Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
Low rolling hills and wide open skies make up Saskatchewan's Prairie.

Wide open spaces, but for how long?

Mention of the Great Plains conjures up romantic notions of brave men and women travelling west in search of new livelihoods with bison grazing in the background. This area in Canada, more commonly called the prairies, has broken many a dream, but also financed many a fortune. The prairies have also seen the rise and fall of many species —and will likely continue to do so in the future.

What makes up the prairie ecozone

The prairie ecozone in this exhibit can be found in the southern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — fittingly often called the Prairie provinces. South of the border, where the area is called the Great Plains, the ecozone takes up a majority of the Midwestern states down to Texas, and concludes in the northeastern region of Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico.

Although fairly continuous, the prairie ecozone in Canada is interrupted by one small patch of northwestern forest ecozone straddling a southern portion of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. Otherwise, it is unabated prairie with the western border starting just past the Rockies and stretching east slightly short of the Manitoba-Ontario border and the northern boundary reaching its highest latitude just north of Edmonton and falling in a line across the three provinces down to the Manitoba-Minnesota border.

Deceptively simple due to its perceived flatness, the prairie ecozone actually has rolling hills, and at times, deep valleys with rivers and creeks. However, being far away from any oceans makes for an extreme climate, with frigid winters that can reach -30˚C or colder and scorching summers that can reach 40˚C. The ecozone’s dryness comes from winds blowing across the region and the western mountains blocking precipitation. When rain does fall however, temporary wetlands can be created.

A majority of the prairie ecozone has been converted to farmland — 95 percent of it according to some experts — but this does not mean the land is without its fair share of wild plants and animals.

Why conservation matters for the organisms that call the prairie home

Besides wide swaths of wheat and canola fields, this ecozone teems with trees, shrubs and other flowering plants. Larger trees, more common in the eastern portion, include white and black spruce, lodgepole pine, trembling aspen and various willows such as peachleaf and wolf. Different grasses such as spear, wheat and blue gamma occur, as well as other vegetation, including the prickly pear cactus and the Saskatoon berry.

Insects and molluscs exist such as the German cockroach, several types of grasshopper (pallid wing and migratory) and the valve snail. Prairie waterways house northern pike, carp and yellow perch along with numerous other fish. Reptiles and amphibians found include the Great Plains toad, the tiger salamander, the western rattlesnake and the prairie skink. Large carnivores include black bear, elk and moose. A variety of owls live here as well, including the burrowing owl and both the short-eared and long-eared owl.

Animals from the exhibit found in the prairie ecozone include the coyote, whooping crane, bison, common loon and eastern bluebird; others, such as the grey wolf, appear occasionally.

This is one of the most changed of all of Canada’s ecozones, with a majority of the land converted to agriculture, cities and industries such as oil, gas and mining. Native species have born the brunt of this human-induced change, as the near decimation of the bison testifies. Likewise, the eastern bluebird population was almost lost in Canada, but was rescued by the conservation efforts of dedicated grassroots naturalists. If other species were championed in a similar way, their futures would also become more secure. But the lure of industrial wealth and looming threats such as climate change may prove disastrous for the inhabitants of this heavily altered ecozone.