Grasslands ecosystem restoration (Grasslands National Park)
Project lead: Parks Canada
Key partners: (see list below)
Location: Grasslands National Park
Natural region: Prairie Grasslands (see National Park System Plan description)
Timeframe: 2004 to 2008 and ongoing
Project size: To date, approximately 700 ha of fields have been re-vegetated, 300 ha of prescribed burns have been conducted, and 44,000 ha have been fenced for bison grazing.
Project overview - Natural and cultural heritage values - Defining the problem - Goals and objectives - Project activities - Monitoring - Lessons learned - What’s next? - For more information - Contacts - Key partners
Parks Canada led the ecological restoration of the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem in Grasslands National Park. The project focused on re-introduction of natural processes, such as large herbivore grazing by bison and cattle, and the use of prescribed burns. In addition, previously cultivated areas, as well as areas dominated by invasive plants, were re-vegetated. During the project, various partners and stakeholders were involved in the planning, decision-making, and celebration of the restoration work including local communities, Aboriginal people and park visitors.
The actions undertaken by the Grasslands National Park restoration team demonstrate the best practice approach described in Principles and guidelines for ecological restoration in canada’s protected natural areas. The process of ecological restoration, as described by this approach, adheres to three guiding principles. Restoration should be:
- effective in restoring and maintaining ecological integrity,
- efficient in using practical and economic methods to achieve functional success, and
- engaging through implementing inclusive processes and by recognizing and embracing interrelationships between culture and nature.
Natural and cultural heritage values
Visitors pause to watch bison interact with prairie dogs, pronghorns…the earth itself. Grasslands National Park represents one of the finest intact, large contiguous areas of mixed-grass prairie in western Canada. Bison form an integral part of the prairie landscape, and were central to the lives and cultural practices of the many Aboriginal peoples who lived there. The park preserves an extraordinary archaeological record of these Aboriginal peoples.
Defining the problem
Historically, the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem evolved with frequent natural disturbances such as grazing by large herbivores (especially bison). Bison had been absent from the landscape for over 100 years, but other large herbivores, such as cattle, had largely replaced the bison’s ecological role. When Parks Canada acquired the lands for Grasslands National Park in the 1980s, all grazing was excluded, and the benefits to the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem of grazing, wallowing, and fertilization were lost. Restoring the function of grazing was essential to maintaining a healthy prairie ecosystem and its diversity of species.
Fire had also historically helped maintain the diversity of native prairie species. These fires included both “wild” grass fires (e.g., lightning), and fires set by Aboriginal peoples, who burned the prairie to influence bison movements. Restoring fire was necessary to control invasive plants, encourage the growth of native prairie plants, and to provide a mosaic of habitat for prairie wildlife such as songbirds.
Outside the park boundaries, cultivated or previously cultivated lands made up a large portion of the terrain. Some of these areas were dominated by invasive plant species, such as leafy spurge, which had spread as a result of the planting of domestic grasses for hay production or grazing and the abandonment of cropland. These areas surrounding the park also needed to be managed to ensure that invasive species did not encroach into natural prairie in the park.
Goals and objectives
The restoration objectives in Grasslands National Park focused on the ecological processes (especially grazing, fire, and plant succession) required to achieve a pattern that better represented the pre-contact prairie landscape (prior to European settlement) and more effectively conserved native biodiversity. In particular, a grazing experiment would test various levels of grazing intensity for its effects on native vegetation and wildlife.
Lands surrounding the park were dominated by agricultural use; therefore, a high level of active management would be required to restore and maintain the native prairie landscape within the park.
Building relationships with Aboriginal partners was an important objective of the restoration work, as well as engaging neighbouring communities.
The Environmental Assessment (EA) process helped ensure that a wide range of impacts were considered. The EAs for bison re-introduction and grazing contributed to modifying fence locations to protect the integrity of cultural resources. EAs also provided direction for specific follow-up monitoring. For example, some areas were identified as requiring rehabilitation as a result of environmental impacts, invasion of non-native species, or development of linear disturbances (new roads and trails).
To restore the ecological role of large herbivore grazing, 71 plains bison were reintroduced to a 18,100-hectare parcel in 2006. At the same time, cattle were used elsewhere in the park to achieve grazing objectives. The habitats of grassland songbirds such as Sprague’s pipit and McCown’s longspur, both species at risk, have benefited from grazing.
The tradition of prescribed fire was reintroduced to influence large grazer distribution, reduce the prevalence of invasive species, and promote the growth of native grassland species.
Previously cultivated fields were re-vegetated with a mix of native grasses and wildflowers. Over 280 hectares of land were restored and these areas look similar to native prairie in as little as four years after native seeding.
A combination of herbicide and seeding with native species was used to re-vegetate areas dominated by crested wheatgrass. As a result, the frequency in the park of introduced plant species such as crested wheatgrass has been reduced. The spread of other invasive species such as leafy spurge into the park has also been prevented through working with partners outside the park boundaries.
