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The struggle to restore native prairie

Though grassland reclamation can take decades and has many challenges, efforts are underway to renew native prairie ecosystems

On the Northern Great Plains, it’s estimated that one acre of native grass is lost every minute.

Though recently there has been increased awareness about this ecosystem being the world’s most endangered, pressures to convert this irreplaceable landscape remain strong.

“Unfortunately, there’s always this push and pull between different land uses and intensification of agriculture and just more development,” says Jane Lancaster, co-ordinator of the Alberta-based Grassland Restoration Forum.

“It’s such a shame because really it’s not something that we can replace on a large scale. I think we have to try really hard to manage what have left.”

Conventional ranching wisdom states that once native prairie is disturbed, it’ll never be the same. With researchers exploring the possibilities of native grassland restoration in Western Canada, this raises the question of what “restoration” means in such a delicate, vital ecosystem and whether it’s possible.

If you define restoration as an exact return to every native plant originally on a now-disturbed landscape, this may take many years to achieve, and in some cases it may be impossible, says Rafael Otfinowski, biology professor at the University of Winnipeg.

Even if true native prairie restoration isn’t possible in a specific area, he states, other landscape functions may return as a result of restoration efforts.

“I think the challenge is being able to define your outcomes and your success and hopefully informing that success with science along the way to say ‘yes, we are seeing some functions that are returning to this ecosystem,’” says Otfinowski.

“So you may start to see plants that establish deep roots. You might start to see some of the songbirds come back. You might start to see soil carbon building up.”

In addition to the decades of adaptive management it can take to restore disturbed native prairie, Lancaster explains that challenges to these efforts will vary, depending on location.

“Restoration risk really varies. It increases with moister soils, deeper soils, richer soils and then winter thaws,” she says. “It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s much more difficult to successfully restore a rich loamy black soil than it is a really thin brown soil.”

Other challenges to restoration include the size of the area to be restored, adjacent land use and finding the appropriate plant material.

A University of Winnipeg and Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiative wet meadow grassland restoration and grazing experiment in Manitoba. photo: University of Winnipeg

Measuring success

Otfinowski and his research team have been involved in several collaborative studies to measure the success of native prairie restoration across Western Canada. One of these collaborations has been with Parks Canada, focusing on Riding Mountain National Park in western Manitoba and Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan. Both parks began their restoration efforts years before the University of Winnipeg research team began measuring the new management programs’ effects.

The team also began an ongoing study in collaboration with Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives in 2016. “We’ve been working on wet meadow rangelands in Manitoba and specifically addressing questions that relate to their management as an alternative grazing system in response to drought,” says Otfinowski.

Through these studies, Otfinowski and his team have been working to understand the role of soil health in assessing native prairie restoration, focusing on two specific aspects. The first aspect is the role of roots in soil health.

“There’s a lot to learn about what the below-ground ecosystem looks like, and from that we’re hoping to extract some measures of root structure or architecture, root depth, root composition, whether they have lots of carbon or they have lots of nitrogen,” he says. “Which of the measures of roots are going to relate well to good management or good conservation or good restoration?”

The second aspect is soil food webs, which they are evaluating with soil nematodes — microscopic worms that feed on all parts of the soil food web.

“We essentially look at what proportion of the soil nematodes that we found feed on bacteria, feed on fungi, feed on plant roots, and those changing proportions give us a good indication of how the soil food web is changing over time,” says Otfinowski.

His team saw this at work with experiments at Grasslands National Park. “The nematodes that are in the restored prairie feed more on plant roots, and the nematodes that are in undisturbed mixed-grass prairie feed more on bacteria, and that tells us a lot about how the soil functions,” he says.

“So if we want to compare the success of our restoration to native prairie, we want to see a similar composition of soil nematodes doing that kind of work in soil.”

More recently, Otfinowski and his team began a collaboration with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, with research to take place this summer.

