurisdiction in the world to declare this landscape endangered.

Six-thousand square kilometres of tallgrass prairie surrounded Gauthier, and now less than one per cent remains. The story is the same throughout North America—from Manitoba to Texas—and in 2015 Manitoba became the first jurisdiction in the world to declare this landscape endangered. The province, beneficiary of bountiful rainfall, can support both the mixed grass and the ever-so-thirsty tallgrass because when the Rocky Mountains popped up from the Earth’s mantle they changed precipitation patterns, bestowing Manitoba this bounty and leaving Alberta with only the short grass.

But it has been generations since someone last gazed at the prairie’s true glory. How do you get people to care about something so long forgotten? It should be easy because people love grass. A New Zealand lawn even has its own Instagram account (@thatlawnonthehill). The staples of the human diet: corn, wheat, rice—grass! Lawns are the most grown crop in North America. But wild grass?

Perhaps people don’t appreciate that grasslands, unlike forests, are masters of sequestering carbon emissions underground in their roots and soil, which means that, unlike forests, when prairies burn, very little carbon dioxide gets released back into the atmosphere. Perhaps they also don’t appreciate that this landscape is a refuge for a slew of birds and mammals and untold insects, all dependent on a web of endangered plants, some of which could provide new oil seed crops or pharmaceuticals.

To settlers like former US president James Munroe, gazing at the prairie, the land seemed “miserably poor.” Had Munroe, during his tenure in the early 1800s, talked with Indigenous Peoples, though, he’d have learned it offered—offers—a wondrous abundance of plants, from the pale purple coneflower (what many know as echinacea), to the dried pods of cream wild indigo, which makes excellent baby rattles. It is a land that Robin Kimmerer, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, notes must be considered from many angles. “Land as sustainer. Land as identity. Land as grocery store and pharmacy. Land as connection to our ancestors. Land as moral obligation. Land as sacred. Land as self.”

Today, according to the Prairie Directory of North America, a landscape Yellow Pages, only 85 scattershot chunks of tallgrass prairies remain on public land in Manitoba (although this is likely a gross underestimation), and they are of varying quality. Luckily, some plots of tallgrass prairie no larger than a coffee shop can maintain a species, like the critically endangered Poweshiek skipperling butterfly.

We can all concede the state of our continent’s once dominant landscape is dire, but UM alumni have scored many wins in their efforts to preserve these spaces. And as its the United Nation’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, more wins might get tallied up soon for the landscape that once dominated North America.


An abstract illustration of a prairie underneath the sun.
Where do we go from here?

Cary Hamel [BSc(Hons)/97, MSc/01] was at a conservation conference in Brandon during a lull in the pandemic when the call came in: A family gifted 2,000 acres of tallgrass prairie near the Shoal Lakes to the Nature Conservancy of Canada in one of Manitoba’s largest land conservation projects in the organization’s history. He hugged his employee—social distancing be damned.

“I see the awful losses all the time,” Hamel says. “I see endangered species disappear. If a land [conservation] deal falls through, you can go back a year later and the land is now corn: the birds, the sage—gone. But I work at a place that pushes back, a place I am confident is what local communities want…. In the past we would have gone in and said, ‘We know best because we’re scientists,’ but now we first ask, ‘What does the community want and how does nature fit into it?’ No one ever says they don’t want nature.”

Soon after graduating from UM in the early 2000s, Hamel worked with endangered species, which meant he was mostly studying plants in tallgrass prairie. Hamel would visit a site a predecessor in the 1980s gave warnings about and discover the area no longer existed—the land became something else, like housing. Realizing he had to halt this decline, he eventually came to work for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and he now oversees a team of 25 focused on preserving sections of prairie and other habitats.

Conservation thinking used to be biodiversity-in-spite-of-people. Now, it is biodiversity-through-people, because local communities, farmers and Indigenous partners taught Hamel and others that people are part of the landscape. This approach is working. The Western prairie white-fringed orchid, an elusive flower possessing a beauty worthy of an expedition to find it, has been (just barely) saved: Manitoba is its last Canadian refuge and half of all remaining specimens live in a 48-square-kilometre area west of Vita, Man., in land secured by the Conservancy after years of dialogue with the community. Preserving such biodiversity is key to an ecosystem’s flexibility and resilience in the face of challenges, from diseases to climate change.

“Biodiversity is what gets me going in the morning,” says Hamel, 48. “You’d think I would have become pessimistic, but I’ve actually become optimistic because I have seen, over and over again, conservation wins…. What I quickly learned is that patch after patch after patch of prairie was on private land, not on government land. And that sounds like a negative, but it’s a positive. So, to keep grasslands around, and support endangered species, you’re going to have to support private landowners. And that’s what brought me to Nature Conservancy Canada—we work with these people. We work with everyone.”

