Guest blog post by volunteer Kati Nagy
Manitoba is my home. I grew up thinking that Winnipeg and the southern part of the province was farmland for a long time. Images of settlers in a distant past Laura Ingalls style came to mind, creating this farmland. Perhaps you were like me, shocked to realize that an entire ecosystem had been thriving here for eons before this land was converted into farms. While I was reading Women of the Red River by W.J. Healy I read this passage of Mrs. Barber’s recollections and it was one of the moments that brought home the changes of less than 140 years: “I know that a buffalo trail to a drinking place on the bank of the Red River used to run through what is now the central business part of Winnipeg. It came down through the part where Central Park is now and over across Portage Avenue. As late as the 1880’s or perhaps even the 1890’s, you could see it plainly, crossing some lots that had not yet been built on. “(Women of Red River, p. 144). Imagine, thousands of bison regularly crossing through what is now downtown Winnipeg! What a huge group they must have been to leave that much of a trace in the vegetation decades later.
I had seen images of the migrant herds moving over the Serengeti, herds making their way to the fresh grasses and water as they had done for a very long time. I had never connected this kind of ecosystem to the land where I was growing up. And yet, here in Manitoba there had been an ecosystem with tall grasses and huge herds of bison that made their way across it, providing a food base for many Indigenous communities that lived here before the immigrants came. What did that land look like? There is very little evidence left of it. I have visited the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve by Tolstoi and Stuartburn Manitoba. This preserve has 2000 hectares of protected Tall Grass Prairie; only 1% of the former 6000 square kilometres of Tall Grass Prairie that existed (Manitoba Wildlife Branch). I will never forget seeing the lovely Western Prairie fringed-orchid there (it is the only area of Canada where you can see it). Without the bison, and other migrant herds going through it, Prairie habitat preservation is more complicated to manage as regular mowing and haying and fertilizing is needed.
I have also seen the small herds of bison at Riding Mountain Park and Fort Whyte. At Riding Mountain, the herd is kept at a population of about 50 as this is what the 500-hectare enclosure can maintain. They are a compelling sight in the distance or moving close by your car. Still, they seem such tiny parts of what must have been overwhelming in scale when seen altogether. Perhaps the most shocking part of it is how forgotten this ecosystem is. Yes, the bison is a popular logo for the province and there are statues at the legislative buildings but it seems that we have come to assume that farmland is who we are and what we do and the past ecosystem is not that important. Perhaps it is easier not to look back at the devastation of that ecosystem and all the communities that had been here living off of it.
This quick forgetting is concerning because I have recently learned we are at a point in time where we could make a difference and preserve another ecosystem that as yet is quite pristine: The Boreal Forest. Stretching above us and to the east for vast distances, this forest provides a home for species at risk such as the Woodland Caribou who, like the bison, also need large tracts of undisturbed land to migrate through and survive. Over 29, 000 square kilometres of this boreal forest are now protected as a UNESCO Heritage Site under the name Pimachiowin Aki. This land of beautiful rivers such as the Bloodvein and Pigeon, hundreds of lakes and thousands of animals is a treasure. However, it only represents a small fraction of the boreal forest that could still be protected in Manitoba.
Fortunately, there are many groups working together to find ways to protect this forest. CPAWS and other environmental groups are meeting with Indigenous peoples who are living in this forest. There has been mining and forestry and Hydroelectric damming and so Manitobans need to work with the people interested in developing this land for its resources in a sustainable way. Hopefully, the work of people hoping to preserve the forest will continue to be successful. The support of all Manitobans is important in this venture.
I understand that as a daughter of immigrant parents I am reaping the rewards of the changing of the prairies into farmland. As Manitobans, we all do. However, we could now be part of a forward thinking generation that is considering its natural resources differently…as entire ecosystems that work together as a whole and need to be preserved, at least chunks of them. What we could have learned and shared with part of the prairie ecosystem with migrating bison and hundreds of acres of prairie grasses, we may never know, so little of the habitat is left. However, the research is clear that the trees and plants and animals of the boreal forest are valuable resources that we would be foolish to lose, especially with the current state of the world.
The forest preserves our history of the fur trade with its canoe routes and eons of history before that for the indigenous peoples who lived there and are still living there. There is so much knowledge and possibility for learning together. Let’s support the efforts to protect the boreal forest – a vital ecosystem that we are privileged to help sustain.