He explains they want to be able to apply their research to situations beyond these field-scale experiments. “We’re always thinking of how do we take something from this scale and expand it to a larger scale so that it’s meaningful to the management of other grasslands across Western Canada,” he says, adding that they actively look for ways in which the science can be useful in a real-life context.

“It’s also a huge challenge to be able to apply this now to a context where someone makes a living raising cattle, and you want to provide them some information that may help them make decisions.”

Sharing restoration resources

The Grassland Restoration Forum was established in 2006 to “provide a forum for information sharing and then tool development and research and education to support conservation and effective reclamation of native grasslands,” says Lancaster.

“We wanted to improve reclamation practice and foster stewardship for the grasslands, so it was a collaboration between members of the different provincial agencies, the ranching community, conservation organizations, industry, and reclamation practitioners.”

The forum offers several hands-on training events throughout the year to provide producers with a basic understanding of native prairie reclamation. The organization’s website also has an information portal with a variety of resources related to native prairie reclamation strategies. This includes four manuals developed by the forum titled Recovery Strategies for Industrial Development in Native Grassland. Each one is specific to a natural sub-region of Alberta, and Lancaster notes the methods detailed in each guide apply to all forms of topsoil disturbance.

“They’re based on long-term monitoring of reclamation projects,” she says. “We had a stakeholder review by industry and by ranchers while we were putting them together because we want them to be hands-on, practical things that are going to make a difference and are going to give the best possible kind of advice on how to proceed.”

The recovery strategy manuals are available online.

For other resources on native prairie restoration, Lancaster recommends the Alberta Prairie Conservation Forum’s website, which includes links to documents on topics such as using native grasses to rebuild pastures and converting cultivated land back to native perennial species in specific areas of the province.

A native hay harvester. photo: Grassland Restoration Forum

Reclamation recommendations

For those less familiar with the ins and outs of soil health, Otfinowski recommends starting by evaluating what you can see on the surface. “It seemed to us in one project when we’re trying to relate above-ground plant diversity to below-ground diversity of soil nematodes, that if you have healthy grasslands above ground, you have healthy grasslands below ground,” he says. “That would be good structure, good composition, good litter cover, good diversity of plants.”

From there, digging up a small sample of native plants and examining the roots and soil is helpful. “I think that can give you a lot of information,” he says. “Producers are excellent observers, so if you do that on your land over time, you’ll just start to notice things.”

Lancaster recommends producers start by identifying the plant communities and soils in their area, if they don’t already know them. This will help to identify which plant species to reintroduce to the land and how best to do so.

The next step, she says, is to determine what seeds are available, as some species are easier to source than others. “There’s quite a few species that aren’t readily available for some of our keystone species,” she says. “One wonderful thing about being a rancher and having some native grassland is that nearby grasslands can supply seed.”

Species such as foothills rough fescue and western porcupine grass usually require wild harvesting of seed. “Another great method for introducing diversity into a cultivation that was being reclaimed would be native hay because you get just a bunch of different species that you’d never be able to buy commercially.”

If you’re buying seed, Lancaster advises finding local seed if possible and checking seed certificates to avoid bringing in weeds from the U.S. It’s also important to deal with any weeds or invasive plant species in the area you’re trying to restore.

Adaptive management is an ongoing requirement in the first years of restoration to ensure your efforts are moving in the right direction, and Lancaster says being patient is a necessity here.

“I would say a well-managed site’s probably going to take a minimum of five years, and it could take a lot longer, depending on what your objective is,” she says. “If you’re really trying to establish a plant community that’s similar to what is maybe adjacent on your land, that’s going to take longer, but you could put it on a positive trajectory.”

Grazing is an important part of adaptive management of restoration and getting the land back into production, Lancaster says.

“Ranchers are a super-important part of this equation, and they do such valuable work maintaining grasslands, and the reason we have grasslands is because we have ranchers, for the most part,” she says.

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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