People passionate about nature

35 Years of Habitat Conservation

How Nature Manitoba helped save the tall grass prairie

Nature Manitoba's Habitat Conservation Committee members have been caretakers of 880 acres (356 ha) of tall grass prairie for many years, and were instrumental in saving this prairie type in Manitoba in the 80s and 90s. Due to lack of infrastructure for the continued care of this land, the Committee is now recommending Nature Manitoba transfer the title of all of its properties in the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an organization which currently manages a portfolio of similar properties in the Preserve area. Our membership will be able to debate and vote on this issue at our AGM in March, so we wanted to offer our members some history and information prior to the meeting.

Below we are providing you with some of the history of Nature Manitoba's involvement with protecting the tall grass prairie, and how we came to own these parcels of land. In February we will provide you with the specific reasoning behind the proposed land transfer, as well as the information on the resolution and our AGM.

In the 1980s it was recognized that habitat loss was a major factor in the declining numbers of a variety of species. So, in1985, Nature Manitoba (NM) created a Habitat Conservation Committee as a way to help save Manitoba's endangered species. The Committee’s mandate was to find ways to help conserve habitat, but it was also very important for the Committee to raise any funds required to carry out conservation projects.

”We didn’t want to burden future boards with a financial commitment for projects,” explained Marilyn Latta, President at the time and long-time Chair of the Committee.

The first project for the Committee was an 80 acre (33 ha) property near Cartwright, Manitoba. Fundraising efforts started with smaller projects such as the sale of calendars and wild rice. Although the total contribution to the project was only $500, its major value was in adding another non-government organization to the successful application from the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, and the Manitoba Wildlife Federation for matching funds from Wildlife Habitat Canada. The site was eventually designated as the Holmfield Wildlife Management Area.

The next year the Habitat Fund contributed $1000 towards the production of a brochure on Manitoba’s Heritage Marsh Program. However, the Committee continued to look for a project where it could really have an impact, something that was being ignored but desperately needed help.  That project turned out to be native prairie, specifically tall grass prairie.

Above: Fringed orchids - photo by Donna Danyluk

This productive and fertile eco-system once covered the entire Red River Valley, encompassing about 1.5 million acres (600,000 ha) in Manitoba, and was known to have largely disappeared due to farming and development. The Committee focused on creating an inventory of the tall grass prairie remaining in Manitoba, and explored ways to protect it. Initial funding requests were all turned down, but the Committee persisted, and in 1987 was able to embark on The Tall Grass Prairie Inventory Project. Costs for the inventory project were shared by NM and the World Wildlife Fund, with office space and in-kind support from the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources.

Although only 15% of the study area was surveyed the first summer, it was enough to document the ongoing decline of tall grass prairie in Manitoba. This spurred the interest and support of government and other agencies. 1988 brought the Tall Grass Prairie Conservation Project. The inventory continued, but with an added emphasis on education and preservation. An informational brochure, "Manitoba's Tall Grass Prairie", was produced and distributed to over 400 landowners during the field season. Wildlife biologist and Committee member, John Morgan, also began production on a film about Manitoba’s tall grass prairie.

After two years of inventories, the final report recommended that a 2500 acre (1000 ha) tall grass prairie preserve be established between the towns of Tolstoi and Gardenton in southeastern Manitoba. This recommendation was adopted in 1989 by the newly formed Critical Wildlife Habitat Program (CWHP). The CWHP was initiated by the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to protect wildlife habitat in agro-Manitoba. Signatories to the 5 year program included MDNR, Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Wildlife Habitat Canada (WHC) and Nature Manitoba.

The financial commitment for NM was $10,000 per year or $50,000 over the 5 years of the program. It was time for some serious fundraising. The Habitat Committee started an annual wildlife art show and auction. Between that fundraising effort and proceeds from the sale of Wildlife Habitat Canada’s Stamp and Print Program and an annual raffle, the need was met.

Although both WWF and NM dedicated their share of the funding to tall grass prairie, it was apparent that there was not enough money in the program to acquire 2500 acres (1000 ha) of prairie in 5 years.  Fortuitously, John Morgan had just finished the “Manitoba’s Tall Grass Prairie” film, and was planning to distribute the film to television stations and provide videos to schools across the province. John gave staff at WWF a sneak preview of the film and they were so impressed, they suggested that it be used as a fund raising fundraising tool. The Prairie Patrons Program was born.

People were asked to donate $50 to “buy” one acre of prairie, and in return they received a tax receipt and a certificate (adorned with a familiar prairie icon, the bison) recognizing their contribution to preserving Manitoba's tall grass prairie. In return NM committed to finding matching funds and acquiring the lands. The Program was a resounding success.