When Hamel and his colleagues aren’t being diplomats, they’re in the field, planting, weeding or doing controlled burns to mimic natural cycles that restore nutrients to the soil. So little tallgrass prairie remains that no section is a self-sustaining ecosystem anymore and requires constant tending.

Restoring a prairie is a little like restoring an ocean. It takes more than the right collection of species and the best of intentions. It means regenerating the elemental forces of nature.

We can only stop the decline, though. We will never regain lost prairie in any significant way because to do that, we’d need herds of grazing bison and the refreshing cleanse of catastrophic fires—things that do not mesh with modern lifestyles. As a 2003 op-ed in the New York Times says, “…restoring a prairie is a little like restoring an ocean. It takes more than the right collection of species and the best of intentions. It means regenerating the elemental forces of nature, unleashing a biological synergy that dwarfs what we usually mean when we use that word.”

Since we cannot bring back these huge processes in ways that work with humans, tallgrass prairie remnants basically act as gardens, says Nicola Koper, a professor in the Natural Resources Institute at UM who travels across North America studying grassland birds.

“The good thing about having lost 99.5 per cent of your habitat is that if you bring back half a per cent, you just doubled how much is there. And there’s lots of spaces we can use to increase tallgrass prairie, and even though it might be too small an area to benefit every species, it still benefits a lot,” Koper says.  

“You have to remember, too, that some of these prairie ecosystems used to be patchy anyways. There are many species capable of making use of small patches, and finding new patches, which is why any little gain is something worth celebrating and conserves populations. And prairie patches that are far apart may end up protecting pretty distinct prairies that are in different environments and support genetically different plants—so they can be a really important reservoir for protecting biodiversity. Small patches of habitat can be really valuable.… So do we care enough about this issue to invest a bit of time every year to preserve this?”

People like John Morgan [BSc(Hons)/78, MNRM/85] do care, and he has spent his life trying to protect and expand this land.

He grew up on the outskirts of Regina, with prairie as his backyard and he loved the landscape, but when he arrived at UM he studied fish, then mammals, then Arctic ecosystems. And then while working for Ducks Unlimited and Wildlife Habitat Canada studying and conserving wetlands, he learned tallgrass prairies faced the most trouble. He returned to UM in 1983 to study in the Natural Resources Institute and surmised that, at the time, UM was a prairie school that taught how to plow up the prairie, not protect it. Upset no one was doing such work, or even just mapping what is left, he held a provincial biologist to task, saying they should do more.

“And then he said, not in a mean way, ‘What makes you think you can do anything about it?’ And I just said, ‘I’ll show you.’”

In 1986, working as a biologist with the Government of Manitoba as well as with a group now called Nature Manitoba, Morgan secured one-year’s-worth of funding from the World Wildlife Fund to map Manitoba’s remaining tallgrass prairie using some of the first satellite and aerial images. The team used these images to find potential “black-soil” prairie—a region of rich soil indicative of having a lot of organic matter in it. It’s an incredibly productive medium created by the very root systems of the tallgrass prairie itself, and so it was obviously a good place to start a search for this lost ecosystem.

But one day, a year into the survey, a man from Tolstoi, Man., called and convinced them to expand their search to include the slightly less-rich “brown soil” near him. “They came back after the weekend of surveying screaming, ‘John, you wouldn’t believe what we found. There is prairie as far as the eye can see.’ And I thought they were pulling my leg. So we went out the next day and there were thousands of acres across several municipalities. These areas were still left.”

Boulders dropped by the glacier that once covered Manitoba make this land impossible to plow, which is why it remains untouched. If only the people around Tolstoi and Vita were aware how little outsiders knew about this area, they could have sent a postcard years earlier: Dear biologists, swing by.

Today, the area is the Manitoba Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and over 1,000 resident species have been identified with still more to count, several of which are found nowhere else in Canada. When you go there “it’s almost like you’re in a museum with a special artifact, or somewhere holy,” Hamel says.

When Morgan showed the province this jewel, it sparked a new attitude and some funding, and the provincial department that had earlier told him there was nothing to do, began supporting the work of Jo-Anne Joyce [BSc(Maj)/87].

Joyce now works as a controlled environments technician in UM’s department of biological sciences. Beakers and pots stuffed with ornamental plants crowd her office’s windowsill.

Back in the late 1980s, Joyce was one of the biologists scouring the land looking for untouched prairie, and she became the head of the newly formed Tallgrass Prairie Conservation Project, writing the concept and management plan for the preserve and educating people about it.

