Rouge Valley Conservation Centre


Nature Notes

By Steve Gahbauer

October 2008

Our disappearing grasslands.

Fall is in the air. It's the time when the sun rises lower and casts longer shadows. Sometimes there is a little bite in the air at the earlier end of days, a hint of frosty nights to come. The leaves begin to display their brilliant autumn colours, and nature is slowly but surely preparing for winter. This is the time in the Rouge Valley when the salmon start their last swim upriver, when the Cedar Waxwings, 84% of whose diet consists of fruit, get drunk on fermented berries, when the swans leave us for their wintering grounds, and chipmunks and groundhogs prepare for hibernation.

But the harvest season is also a time when we should reflect on the often underestimated importance of grasslands and the need to save what's left of them to stem the rapid decline of grassland bird populations. Over 60% of grassland bird species are in decline across North America, among them Loggerhead Shrikes, Eastern Bluebirds, Bobolinks, Golden-winged Warblers, Upland Sandpipers, and Burrowing Owls. Mammals, rodents and amphibians are also affected: Swift Foxes, Kangaroo Rats, Western Harvest Mice, and Northern Leopard Frogs.

A 458 km² area of grassland in Alberta, the Suffield National Wildlife Area near Medicine Hat, is the last intact piece of pristine prairie grassland left in Canada. But it, too, is in jeopardy by a pending approval to drill for natural gas at Suffield. EnCana wants to drill 1,275 wells and build a 220 km pipeline through this area that is home to more than 1,100 species, many of them on the endangered list. Recently, more than 300 birds have died there in a 60-90 barrel oil spill. True, some damage from human activities is unavoidable, but with a bit of intelligence, respect and compassion for nature they don't have to be totally destructive. We simply have to learn to co-exist with nature without destroying it in the process. Oil and gas development should not be allowed in a national wildlife area, period.

Natural grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in Canada. They are areas of high biodiversity, providing homes for thousands of species of mammals, birds and plants. They extend over roughly one-quarter of the land area of our planet. North America's grasslands represent 10% of the earth's grasslands and about 5% of Canada's surface. Before European settlement, the most significant impact on North America's grasslands were wildfires, grazing and trampling by animals. Today, our remaining grasslands constitute only 34% of their original size, and they are one of the continent's most threatened ecosystems. Only 25% of Canada's original grasslands still exist. Their decline is primarily due to agricultural expansion, urbanization, mining exploitation, and resource extraction, especially water. The spread of invasives is also a constant threat to grasslands.

Many organizations, provincial and national, are devoted to tall grass prairie research and conservation. For instance, in British Columbia, where only a small portion of the province's 2% of grassland is protected, the Churn Creek Protected Area was created to preserve some of this valuable resource at the headwaters of the Fraser River.

Nationally, the Nature Conservancy of Canada is taking a lead role in a five-year, $40 million campaign to secure and conserve 100,000 acres (40,470 ha) of the very best of Canada's remaining grasslands. The NCC has identified 20 priority natural areas for its focus on grasslands preservation. These areas contain tracts of significant grasslands, continuous blocks of available land, high densities of wetlands, and critical habitat under threat. They encompass important breeding habitat for a large number of grassland birds, waterfowl and shorebirds. They also contain a significant portion of habitat for many species at risk.

If we can save what's left of Canada's grasslands, we can save much important wildlife. The race is on to conserve our country's tall grass prairies and parklands in a time when change happens faster than we can blink.

In the Rouge Valley we don't have typical grassland areas per se, but we do have extensive meadows on the tableland under the hydro line corridor and in the northern portion of the park. These meadows have many of the characteristics of grasslands habitat and are an important aspect of the biodiversity of the park. Treat them with respect on your autumn walks, look at the fall wildflowers, find some mushrooms, and taste some of the many berries that this season offers – dogberries, haws, highbush cranberries, wild grapes, and elderberries. (Avoid toxic winterberries, though.)

These fruits get sweeter after the first frost and can even stand up to a coating of ice or snow. Enjoy the fall colours, especially brilliant this year after the wet summer we had, and try to watch some salmon swimming upriver. It's a great time for some invigorating exercise in the Rouge. Happy hiking.

Sources: Nature Canada, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy of Canada, personal field notes.

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