Wild, Wild West - Prairie and Savannah | Carolinian Canada

Wild, Wild West - Prairie and Savannah

Famously known from times when buffalo roamed the wild west, prairies and savannahs are home to many species at risk. In Carolinian Canada, wildfires created open patches among the mosaic of forest, wetland and floodplain, making way for a symphony of wildflowers and towering grasses, species adapted to fire and bright sun. Today, our spectacular prairie flowers, such as Blazing Star, are prized by native plant gardeners. Prairie grasses, such as the 4 meter high Big Bluestem are essential to many landowners for buffers and erosion control. Most prairie plant communities in Carolinian Canada are rare both globally and in Ontario.

Tallgrass prairies once covered vast expanses in North America, including over 40,000 hectares in Ontario, mostly in the Carolinian life zone. Almost every square meter of original prairie in Carolinian Canada is rich with rare plants. Fragments of native prairie and prairie restoration sites are best managed with regular burns to reduce the growth of trees and shrubs which would otherwise shade out rare ground cover plants.

A visit to a prairie in mid-May is breathtaking. By then, the black landscape of an April burn has been replaced by a carpet of orchids, stargrass and violets. Throughout summer, asters, blazing star and ironweed create a brilliant panorama, giving way to the blaze of autumn seed heads. Stately Oaks dominate the savannahs of Ontario. A prairie may have few or no trees, and a savannah has up to 35% tree cover, creating a slightly different type of ecosystem with ground cover that enjoys shade. Tallgrass Woodlands have a tree cover between 35-60%. Fire may be less regular than in open prairies, but is still an important component of the ecosystem.

Protected Areas

  • Walpole Island First Nation at the mouth of the St. Clair River still has one of the largest intact prairie remnants with several thousand hectares and 12% of Canada’s Species at Risk. For some of these species, Walpole Island is the last remaining stronghold for their populations. Parts are protected and the Walpole Island Heritage Centre Nin Da Waab Jib periodically conducts prescribed burns and provides awareness raising programs for landowners, community and visitors www.bkejwanong.com.
  • Ojibway Prairie Complex, in the heart of Windsor includes the Ojibway Nature Centre, the Ontario Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve and the Spring Garden Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI)which is the target of a multi-partner protection program. www.ojibway.ca.
  • St. Williams Reserve near Simcoe has a rich history as the oldest forestry station in Canada and holds one of the best remaining examples of Black Oak Savannah. Recently 4 bee species new to Canada were discovered at St. Williams and 2 grass hopper species are only found in St. Williams.
  • The Karner Blue Sanctuary near Grand Bend is managed by Lambton Wildlife Inc. and the Nature Conservancy of Canada with hopes of reintroducing this extirpated species www.lambtonwildlife.com.


What’s the problem?

Tallgrass Prairie, Savannah and Woodland are some of the most endangered habitats in North America. Less than 1% remains of this once extensive habitat. Prairie wildlife is becoming ever more scarce as pressures increase on the tiny fragments of remaining habitat. Bobwhite Quail and Badger were regularly sighted in Carolinian Canada just 30 years ago are now at risk in Canada. Prairie and Savannah that has not been converted to farmland, or lost to development, are threatened by suppression of fires, invasion of alien species, and recreational uses, especially off-road driving of ATV’s and other vehicles.

Recovery Strategies

Tallgrass Communities of Southern Ontario

  • Walpole Island First Nation – includes forest and marsh
  • Karner Blue Butterfly
  • Eastern Prairie White Fringed Orchid

Habitat Saving Ideas

The Back 4! Many landowners are saving prairie fragments on their land, thanks to the tools and assistance provided by the Ontario Tallgrass Prairie Association www.tallgrassontario.org and pioneering work by the Rural Lambton Stewardship Network www.ontariostewardship.org.

On the Farm! The extensive root system of prairie grasses make them ideal for erosion control, rehabilitating poor soils, and riparian buffers. The Ontario Environmental Farm Plan works with farmers to find solutions and assistance www.gov.on.ca/OMAFRA/english/environment/efp/efp.htm.

Off-Road! When driving ATV’s or other vehicles, take care to stay on established trails. Work with your local ATV club and young drivers to maintain trails and avoid local habitats at risk.

In My Back Yard! Community organizations, municipalities, golf courses and schools are restoring marginal lands to spectacular prairie oases. Strips of grassland along streams, fields or roads will help to build a habitat web for many species at risk. Fire and brushwood cutting in savannah habitats help to restrict the encroachment of trees and shrubs. Planting the Seed is a restoration guide by Environment Canada http://www.on.ec.gc.ca/wildlife/docs/doc-planting-information-e.html.


Plant Communities @ Risk

Tallgrass Prairie (Moist-Fresh)

G2S1. Globally rare, Extremely rare in Ontario

A prime habitat for wildlflowers, this community is dominated by Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and Indian Grasses. Tallgrass prairie has less than 25% tree or shrub cover. It is described as ‘moist-fresh’ since it has a higher soil moisture level than the more frequent dry prairie.

Where? Remnant pockets throughout southern Ontario, some very small with larger sites on sandy areas of Essex, Lambton, Norfolk and Chatham-Kent.

What’s the problem? Tree encroachment and invasion by alien species such as Purple Loosestrife and Phragmites How to Help! Regular management through controlled burns and removal of invasive species.

Black Oak-White Oak Tallgrass Woodland (Moist-Fresh)

G2S1. Globally rare, Extremely rare in Ontario.

