Before the arrival of European settlers, the Red River Valley in south-central Manitoba was a vast sea of tall-grass prairie, a complex ecosystem with an astonishing variety of grasses, flowers and wildlife. Dominated by grasses that reached over two metres in height, this was the most productive type of prairie in North America. The very richness of the tall-grass prairie, however, spelled its doom. With deep fertile soils the colour of coal, the prairie was soon transformed by settlers. Cereal and forage crops are now cultivated where orchids, lilies, and grasses once thrived. Tall-grass prairie in Manitoba is only a fraction (less than 1%) of its former 6,000 square kilometres.
In 1987, several years after the International Biological Programme conducted a search for natural areas, the Manitoba Naturalists Society launched a systematic survey to locate the surviving remnants of this beautiful landscape. Only a few sites were discovered and many were less than a hectare in size. The largest tracts of tall-grass prairie were found near the towns of Tolstoi and Gardenton in southeastern Manitoba. In 1989, the Critical Wildlife Habitat Program, a cooperative program involving seven conservation organizations, began securing lands in the Tolstoi-Gardenton area for a prairie preserve. Today, over 2000 hectares of tall-grass prairie are protected within this Preserve.
Like many remnant grasslands, the lands within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve escaped destruction because the land was too difficult to plough. Large boulders, aspen groves and far-reaching swamps discouraged the early settlers in turning the precious sod, allowing this unique plant and animal system to endure. Today, the area is home to over 150 plant species, from flowers and grasses to shrubs and trees, and a variety of animals from butterflies, frogs and songbirds to voles, deer, moose and an occasional bear.
From April's first growth to October's killing frost, the Prairie Preserve is in constant metamorphosis, its colour, contour and fragrance changing from week to week. Even before the snow is gone, the area begins to teem with life. Boreal chorus frogs call for mates from grassy ponds and the trill of a western meadowlark announces to one and all that spring is here to stay. Amid the brown of last year's growth, the first shoots of pale green emerge, delighting those who stop to investigate. Soon, the delicate flowers of yellow star-grass and early blue violets appear, followed by flowers in every imaginable shade and colour. The blossoms of golden alexander, prairie smoke, blue-eyed grass and the medicinal seneca root carpet the landscape. In May, the moccasin-shaped flowers of the endangered small white lady's slipper appear briefly in the tangle of greenery and then all but disappear as other plants follow in the never-ending succession of colour.
Birds of many kinds fly and soar above the preserve. Over 90 species of birds nest in the nooks and crannies of the Preserve. The trumpeting call of a nesting sandhill crane can be heard from a distance while the soft tapping of the yellow rail eludes all but the keenest listeners.
In July, the rare and enchanting western prairie fringed orchid blooms. Purple and white prairie clover lend contrasting colours to the prairie while enriching the soil with nitrogen. The composites begin their showy displays from black-eyed susans to blazing stars and the early goldenrods. The sight of the native prairie at the height of the blooming season is a never-to-be forgotten experience. This is when the greatest diversity of butterflies can be sighted -- 20 or more kinds on a good day -- including the rare Powesheik skipper, a species found only in the Preserve area within Canada.
In August, the prairie is aglow with expanses of golden Indian grass, prairie cord grass, prairie dropseed and big bluestem. Hidden among the grasses are rare orchids: hooded ladies'-tresses bloom in early August while Great Plains ladies'-tresses flower a few weeks later. The blossoming of the gentians herald the start of autumn; the flowering of the closed gentian is one of the last colourful events on the prairie, often blooming until the harshest frosts. Soon the monarch butterflies will begin their fall migration to the southern United States and Mexico as yet another magical prairie season passes.
Since the tall-grass prairie is an endangered ecosystem, some of the associated plants and animals are also scarce.
The western prairie fringed-orchid (Platanthera praeclara) is an endangered orchid found in the north block of the prairie Preserve. It grows in remnant native prairies and wet meadows in the United States and Canada. It is estimated that there are fewer than 4,000 plants in the Preserve, the only Canadian location of this plant. The western prairie fringed-orchid is a sturdy, long-lived perennial with creamy-white to white flowers in a cluster 25 centimetres or more in height. The lower petal of each flower is delicately fringed. Blooming generally begins in early-July and lasts for three weeks. It is believed that sphinx moths play an important role in pollinating the orchids. These orchids require a companion fungus, known as mycorrhizae, to survive; this fungus is easily destroyed when the plant is dug up.