Above: Touring the prairie - photo by Ian Ward

On the night the film premiered at one of NM's Discovery Evenings, members donated or pledged over $5000, and things only got better from there. Schools and church groups raised money to buy their acre of prairie. Both individuals and businesses bought numerous acres, people bought acres as gifts, and in less than a year $25,000 had been raised. A matching grant from the Manitoba Natural Resources Special Conservation Fund allowed NM to become the proud owner of the 320 acre (130 ha) Loewen Prairie, a key connecting piece in the expanding Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve.

NM had previously been involved with purchasing 80 acres (33 ha) of tall grass prairie near Oak Hammock Marsh, but the title had been transferred to the province so that the site could become part of the Oak Hammock Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Now, it appeared that NM was going to become a major landowner. Another 80 acre (33 ha) site containing the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid was brought to the attention of the Committee by Dr. Karen Johnson, Curator of Botany at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, who recommended that it be purchased. The Committee negotiated an agreement with the landowner and sought the assistance of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in raising the needed funds. NM took title of the property. 

The work continued, and The Paul Guyot Endowment Fund for Habitat was set up to provide financial assistance to cover taxes and management costs. A new Prairie Patrons certificate, featuring the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid, raised another $25,000. With additional funding from NCC and another matching grant from the Special Conservation Fund, NM was able to purchase an additional 480 acres (195 ha) of prairie over the next few years.  When the end of the 5 year program arrived, with the lands purchased through the CWHP program and the Prairie Patrons Program, the 2500 acre (1000 ha) goal had been met.

Above: Burning the prairie - photo by Bill Bremner

But acquisition is only the first step in the conservation of tall grass prairie, and management of the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve is essential to maintain it in good condition. Long gone are the days when grazing bison and wildfires prevented woody encroachment, and introduced invasive species are a major concern in modern times. The first controlled burn at the Preserve was carried out by NM's Habitat Committee under the capable guidance of John Morgan. Grazing was also used as a tool to keep the grasslands open. The Committee and its Habitat Helpers removed old barbed wire fences and fence posts and tackled the weeds. An annual Spurge Purge was held to try and control the spread of leafy spurge, a tenacious foreign invader that can outcompete most other plants.

After the initial agreement ended in 1989 a number of changes occurred. The Management Committee for the Preserve continued to operate under 5 year memorandums of understanding that still continue to this day. NCC and the Canadian Wildlife Service became full partners in the program in 1993 and 1994, while WWF and WHC gradually withdrew their support. Environment Canada, primarily through its Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, provided much of the funding for management activities. NCC helped carry out the maintenance work along with the support and direction of Manitoba Conservation’s Wildlife & Ecosystem Protection Branch (now the Environment and Biodiversity Branch of the Department of Conservation and Climate).

Involvement with the tall grass prairie brought NCC to establish its first office in Manitoba and there are now 22 staff working out of the Winnipeg and Brandon offices. Utilizing its fundraising and acquisition skills, NCC has managed to grow the Preserve to over 12,000 acres (4900 ha), becoming the major landowner. Other lands on the Preserve are owned by MHHC or NM, along with a provincial Wildlife Management Area. NCC’s Weston Family Tallgrass Prairie Interpretive Centre, in the north block of the Preserve, has become a focal point for visitors and school groups.

Once NCC became officially involved, NM no longer needed to make further acquisitions and the $15,000 remaining in the Prairie Patrons Fund was provided to NCC to help purchase the Yellow Quill prairie near Brandon. This area of mixed grass prairie was rapidly being lost due to increased production of potatoes. Still, the committee continued its efforts at the Preserve, and developped a school program for grades 5-8 related to tall grass prairie. This program ran for over 10 years, providing classroom visits and guided field trips at the preserve – a great way to introduce young minds to the wonders of tall grass prairie.

Today NM continues to serve on the Management Committee for the Preserve. Interest on funds remaining from NM's Paul Guyot Endowment Fund, after taxes and some management costs have been paid, continues to help with habitat conservation. These funds have been used to reprint prairie brochures, buy burn suits for the summer staff for conducting controlled burns, acquire portable fencing to provide protective enclosures for endangered species during cattle grazing, and to help fund conferences on prairie and endangered species, among other things.

Above: Spurge purge - photo by Donna Danyluk

Although support through the Federal Government’s Habitat Stewardship Program ended this year, a new Federal program The Canadian Nature Fund: Community-Nominated Priority Places for Species at Risk (CNPP) was introduced, and the Preserve's Management Committee successfully secured a four year grant for the Preserve and surrounding area. This exciting initiative not only provides funds for management, but will also allow for more integration and communication with the local government, agricultural interests, and the Roseau River First Nation. All of these activities should benefit not only tall grass prairie but the surrounding area and the community as a whole.

Thirty five years of Habitat Conservation has brought many challenges to Nature Manitoba and helped produce many positive changes on the landscape. The work hasn’t always been easy but who could argue that the results are not worthwhile. Certainly not the many endangered and threatened species that call the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve home.