Riding Mountain National Park: Forget the Bison, it’s the Fescue Prairie that’s cool

Bison are about as charismatic as megafauna get and are an iconic Canadian species. You might remember a series of public service announcements, Hinterland Who’s Who, produced by the Canadian Wildlife Service in the 1970’s. I loved these clips and thinking of their flute soundtrack still makes me smile. Here is the one-minute announcement about Bison.

Riding Mountain National Park’s 500-hectare Bison enclosure sits near Lake Audry, Manitoba. The enclosure is a drive-through affair and visitors are warned to stay in their vehicles as they check out the Park’s herd of 40 Plains Bison. You can get a great view of the herd from your car, sometimes they even stop right beside the road.

 

It’s easy for these great big Bison to distract us from an even more exceptional element of this picture, which is the Fescue Prairie they’re standing on. While the Bison are no longer threatened, the Fescue Prairie is.

Yellow grass and blue sky, with a line of green trees at the horizon

I find this picture more interesting than the last one, but then again I grew up in Saskatchewan.

Professor Joe Shorthouse, in his paper “Ecoregions of Canada’s Prairie Grasslands,” writes that

Unfortunately, the fescue grasslands are some of the most threatened plant communities in the Canadian prairies. Concern about their loss as a result of development, woodland encroachment, the introduction of exotic species, and overgrazing has increased because only 5% of the grasslands remain in pre- settlement condition.

However, the fates of the Plains Bison and the Fescue Prairie are intertwined. According to Shorthouse, “[t]hese grasslands have high spring protein and digestible carbohydrate content and are the main reason bison once overwintered here.” This ecological connection is playing itself out in the Bison enclosure at Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP), too. The park website tells us that

[b]ison play a significant role in the natural processes happening within the rough fescue prairie ecosystem in RMNP. Ensuring their protection as well as the protection of the rough fescue prairie goes hand in hand.

About two dozen Bison are laying and standing on a field of yellow grass. There is a blue sky and a line of green trees on the horizon.

You have to put the previous two pictures together to get this sort of ecologically important relationship.

Riding Mountain National Park is big, and there is a lot to do. I’m glad I took some time to check out the Bison and the Fescue Prairie.

P.S. Here’s what the Canadian Wildlife Service has to say about Canada’s Grasslands:

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