The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is trying to put out some awareness about the world’s most endangered ecosystem; one the organization said many Manitobans might not be aware they live in.
Cary Hamel, Manitoba conservation science manager for the NCC, has been spending some efforts trying to preserve this ecosystem, the grasslands, much of which makes up the landscape of the province.
“The grasslands grow and they create a nutrient rich soil and that’s exactly where people want to establish farms and that’s where people live in cities, so what’s happened is, around the world, grasslands have been converted into annual croplands more than any other ecosystem,” said Hamel, who estimates 70 per cent of Canada’s grasslands have been converted to other land uses.
“It’s mostly been converted to cropland, but also cities expanding and highway development and things like that.”
He added the focus of the NCC has been to identify the last and best remaining grassland areas, then the group works with partners, especially private landowners, to conserve the areas through direct protection by using conservation easement agreements.
According to nature.org, a conservation easement is a restriction put on a piece of property to protect its associated resources.
The conservation easement agreements with the NCC state if a private landowner agrees to protect an area of grassland, the organization let’s them use the land for compatible activities like cattle grazing, which is beneficial to the ecosystem.
“It’s directly working to develop grazing systems on our land; so we lease our land out to cattle farmers to provide additional pasture and it also provides a service on our lands,” Hamel said.
“A number of species, like grassland birds for example, actually won’t survive on un-grazed pasture—you take the cows off and you lose the birds, so that’s part of it.”
Some of these bird species include the burrowing owl and Sprague’s pipit, both of which are on the decline, and Hamel said the flat grasslands are so essential to these species, even trees can be considered a threat to them.
This is because they burrow into, or nest of top of the ground, and the flat landscape allows them to see predators coming from a distance.
“You can imagine a number of the species, which only live there, that’s the habitat they depend on, they’re also in pretty big trouble,” he said.
“Butterflies like the Dakota skipper out in the Brandon area that are only found in native grasslands, a lot of these species are declining rapidly as the grasslands themselves are declining.”
Hamel added the Brandon area is especially unique in that it’s really close to three of the main grassland types, with mixed grass prairie at the city’s eastern edge, sand hill prairie further east near Shilo, and to the north, in the Riding Mountain area, it gets into fescue prairie.
The mixed grassed prairie supports a number of really interesting species, he noted, including some plant life like the small white lady slippers, an endangered orchid, as well as some of the endangered grassland birds.
“I think a lot of times in Manitoba, we think of forests and lakes as some of the most important wilderness areas to protect, but right around us are these incredible ecosystems, these grasslands, which have been around for thousands of years,” he said.
“You can consider them old growth grasslands, just like old growth forests, and they’re part of heritage, but they’re declining fast; they are the most endangered ecosystems on the planet, so we are really happy to work with anyone that has an interest in conserving these for future generations.”