North America’s grasslands once stretched from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and across this considerable space different prairie types evolved to express the sum of their particular longitude and latitude, soils, landforms, and aspect. This prairie guide is your roadmap to what remains of this varied and majestic landscape.
Suzanne Winckler’s goal is to encourage travelers to get off the highways, out of their cars, and onto North America’s last remaining prairies. She makes this adventure as easy as possible by providing exact driving directions to the more than three hundred sites in her guide. She also includes information about size, management, phone numbers, and outstanding characteristics for every prairie site and provides readers with a thorough list of recommended readings and Web sites.
The scope of the guide is impressive. It encompasses prairies found within national grasslands, parks, forests, recreation areas, wildlife refuges, state parks, preserves, and natural areas and on numerous working ranches in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. A series of maps locate the prairies both geographically and by name.
From “the largest restoration project within the historic range of tallgrass prairie” at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa to Big Bend National Park in Texas, where “the Chisos Mountains, completely surrounded by the park, rise up majestically from the Chihuahuan Desert floor,” Winckler celebrates the dramatic expanses of untouched prairie, the crown jewels of prairie reconstruction and restoration, and the neglected remnants that deserve to be treasured.
About the Author
Suzanne Winckler is a freelance writer living in Mesa, Arizona. From 1992 to 2002, she worked for the Nature Conservancy’s Nebraska Chapter, where she was involved in raising funds for prairie conservation and restoration projects. She is the co-editor of The Bird Life of Texas, editor of Great Texas Birds, and author of two Smithsonian Guides to Historic America and one Smithsonian Guide to Natural America. She often writes travel features for the New York Times.
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Prairie A North American Guide
By Suzanne Winckler
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One CANADA
Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario are the prairie provinces of Canada. This guide will focus on grassland remnants in the heart of this region, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Prairie destruction is not constrained by political boundaries, and Canadians have been no kinder to their grasslands than U.S. citizens have. Mixed-grass prairie-the dominant grassland type in Canada-once covered 59 million acres. An estimated 24 percent of that remains, half of it overgrazed. Fescue prairie, which occurred in the northerly, wetter fringes around the mixed-grass prairie, has been reduced to less than 5 percent of its former range. And the tallgrass prairie, centered in the Red River Valley of Manitoba and in southern Ontario, has shrunk to a fraction of 1 percent of its original extent.
The writer Wallace Stegner, who grew up on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, has written eloquently of the Canadian prairie (and its swift demise) in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. Like many lovers of prairie, he is defensive of its subtlety: "The very scale, the hugeness of simple forms, emphasizes stability. It is not hills and mountains which we should call eternal. Nature abhors an elevation as much as it abhors a vacuum; a hill is no sooner elevated than the forces of erosion begin tearing it down. These prairies are quiescent, close to static; looked at for any length of time, they begin to impose their awful perfection on the observer's mind."
1 Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area
38,530 acres, Canadian Wildlife Service, (306) 836-2022
Mixed-grass prairie and wetland complex along northern reaches of Last Mountain Lake, long recognized for importance to breeding and migratory birds. Dedicated in 1887. Considered North America's first federal bird sanctuary. One-hour driving tour, two nature trails, and observation tower near National Wildlife Area office and information kiosk.
In Simpson, look for large brown National Wildlife Area sign. Go east 8.5 miles on gravel road, then south 1.8 miles to headquarters.
2 Grasslands National Park
118,745 acres, PC, (306) 298-2257
The only place in Canada where colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs can be found in their native habitat. Mixed-grass prairies in two distinct geological landscapes: 70,222-acre West Block amid glacial plateaus and coulees of Frenchman River Valley and 48,523-acre East Block set in dramatically eroded Killdeer Badlands. West Block has well-marked driving tour and is geared to visitors.
West Block: From visitors' center in Val Marie, go 9 miles east on Highway 18, then 2.5 miles south. East Block: Contact park staff for access information.
3 Riding Mountain National Park
734,640 acres, PC, (204) 848-7275
Prairie meets boreal forest along the ancient western shoreline of Glacial Lake Agassiz. One of the best places in the province to see elk, black bears, plains bison, moose, coyotes, and beavers. Abundance of hiking, climbing, and horseback riding trails and great birding.
Park headquarters at Wasagaming on Highway 10, which bisects park.
4 Spruce Woods Provincial Park
66,593 acres, PC, (204) 945-6784, (800) 214-6497
Mosaic of white spruce and aspen parkland, riparian hardwoods, sand dunes, and mixed-grass prairie along Assiniboine River. Favorite haunt of nineteenth-century naturalist and Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton. Diverse four-season recreational opportunities.
From Brandon, go east 25 miles on Trans-Canada Highway, then south 17 miles on Provincial Trunk Highway 5 to park entrance.
