Prairie Grass, Fires, and Wildlife

Editor's Note: Thanks to our Watershed Legacy Program Manager, Cody Spencer, for this blog. For more on our rural program, please see:

Fire rushing across a prairie landscape is a taboo subject in today’s world. Just the thought of an out of control blaze, burning through precious forage and threatening livestock and buildings is enough to send shivers down any rancher’s spine. Despite the way we structure our modern world in the prairies, fire has always been an essential force that has shaped the grasslands.

The Alberta Prairie Conservation Forum meeting was held recently, in everyone’s favorite prairie to mountain transition zone, Waterton Lakes National Park. This was the first time I’ve been exposed to the prescribed burns being done within the park to help maintain the fescue grasslands by burning off the old, thick forage, allowing a regeneration to take place as the root systems are unaffected. It also helps keep aspen forests in check. Many people don’t realize that historically, aspen stands were much more limited in size due to consistent fires and grazing by bison.

Here is a stunning time lapse video of the burn done in the summer of 2015: 

The PCF meeting was a gathering of people engaged in preserving the biodiversity of Alberta’s grasslands. One of the big players in this field is the Nature Conservancy of Canada, whose work in conserving the private lands of the Waterton Park Front over the last 30 years has been a huge conservation success story. Marie Tremblay gave an excellent presentation on NCC’s work in the area, which has worked with ranchers to conserve over 32,000 acres since 1997. Conservation easements have protected the biodiversity along the park’s front, while still allowing the rancher’s to make their living on this working landscape. We call that a “win-win” situation. The NCC and Waterton area ranchers have created a buffer zone that allows animals to move out of the protected park and into the intact habitat found on the ranchlands.

Andrew Jakes is a wildlife biology researcher from the University of Montana out of Missoula. He was invited to immerse this gathering in his work studying pronghorn antelope migrations across what he calls the northern sagebrush steppe, the shortgrass prairie region north of the Missouri River in Montana that extends into Alberta and Saskatchewan. Over the last 7 years, he’s tracked the movement of these plains icons over vast distances; the longest migration being a female who was radio collared near the Alberta/Montana border and travelled 888 kilometers well into Saskatchewan and back in one year!

As the pronghorn travel these long distances, they cross many roads, fencelines and other obstructions that can threaten their natural movements. Through the data he has collected, Andrew has identified some very key corridors that are essential for our pronghorn populations to thrive. When we know where the animals are crossing fences, we can modify the fences to better allow for the pronghorn to crawl under, with is their preferred method to jumping. 

A Pronghorn buck crossing under a modified smooth wired fence.

A Pronghorn buck crossing under a modified smooth wired fence.

What I see as the overarching idea in this great prairie conservation work being done is the notion of connectivity. Everything is interconnected, fire to grass, grass to the grazing animal, and because of this, the animals need to be connected between areas of habitat. People have the ability to make these connections happen, and the work that is being done by all involved with the Prairie Conservation Forum is very inspiring to see.

Check out their website for so many great resources on prairie ecosystems and why it is so important to keep them: