Discover Manitoba's
tall grass prairie

A place to explore one of Canada's most endangered landscapes

E xploration is often the catalyst to discovery. At least, that’s what John Morgan thinks. For John, exploring is what led him and a group of fellow volunteers from the Manitoba Naturalist Society (now Nature Manitoba) to discover a swath of thousands of hectares of remnant tall grass prairie in southeastern Manitoba during an inventory of existing prairie lands, around 1986.

“I believe it was the first systematic prairie inventory done in Canada,” says John. “When we found the area down there near Tolstoi [approximately 90 kilometres south of Winnipeg], we just couldn’t believe it.”

Before he ventured out, John had viewed satellite images of the area. The infrared mapping used to produce images from the satellites, which were just starting to be used in natural resource management at the time, showed a distinct colourization (reddish-pink) associated with native prairie lands.

“When I showed [colleagues] the images, they said that it must be a mistake,” says John. “It was unbelievable; there was just so much [native prairie]. A day or two later, we set out to verify that the maps were accurate, and sure enough, there was tall grass everywhere.”

A call to conserve one of the world’s most endangered landscapes

This discovery helped make the case for the need for better conservation and management of Manitoba’s native prairie lands.

“At the time I was working as a biologist for the province, and they had told me they weren’t interested in surveying native prairie,” says John. “But once we found this land, they became involved, and the following year sponsored native prairie surveys.”

Not long after, John and his wife, Carol, started their own company called Prairie Habitats Inc., with a focus on collecting seeds from lands across Manitoba for prairie restoration. To date, they have helped restore prairie landscapes not only in Manitoba, but across the country and around the world.

“We’ve helped people and organizations restore prairies across Canada, in the United States and many other countries,” he says. “We’ve developed seed-harvesting equipment that was first tested out down at the Tall Grass Prairie reserve, which is now in use in 41 countries around the world.”

The heart of the tall grass prairie

Fast-forward almost 25 years to the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) opening of The Weston Family Tallgrass Prairie Interpretive Centre on July 15, 2013, in the heart of the tall grass prairie.

“[NCC] kindly invited me to the opening, and I was just sitting there with a big grin on my face,” John recalls. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought prairie restoration [and conservation awareness] would have come that far.”

John believes there is an urgent need to manage and conserve our tall grass prairie lands. Although the tallgrass prairie ecosystem once stretched from near present-day Winnipeg all the way south to Texas, today, the largest intact blocks of tall grass prairie in Canada occur in the Tall Grass Prairie Natural Area.

“There will always will be a need for management [of this habitat],” he says. “Now with the interpretive centre there, in one of the most unique landscapes in Canada, the land can be understood and shown off. I think it’s wonderful.”

Western prairie white-fringed orchid

The elusive western prairie white-fringed orchid is an endangered species found in one of the rarest ecosystems in North America – the tall grass prairie.

The orchid is named after its geographic location, as well as its physical appearance. The flower spike, which can be up to 88 centimetres high, consists of between four to 30 creamy white flowers, each with a fringed lower petal.

“I have yet to take anybody out onto a native prairie and not have them be impressed by it.”

Species to Spot

– American bittern
– aspen
– big bluestem
– black bear
– oak
– prairie cordgrass
– rough-tailed grouse
– sandhill crane
– sedge
– western prairie white-fringed orchid

“Watching waves of tall grass and flowers in front of me as the wind rolls by is something that I love doing to this day. We have grandchildren now, and we’ve taken them down there. They love exploring the land.”

A haven for wildlife

NCC began working to conserve land within the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in 1992 and now protects a total of 9,789 hectares (24,190 acres) of tall grass prairie. The Weston Family Tallgrass Prairie Interpretive Centre itself comprises 65 hectares (160 acres) of this area. Visitors can learn about a diverse range of species found in the tall grass prairie, including the more than 1,000 species found on the property.

“Sandhill cranes are to me what loons are to the boreal forest,” says John. “There’s nothing like coming across a sandhill crane’s nest, or having a couple fly over you [when on the property].”

Although Manitoba may be one of the lesser-visited parts in Canada, John is optimistic that with more awareness that could change.

“There’s so much to see here. You can’t really appreciate it driving 100 kilometres per hour on the highway. You have to step out and take a closer look,” he says. “I have yet to take anybody out onto a native prairie and not have them be impressed by it.”

An experience you’ll never forget

The area around the Weston Tall Grass Prairie Centre has come a long way in terms of conservation awareness and action since the 1980s, but every time John steps on the property, he is brought back to the first time he was there.

“Walking through the prairie full of wildflowers on a windy day is an experience that you could never forget,” says John. “Watching waves of tall grass and flowers in front of me as the wind rolls by is something that I love doing to this day. We have grandchildren now, and we’ve taken them down there. They love exploring the land.”

Photo Credits (Top to bottom): Thomas Fricke; Thomas Fricke; Andrea Mosher; iStock; Thomas Fricke; iStock.

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