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Restoring Saskatchewan's mixed prairie grasslands

Parks Canada and dedicated volunteers transform cultivated fields back into native prairie

Located in southwestern Saskatchewan, Grasslands National Park of Canada is the first national park in the country to preserve a portion of mixed prairie grasslands. Mixed prairie grasslands abound with a variety of plants and grasses, both short and medium sized. This habitat provides a home for a unique blend of prairie-adapted species, from the endangered Sage grouse and Burrowing owl, to the Black-tailed prairie dog.

When Grasslands National Park was established in 1988, roughly 1,280 acres (1% of park land) were under cultivation by local farmers. Restoring these lands became a high priority, given that cultivation removes nutrients from the soil and reduces habitat for native species. Moreover, in Saskatchewan, only 19% of the original mixed grass prairie ecosystem remains intact, and much of it is fragmented into small parcels.

Grasslands National Park is providing the direction and resources to help return the cultivated lands to their original mixed prairie grassland ecosystem. The first step was research to determine appropriate seeding rates and methods; restoration could then begin.

Restoration is a long-term, collaborative effort. Not all of the cultivated lands can be restored at once. Until a particular piece of land is scheduled for restoration, farmers continue to cultivate it, while ensuring that soil erosion and non-native plant invasion are minimized. Dedicated volunteers in the Prairie Grow Program and the Prairie Wind & Silver Sage Friends of Grasslands aid the effort by growing native wildflowers to produce seeds for planting in the park. Ranchers, farmers, representatives from the federal and provincial governments, from conservation groups and from universities have all participated in efforts to promote mixed grass prairie restoration.

Over 630 acres of cultivated lands have been re-seeded since 1997, and the park is on-target to restore all remaining cultivated lands (i.e. 1280 acres) by 2012. Diverse native plant species have been re-established at high rates, providing habitat for species at risk. Thanks to the help of hard-working volunteers, Blue grama grass, which is an historic favourite of bison, may soon return to Grasslands National Park's once-cultivated fields.

Park warden with farm equipment
Park warden with farm equipment
© Parks Canada / P. Lebel / 2004