Before the land was put to the plow, large swathes of tall-grass prairie covered an area from the Gulf of Mexico north to Manitoba and east to the Appalachian Mountains. But the very existence of such an expanse of grasses and plants was its undoing. For millennium, the myriad of plants making up the tall-grass prairie lived, died and decomposed, leaving behind the rich soil that attracted settlers who recognized the potential of such fertile land suited to creating the “bread basket” destined to feed the world.
As settlers poured onto the land, preserving the tall-grass prairie became an afterthought, soliciting little attention until people looked around and realized that so little was left to actually keep for posterity. Today, just one per cent of Manitoba’s tall-grass prairie remains. The Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in southeast Manitoba is the largest intact natural tall-grass prairie in the province. The preserve contains several endangered and threatened species such as the western prairie fringed orchid and the small white lady’s-slipper, another species of orchid.
In a move to preserve what still exists, Manitoba became the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce legislation to protect essential habitats for endangered plants and wildlife.
“The destruction or loss of habitat leads to plants and wildlife becoming threatened or endangered,” said Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh, when making the Earth Day (April 22) announcement. “This new legislation will allow us to better protect an ecosystem at risk, rather than only identifying the threatened or endangered species found in it.”
The province will introduce legislative amendments that would create the Endangered Species and Ecosystem Act. The proposed act would be the first legislation in North America to allow the listing of ecosystems as endangered or threatened and protect them on provincial Crown land.
The proposed amendments also creates a new designation called “special concern” for species at risk of becoming threatened in Manitoba and requiring plans to prevent these species from further loss; expand the role of the Endangered Species Advisory Committee to provide recommendations on endangered or threatened ecosystems; add protection orders that empower conservation officials to pre-emptively stop activities that would endanger habitat and ecosystems; and increase fines and penalties for violations under the legislation. The latter has some teeth to it such as fines of up to $50,000 for individuals and $250,000 for companies.
The proposed legislation is highly regarded by many environmentalists.
“This is a splendid, and indeed, visionary step to add rare and endangered ecosystems to the Manitoba Endangered Species Act,” said Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist and professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. “Doing so will pre-empt the need for much last-minute endangered species action, but it will also conserve ecosystems which underpin humanity’s well-being.”
Dr. Reed Noss, a provost’s distinguished research professor at the University of Central Florida and president of the Florida Institute for Conservation Science, echoed Dr. Lovejoy’s comments that our well-being is tied to the natural environment. When ecosystems and the species associated with them decline in area or quality, “so does human well-being,” Noss added. “By identifying, protecting, restoring and properly managing endangered ecosystems, we protect most species without the need to manage each species intensively.
The minister said Manitoba follows the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s standard criteria for assessing the status of species at risk in Manitoba.
“The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) strongly supports the government of Manitoba in its plans to introduce legislation providing for the listing of endangered and threatened ecosystems,” said George Greene, regional councillor for North America and the Caribbean, IUCN. “We are pleased to know that Manitoba’s actions are inspired by IUCN’s work on the Red List of Ecosystems to establish a global standard to assess the status of ecosystems at the local, provincial, national, regional and global levels.”
For cattle ranchers concerned about the implications of the legislation, the minister pointed out grazing is an important management practice to maintain healthy grassland ecosystems and populations of species at risk such as buffalo grass and burrowing owls, and would not be affected by the new legislation. Cattle have taken on the role of buffalo, which once blanketed the prairies in the millions, but were on the verge of extinction by the 1870s until they were rescued from oblivion by a handful of concerned individuals.
In addition, the province is providing $500,000 in new funding to support the work of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. This contribution brings the province to $5 million of its commitment to provide $7 million for the Natural Areas Conservation Program to acquire and preserve ecologically significant lands in eight areas in southern Manitoba over 10 years. The province’s contribution is being matched by both the federal government and the private sector, meaning Manitoba habitats will benefit from approximately $21 million in conservation programming.
Recent priority projects include protecting 9,700 acres (3,925 hectares) of alvar, a rare ecosystem with unique plants that grow in 10 centimetres or less of soil over limestone bedrock, in the Interlake. Alvar ecosystems are found in just the Hodgson, Fisher Branch and Inwood areas, with other small surviving pockets scattered about the Interlake.
Some alvars support species that do not grow in any other plant community in Manitoba and are rare across Canada, according to the Nature Conservatory, Manitoba branch. Alvar is an important piece of the matrix of ecological communities in Manitoba and provides habitat for a variety of birds, reptiles, mammals and insects.
A site between Fisher Branch and Hodgson that was identified by the Manitoba Association of Plant Biologists contains three important species: Gastony’s cliffbrake rated as “very rare” provincially and is the only location known for this species, western dwarf cliffbrake ranked as “rare” both provincially and nationally and prairie spikemoss, which is at the northeast limit of its range in Manitoba.
“The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is very pleased with the province’s continued commitment towards the NCC’s work in conserving biodiversity in Manitoba,” said Jeff Polakoff, regional vice-president, Manitoba, NCC. “We also look forward to working with the province as it develops legislation aimed at conserving endangered species and ecosystems.”
It’s good news when Manitoba has a North American “first” that gains such wide-spread support in the name of a good cause.