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:

Riding Mountain National Park: It’s big

After being on the road with Milo for nearly eight weeks, I’ve turned us around and we’re meandering back to Ontario. This means we have to traverse Manitoba. I don’t have anything against Manitoba, but if I’m going to be on the prairies I feel like I ought to be at my Mom and Dad’s place in Saskatchewan. So Manitoba ends up being the province I sprint across. On Milo and my trip west, we spent a night at a truck stop outside of Winnipeg. On our way back east I thought it might be nice, instead of trying to sleep to the low rumble of a Peterbilt, to listen to some laughing loons. We traded a sleepless night at the Husky for a few days at Riding Mountain National Park.

black and tan German shepherd dog standing in profile against a green forestThe first thing to know is that Riding Mountain National Park is big. It covers almost 3000 square km, and has 400 km of hiking trails, a bunch of lakes, and a whole town where you can buy gas, groceries, and ice cream. There are also 14 million cabins. I didn’t actually count them, but if I had to guess I’d say 14 million. The developed part of the park feels like a resort. There is smooth pavement and clear signage, and flower arrangements mark the campground entrance.

Although the park is big, most of the people are in a tiny part of it. Happily, you don’t have to go that far to get away from them. As a result, the dog situation here is really different from other places I’ve visited. I asked at the guy at the campground kiosk about a dog exercise area. He looked at me like I was from Mars.

No there aren’t ‘off leash areas.’ Just go where there’s no people. Of course, you might wanna think twice because of the bears.

Well, OK then. It seemed like I’d have to use my own darn common sense.

The size of the park is overwhelming, almost paralyzing. It’s hard to know where to start, and so it’s hard to start at all. Milo is a big help here. He has to move, has to walk. So we just picked a direction, and went.

I was hoping for solitude and we found it right away. We discovered a warm, clear little lake and spent the whole afternoon playing in the water. By the way, then name of the place is actually Clear Lake.

Milo must have been a retriever in a past life, or maybe a seal. The dog just wants, even needs, to swim.

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“What on earth is this toy doing just sitting here in the shallow water?”

Finding this spot made the first day of our stay at Riding Mountain a success.