With up to 60% tree cover, this community may include Woodland Sunflower, Hairy Bedstraw and Wild Lupine. It is found on well drained sand plains and sand dunes in the Carolinian life zone.

Where? Best sites on Walpole Island, Port Frank Dunes and Lake Erie Sand Spits

What’s the problem? Recreation pressure, fire suppression, forest tree invasion, over-browsing by White-tailed Deer

How to Help! The largest areas are protected and managed to control trees, deer and burns.


Species @ Risk

White Prairie Gentian Gentiana alba

G4S1. Endangered in Canada

This wildflower with dense clusters of greenish-white flowers enjoys partial shade in tallgrass prairie and oak-hickory savannahs. It is adapted to well drained, calcium-rich soils regularly disturbed by fire.

Where? In Canada, the only population is on Walpole Island.

How many? 45-60 plants

What’s the problem? Trampling, ATV traffic, tree encroachment and hybridization with blue gentians

How to Help! Get involved with stewardship programs offered by the Walpole Island Heritage Centre, Nin Da Waab Jig.


Climbing Prairie Rose Rosa setigera

G5S3. Special concern in Canada

This shrub has climbing branches that can be several metres long and bright pink flowers in June and July. It grows in abandoned fields, hedgerows or unoccupied urban land.

Where? At the northern limit of its range in Carolinian Canada, near Lake Erie in Essex, Chatham-Kent, Lambton and Middlesex.

How Many? 200-300 plants

What’s the problem? Natural succession shades it out. Invasive exotic shrubs could become significant competitors.

How to Help! Control the growth of trees around it.


Small White Lady’s-Slipper Cypripedium candidum

G4S2. Endangered in Canada and Ontario

Delicate and prized by gardeners, this orchid resembles a small slipper and grows in prairies, hillside meadows and fens.

Where? Ontario and Manitoba. It has disappeared from Saskatchewan, as well as, Bruce, Chatham-Kent, Norfolk and Welland counties of Ontario.

How many? Up to 14,000 plants in Lambton and Manitoba populations, 200 in Hastings

What’s the problem? Among other prairie threats, hybridization with Yellow Lady’s-slippers

How to Help! Increasing public attention for Tallgrass Prairie raises the profile of this species and helps encourage protection. It is protected against international trade under CITES and Canadian Exports Act.


Dense Blazing Star Liatris spicata

G4S4. Threatened in Canada

This wildflower is well-known to gardeners for its spike of small purple flowers up to 1.5 m high. It grows in moist prairies, savannahs, dune swales and abandoned fields in coarse sand or sandy loam soils. It is intolerant of shade and is thus usually found in areas that have been kept open by fire, flooding, drought or grazing.

Where? In Canada, southwestern Ontario

How many? Of 71 populations documented in 1986, 16 have been lost, but 13 new populations have been discovered. Populations range from a single plant to tens of thousands of plants over several hectares.

What’s the problem? Invasion by the alien Purple Loosestrife from gardens, tree encroachment

How to Help! Tallgrass prairie restoration and good management practices


Goat’s-rue Tephrosia virginiana

G4S4. Endangered in Canada

This small pink and yellow wildflowers has branching downy stems and grows in well-drained soils in oak and pine woodlands and savannahs, sand prairies and sand dunes including roadsides and abandoned fields. It favours direct sunlight and slightly disturbed and open ground.

Where? In Canada, only found in a few scattered sites on Norfolk Sand Plain near Lake Erie

How many? About 7 sites with a few to several hundred plants in each

What’s the problem? Sand removal operations, herbicide spraying, road widening and weevils

How to Help! Municipalities can play a lead role in protecting critical habitat.


Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus

G5S1S2. Endangered in Canada

This small chicken-like bird or quail usually travels in coveys (flocks of two or more families). Their name derives from their distinctive whistle. It prefers savannah and prairie edge habitats. In agricultural areas, it has adapted to a mix of grassland, cropland and brushy cover.

Where? In Canada, most populations have been extirpated throughout parts of the Carolinian life zone. Only known remaining population is on Walpole Island.

How many? Low hundreds

What’s the problem? Habitat loss, predation. Re-introductions occur regularly, but seldom survive the winter.

How to Help! Protect and increase hedgerows, leave grassy buffer strips along field, woodland and stream edges, create smaller fields.


Mottled Duskywing Erynnis martialis

G4S2. Rare in Ontario

This mottled brown butterfly has a purplish iridescence when freshly-emerged from the cocoon. It prefers Oak savannah and sandy areas with New Jersey teas - its caterpillar food plant.

Where? In Canada, southern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec

How many? Five known colonies in Ontario

What’s the problem? Cottage development

How to Help! Create habitat openings of oak savannah with plenty of New Jersey Tea.



Carolinian Canada Coalition 2009

Content based on 2004 guide by Michelle Kanter, Dave Martin, Veronique LeHouk, and Jane Bowles

Many Thanks to Photographers who donated their work for this project:
Jane Bowles, Allen Woodliffe, John Ambrose, Scott Gillingwater, Ben Porchuk, Rob Willson, Mathis Nativik, Shawn Staton, David Mihilik, Joe Milner, George Brackx, Kevin Railsback, Hamilton Conservation Authority, Essex Region Conservation Authority, Margaret Pickles, Leora Berman, Donald Kirk, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, Larry Lamb, Peggy Hurst, Michelle Kanter, Gregory Peck, Jim Flynn and Rick Battson. 

Thanks also to expert support from Dan Kraus, Mike Nelson and Paul Smith.

 Assistance for this project was provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources.


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