Restoration activities in Grasslands National Park were based on the results of scientific research in conjunction with local and traditional knowledge and advice. Stakeholders provided advice on fence design, bison health concerns, release location, the grazing tendering process, and grazing locations.
To be responsible to neighbours and keep domesticated cattle and wild bison herds from mixing, a 71 km-long fence was designed to allow some animals (e.g., deer, pronghorns, cougars) to move easily in and out of the park, but restrict the movements of bison, cattle, and horses.
Communities, universities, and other stakeholders have undertaken scientific research aimed at developing and using innovative tools and strategies in prairie ecosystem management. These partnership agreements ensure better management decisions by Grasslands National Park, its neighbours, and other native prairie managers.
Project activities and results have been reported regularly through an advisory committee, open houses, newsletters, and meetings.
Hundreds of community members, visitors and stakeholders witnessed the bison release in 2006. This event offered Canadians the opportunity to discover and experience Canada’s nature and increase their sense of attachment to the park.
Traditional Aboriginal activities were an important element of the bison reintroduction ceremony. Opportunities for traditional spiritual and ceremonial activities in the park have helped build relationships with Aboriginal people and re-integrate nature and culture.
Park visitors, neighbours and other stakeholders have been engaged in project activities, including grazing management and invasive species control. Invasive species management has led to collaboration among multiple jurisdictions and partners in the Frenchman River – Wood River Weed Management Area. They conduct assessments, educate and engage the public and stakeholders, prevent new invasions, and control or eliminate priority species such as leafy spurge.
In partnership with the local school division, the project has supported the first Prairie Learning Centre. The Centre provides unique learning opportunities for rural, urban, and Aboriginal youth from across Canada and internationally, and helps them develop a deep, rich connection to the natural and cultural wonder of the prairies.
Restoration in Grasslands National Park has aimed to be an inclusive process. Neighbours and other stakeholders have been engaged in open-houses and informal meetings through which they and the park strive to hear, understand, and address each others’ concerns.
Results of restoration efforts are being monitored. Vegetation sampling is used to monitor species composition several years after restoration of a cultivated field to native prairie. In addition, Bison have been fitted with GPS units and their movements and behaviours tracked by visitors and staff. Visitors now have the opportunity to observe and learn about the ecological and cultural role of bison in a natural grassland system.
Project activities and results are evaluated and reported regularly through an advisory committee, open houses, newsletters and meetings, as well as through formal assessment and reporting structures such as the follow-up program for the environmental assessment, and State of the Park reporting. (Learn more about monitoring in National Parks.)
- Listening was important, as good ideas came from many places.
- Staff and stakeholders needed to be fully engaged in decision-making and actions.
- Internal collaboration was key.
- It worked better to take small steps; dream big but put it in doable steps.
- It was important to keep communication open.
- Check internally and externally with all of the small steps. Let people know in a timely fashion: ‘this is what was planned, this is what you said, this is what we are now doing based on your input and these are the next steps’. Ask for feedback on the next steps. A variety of means were used to do this including open houses, newsletters, community events, meetings and one-on-one conversations.
- Ensure timely and appropriate recognition of volunteers.
The strategies used in this restoration project were successful in refining the techniques required for maintaining and enhancing the prairie landscape. Following on these successes, over the next five years (2009-2014) the park will continue its restoration efforts, focusing on building the bison herd, increasing the use of prescribed fire, completely eliminating crested wheatgrass in the park, and re-vegetating all remaining cultivated fields in the park. In addition, the objectives for the grazing experiment will be met over the next five years. Black-footed Ferrets, which had been absent (extirpated) from the Canadian prairies since 1937, were also re-introduced in the park in 2009. New opportunities will be created for visitors and students to experience and learn about these restoration efforts.
For more information
This case study is intended to provide general information about ecological restoration projects in Canada’s protected natural areas. For more detailed or technical information about this restoration project, please consult the following sources, or the contacts provided below.
- 2010 Grasslands National Park of Canada Management Plan
- Grasslands National Park of Canada: State of the Park Report, 2007 (PDF, 1.8 MB)
- Parks Canada Species at Risk: Black-footed Ferret
- Grasslands National Park of Canada and the Prairie Grasslands
- Prairie Learning Centre
Field Unit Superintendent
Grasslands National Park of Canada
Tel: (306) 298-2258
Manager, Resource Conservation
Grasslands National Park of Canada
Tel: (306) 298-2166
- Grasslands National Park Advisory Committee
- Nature Conservancy of Canada
- Province of Saskatchewan
- Prairie Learning Centre
- Nekaneet First Nation
- Village of Val Marie
- Rural municipalities surrounding the park
- Elk Island National Park
- Storyteller Lyndon Tootoosis (Poundmaker First Nation)
If you wish to comment on this case study, please contact Parks Canada at firstname.lastname@example.org