The small white lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) is an endangered orchid found in the wet meadows of the south block of the prairie Preserve. The population consists of fewer than 1,500 plants. Small white lady’s-slippers grow in clumps, blooming briefly in late May to early June and then all but disappearing. The small white lady’s-slipper cannot reproduce without the presence of a companion fungus, nor can the mature plants live without a symbiotic fungus found within its root system.
Protected under Manitoba's Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act, it is unlawful to pick, dig or disturb the surroundings of the small white lady’s-slippers or the western prairie fringed-orchid. The Preserve was established to protect and conserve the native species found there, so please do not pick, dig or collect any of the plants and animals.
Protection alone is not enough to keep a prairie healthy. Idle or poorly managed grasslands are often invaded by native trees and shrubs or exotic weeds. Even some native grasses, when heavily grazed or left idle, can increase to the point where they crowd out desirable species and reduce the diversity of the community. Historically grasslands were shaped by fire, drought and grazing by mammals and insects with seasonal periods of rest. Before settlers cleared the fields and ploughed firebreaks, the red buffalo, as the Plains Indians called wildfires, would rage from horizon to horizon. For tall-grass prairie, these fires were far from a destructive force, but rather an important part of prairie ecology. Fire broke down dead and decaying vegetation, returning nutrients to the soil and giving the sun an opportunity to warm the ground in early spring. The growth of trees and shrubs, which invade the prairie, was slowed by fire. Prairie plants, with much of their energy stored in underground root systems, were better adapted to fire than the shrubby invaders with their energy stored in above-ground parts.
When the prairies were in their prime, rotational grazing occurred naturally without any help from humans. A herd of bison or elk would graze an area clean and then move on to greener pastures. This continual movement provided native grasslands with fertilizer, a method of seed dispersal and seasonal periods of rest to recover and replenish their food supplies.
Because people have altered the prairie ecosystem so dramatically it is impossible to mimic the natural forces exactly. Today, management of tall-grass prairie requires the use of techniques that duplicate wildfires and grazing by wild animals. Prescribed burning, approximately once every three years, is necessary to keep the prairie healthy. To be effective and safe, managed burns need to be carefully planned and conducted under controlled conditions. Rotational grazing by native or domestic grazers can also be vital to the health of native prairies. A planned, properly managed grazing system with periods of rest can help increase the numbers of native grass species in a tall-grass prairie. Grazing can be imitated by mowing and haying, which if properly timed can encourage or discourage particular plant species. Exotic or woody species must often be hand-cleared or removed by other techniques, such as bio-control (the use of natural enemies to control non-native plants) or girdling (the removal of a layer of bark on a tree to kill the tree and prevent suckering). A combination of these activities will be used in managing the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve.
Most lands acquired for the Preserve are accessible year round for hiking and walking. Vehicle access and some other activities may be limited. On-site signage will provide further detail. Additional tall-grass prairie in the area has been conserved by the Critical Wildlife Habitat Program through lease arrangements with private landowners. Visitors must have permission from the landowner before entering private lands. Please contact the Critical Wildlife Habitat Program for more information.
Plant and animal (including butterflies) lists are available on request from the Critical Wildlife Habitat Program.
Much of the land in the Tall-grass Prairie Preserve was originally settled by pioneers from Bukovinia in the western Ukraine. The first Bukovinians arrived in Canada in 1896 and soon after settled in the Stuartburn-Gardenton area. Although the soil in this area of Manitoba was not as fertile as sites farther west in the Red River Valley, each section contained many wooded acres, a source of fuel and lumber. In many cases, stones and wetlands made cultivation of the land impossible.
Although life for these early settlers was demanding, a strong social and religious life developed. By 1900 several churches had been constructed in the area. The most notable was St. Michael's, the first permanent Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church built in Canada. This structure, in continual use since its consecration, stands as a symbol of the Ukrainian immigrants' faith and determination to preserve their religion in a new land. Original homesteads, typifying the materials and construction used by the early settlers, are found throughout the area. Artifacts from this settlement can be seen in the Gardenton Ukrainian Museum.
The Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve is located in the southeastern corner of the province, near the communities of Tolstoi and Gardenton (see map). This 2,200 hectare preserve protects a small remnant of a once vast sea of tall-grass prairie. A self-guiding interpretive trail (1 km loop) was established in 1996.