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Tall Grass Prairie & Savanna    
The Truth about Tallgrass

What are tallgrass communities?

“Tallgrass communities” – also known as tallgrass prairies and savannas – are natural grasslands with a great diversity of grasses, wildflowers and animal life. In Ontario, tallgrass is teeming with wildlife, including: 

  • over 200 species of plants, such as blazing-star and wild bergamot; 
  • many birds, such as bobolinks, savanna sparrows and northern bobwhite quail; 
  • mammals, such as deer, meadow voles, and badgers; and 
  • a fascinating diversity of insects, from butterflies and damselflies to ants, leafhoppers and ladybeetles.
P. Allen Woodliffe

Where are they? Where have they gone?

Tallgrass was once found throughout the central U.S. and in southern Ontario and Manitoba. It covered an estimated 90 million hectares – about the size of British Columbia. Now only 1.5 million hectares (about one percent) remains – about the size of half of Vancouver Island.  In southern Ontario, tallgrass once covered approximately 1000 km2 – less than 3 percent remains! Most tallgrass communities have been lost over the past 200 years due to human use of the land for agriculture and urbanization. Click here to see a map of the original extent of tallgrass prairie and savanna.

Why are they important?

Tallgrass… 

  •  is a globally imperiled ecosystem and one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada; 
  • is part of Ontario’s natural heritage; 
  • provides habitat for a huge number of wildlife species, including many that are officially designated as rare at the global, national or provincial level; and 
  • is home to species such as northern bobwhite which is in danger of disappearing from Canada. Some tallgrass species, like the greater prairie chicken and the karner blue butterfly, have already disappeared from Canada.

What is happening to save tallgrass in Ontario?

World Wildlife Fund Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources have developed a recovery plan for Ontario’s tallgrass communities. Local groups and individuals are hard at work across the region to save and recover tallgrass. Tallgrass Ontario is working to raise awareness, coordinate recovery efforts, and help provide local groups with the tools they need to do the job.


Savanna

For many people "savanna" conjures up images of African plains with zebras and wildebeests grazing beneath scattered trees. Savanna is indeed the term applied to natural areas of mostly grasses with scattered open-grown trees. It comes as a surprise to many that savannas can be found in Ontario! Many of the largest and most significant of these are within the Carolinian life zone of southwestern Ontario.

Typical savanna and prairie plant species include Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switchgrass. Wild Bergamot, Black-eyed Susan, and Bush clover are typical non-grass species present. In areas of more moisture, sedges and ferns are present.

Savannas and prairies develop on sites which are subject to environmental stresses, typically fire, drought, spring flooding, and warmer than usual local climates. Prairie occurs where these effects are most severe, while savanna grows where these stresses are not so pronounced.

In the Carolinian region, trees which characterize savannas are the oaks and hickories, and occasionally pines. Pin Oak, Swamp White Oak, and Bur Oak dominate wetter sites. Black Oak, White Oak, and Pignut Hickory are found on intermediate sites and the dryer sites may also have White Pine or Red Pine. In very dry sites, Eastern Red Cedar may also occur with oak and pine.

Savanna sites in the Carolinian region are found mostly on very sandy soils. The largest and most significant remnants are at Windsor, Walpole Island, the Port Franks area on the Lake Huron shore, north of Turkey Point, Pelee Island in Lake Erie, and High Park in Toronto. High Park provides a good example of how savanna areas will grow into less open forests in the absence of regular disturbance

Savanna sites accessible for public exploration can be found at Ojibway Prairie in southwest Windsor (at Matchett and Titcombe roads); Pinery Provincial Park; Stone Road Alvar on Pelee Island; Turkey Point Provincial Park; and High Park in Toronto. Other publicly accessible sites exist, call your local Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources or local Conservation Authority office for specific locations.

Human development of savanna and prairie has eliminated or degraded much of these areas. Consequently, much of the flora associated with these uncommon sites is considered rare in Ontario. Some are even considered endangered (Pink Milkwort, Slender Bush Clover, and White Prairie Gentian, to name a few). The conservation of these rare species,as well as the more common ones, is dependent on the protection of their habitat. Therefore, the careful stewardship of prairie, savanna, and woodland remnants is critical.


Prairie

Prairie is a natural community that is dominated by grasses rather than by trees, as in a forest. Growing with the grasses are many other kinds of non-grassy herbaceous plants known by the collective name of "forbs". On moist soils, prairie blends into marshlands dominated by sedges rather than grasses. Scattered shrubs may be present, however trees are absent.

The term "savanna" is applied to places where prairie-type vegetation grows within widely spaced trees.

The term "prairie" is usually associated with the central part of North America and many people are surprised to learn that prairie areas exist in southern Ontario. These sites are scattered sporadically across the landscape from Windsor to the eastern part of the province. However, it is in the southwest, the Carolinian life zone, that the largest areas of prairie remain. In fact, historical accounts and present day physical evidence tell us that prairie was once widespread in the extreme southwest of Ontario, primarily in Essex and Kent counties. Smaller prairie sites also are found in areas of Lambton and Brant counties, Haldimand-Norfolk, and near Toronto. The largest and best known remnants are at Windsor and Walpole Island.

Since prairie areas are so rare in Ontario, the flora and fauna associated with them are also uncommon in the province. Approximately 20% of plants designated as rare in Ontario are associated with prairie. Examples include Culver's Root, Tall Ironweed and Prairie Rose. At Walpole Island, there are seven species of plants growing which are not known elsewhere in Canada. The Greater Prairie Chicken was present in the Windsor area until the late 19th century.

The rich fertility of prairie soil, coupled with the fact that few trees are present, made these areas ideal for agricultural development. These areas support some of the most productive corn and soya bean operations in Ontario, much the same as wheat has replaced much of the native vegetation of the vast mid-continent prairie. Of the estimated one million square kilometres of tall grass prairie that once occurred in North America, less than one six-hundredth of one percent remains. Hence, conservation of remaining natural prairie and its rare species is vital.

Fire is a key component of maintaining prairie vegetation. In order to mimic this formerly natural process, controlled fires are applied as a management tool at many Ontario prairie sites owned by conservation agencies.

An excellent place to see native prairie in Ontario is at Ojibway Prairie in Windsor. A Provincial Nature Reserve and adjacent municipal park and visitor's centre all provide ample opportunity to experience this unique part of Carolinian Canada. These areas can be found along Matchette Road at the southwest edge of the city.

 

 

Prairie & Savanna Flora  
Prairie & Savanna Fauna  
Prairie & Savanna Sites  
Managing Prairies & Savannas
 
 
     
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
       
       
 

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