“Back then,” she says, “we were dreaming about a university program to teach people how to manage prairie,” because although many other biologists trained her in ecology, and American counterparts taught her their methods, within Manitoba’s context, she was creating programs on the fly—like the day a landowner called to say he had white lady-slipper flowers on his property. Joyce was skeptical because these flowers were (are) exasperatingly endangered, and the more common yellow lady-slippers bleach white in the sun.

“But I took a look and it blew my mind. He had so many of these orchids,” Joyce says. The owner was worried his cattle would destroy them and thought he should separate the two, but the cows had been eating the flowers for generations, and the plot only grew larger. “So I said, well, they are adapted to grazing and you shouldn’t worry. That was the management we were doing at the time, trying to duplicate pre-settlement conditions – rotating prescribed fire and cattle grazing.”

She was Manitoba’s first native prairie biologist, and her expertise was sought by many, like a federal scientist who asked her to take him to islands of unburned patches so he could maybe find wingless leafhoppers, an insect that barely moves locations throughout its life. He discovered a few new species of them, one of which is named after Joyce—Attenuipyga joycei.

“We know next to nothing about what’s in these places,” she says. “And I can’t even imagine all the uses an intact ecosystem provides.”

Conservation knowledge has progressed since Joyce was in the field, but the research—the exploration—remains inadequate. What wonders hide? What useful compounds elude us? There is no research chair for tallgrass prairies, but every person interviewed agreed that if one were to exist, using the holistic philosophy of the Natural Resources Institute, it would coordinate thinking and approaches and bring unimaginable insights. As renowned chemist Dwayne Miller [BSc(Hons)/78], a 2021 UM Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, said, “You can never predict where basic science will take you, only that wherever we’re going to go, it’s going to be beautiful.”

An abstract illustration of a sun over prairie soil.
How we protect the last grasslands

We’re at this juncture, those in the field insist, because of indifference, plows and poor policies. Things really kicked off with the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which encouraged settlement in the prairies and gave European settlers 65 hectares (about 91 soccer pitches) each, for free, if they cultivated at least a quarter of the land (and, incidentally, little to no attention was given to how Indigenous communities had long managed the land using fire and herbivores). A total expanse of 80 million hectares across Western Canada—the largest survey grid in the world—was made available.

We need policies that support landscape preservation and landowners’ conservation efforts, we need better enforcement of endangered species laws and conservation easements, and we need a better appreciation of land’s natural history—something UM is addressing with new land-based education workshops for faculty members that are informed by Elders. We also need to plant more native species—and Morgan, who developed a machine used around the world that collects native grass and wildflower seeds, is wholly focused on this goal, selling seeds through his business, Prairie Habitats Inc., and running workshops through the Living Prairie Museum.

“People give all these reasons why we can’t bring this ecosystem back,” he says, “but we can do a lot of good on the smaller scale.” Indeed, since 2007 UM has been incrementally increasing native grasses and wildflowers on its grounds as envisioned by various sustainability, climate and campus plans, and this year, for the first time, the patio garden outside UMSU University Centre will showcase primarily native plant species.

On a larger scale, Associate Professor Doug Cattani, head of the department of plant science at UM, has won awards from the provincial government for his burgeoning research program that breeds perennial grasses as new crops, which—compared to traditional crops—have greater calorie densities and require less fertilizer and tilling.

Collectively, we could do what Minnesota practices and tack on an optional $5 conservation fee to mortgages or deeds. And one of the most important things we can do, Koper and Hamel note, is create policies that support local land stewards and owners and smaller-scale farmers whose land tends to be more diverse and fringed with wilderness. Conversely, with livestock on ranches, sometimes bigger is better.  

“Gigantic ranches that run like a co-op are important because when you pool your cattle together you can create a sprawling grassland where cattle move around in a herding behavior much like bison did, grazing heavily in some areas and not at all in others,” Koper says. “This creates a diverse landscape that supports wildlife with a wide range of different habitat preferences. The key is to let the cattle make their decisions of where they want to go, and huge areas with few cross-fences can help allow for this.”

Joyce, of course, once wrote a guidebook for ranchers, and she agrees with Koper.

“We need to protect these spaces using all our tools,” Joyce says. “There are so many endangered species being supported by it, yet people think it’s flat and boring. We need to take action to protect this. It was Edward Abbey who said that ‘Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.’ If you feel something needs to be done and you don’t do it, something dies in you.”

Those who love this land admit, when you first come across tallgrass prairie, you may see “only grass.” But walk in, stand still, and wait. Slowly, an enormous and once forgotten and nearly extinct world swaddles you.

“It’s subtle,” Hamel says. “It doesn’t have an immediate gotcha thing like a lake or a mountain or a polar bear. It takes a minute, maybe 20, to settle into it. You have to be immersed in it. But once you’re out there, you will want to save it forever.”

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