5 Souris River Bend Wildlife Management Area
5,424 acres, MC, (204) 945-6666
Aspen-oak woodlands interspersed with mixed-grass prairie along deeply incised elbow-bend of Souris River Valley.
From Brandon, go 19 miles south on Provincial Trunk Highway 10, go east 4 miles on Provincial Trunk Highway 2 to junction of Provincial Road 346. Go south on Provincial Road 346 (forms western boundary of wildlife management area) and follow designated-vehicle trails.
6 Birds Hill Provincial Park
8,673 acres, MC, (204) 945-6784, (800) 214-6497
Aspen-oak parkland, bogs, and mixed-grass and dry ridge prairies on glacial esker overlooking Red River Valley. Bicycling, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling trails plus the Winnipeg Folk Festival each July. Proximity to Winnipeg means throngs, especially in summer.
From Winnipeg, take Provincial Trunk Highway 59 north 14.9 miles to west entrance gate.
7 Oak Hammock Marsh Wildlife Management Area
8,645 acres, MC, (204) 467-3000
Marshlands, about a tenth of original size, that harbor two tallgrass prairie remnants, totaling about 280 acres. Impressive numbers of migratory waterfowl in spring and fall. A conservation center houses an interpretive center and serves as headquarters for Ducks Unlimited Canada. Dens in nearby Narcisse have the world's largest concentration of red-sided garter snakes.
From Winnipeg, at junction of Perimeter Highway 101 and Provincial Trunk Highway 7, take Provincial Trunk Highway 7 north 11 miles. Go east 5 miles on Provincial Trunk Highway 67, then north 2.5 miles on Provincial Road 220 to parking lot on west edge of marsh.
8 Lake Francis Wildlife Management Area
16,000 acres, MC, (204) 642-6070
Aspen parkland, beach ridges, wetlands, and about 2,000 acres of tallgrass prairie. Lake Francis is a component of the Delta Heritage Marsh, a major breeding and staging area for waterfowl.
From Winnipeg, at junction of Perimeter Highway 101 and Provincial Trunk Highway 6, take Provincial Trunk Highway 6 northwest 19 miles, go west 10 miles on Provincial Road 411.
9 Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve
6,000 acres, Critical Wildlife Habitat Program, (204) 425-3229
A treasure. Encompasses largest remnant tracts of tallgrass prairie in Canada's Red River Valley and protects several endangered orchid species, including one of the largest known populations in North America of western prairie fringed orchid.
In northwestern Minnesota, take U.S. Highway 59 about 5 miles north across the U.S.-Canada border, go east 2 miles on Provincial Road 209. Preserve properties are between the towns of Tolstoi and Gardenton and are identified with Critical Wildlife Habitat Program signs. Preserve's north block is north of junction of Provincial Roads 209 and 201.
10 Living Prairie Museum
30 acres, City of Winnipeg, (204) 832-0167
Remnant tallgrass prairie, self-guided trails, and interpretive center located at 2795 Ness Avenue in northwest Winnipeg.
Chapter Two THE DAKOTAS
A physiographic map of the Dakotas is a lovely thing to behold. Arcing northwest to southeast across the two states is the Missouri River, the legendary pathway of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Cozying up along the eastern flank of the river is the Missouri Coteau. This impressive landform, which stretches from the Dakotas northwestward through Montana and Saskatchewan to the vicinity of Edmonton, Alberta, is the high, hummocky consequence of immense glaciers that stalled and stagnated while attempting to advance over steep escarpments. (A smaller-scale example of glacial stagnation found in southeastern South Dakota and adjacent parts of Minnesota is called the Prairie Coteau.)
The Missouri Coteau is the most distinctive vestige of the western bounds of continental glaciation. Unfurling to the east are "young" glacial plains, a pothole-marked, poorly drained landscape that segues into the pancake-flat Red River Valley, which is really part of the bed of Glacial Lake Agassiz. West of the Missouri Coteau lies an undulating plain where water has had time to leave a more corrosive mark on the landscape than it has in the glacial drift to the east. Besides numerous streams and rivers cutting paths to the Missouri River, there are the badlands, where water and wind have etched clays and siltstones into bizarre formations.
1 Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge
26,900 acres, USFWS, (701) 848-2722
Premier example of Missouri Coteau prairie pothole landscape. Much of refuge is virgin short- and mixed-grass prairie. Auto tour approximately 7 miles long. Naturalist Scott Weidensaul writes of visiting Lostwood in Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds and "wandering its backcountry in a happy trance."
From Stanley, go north 21 miles on Highway 8 to refuge entrance.
2 Little Missouri National Grassland
1.2 million acres, USDA-FS, McKenzie Ranger District, (701) 842-2393; Medora Ranger District, (701) 225-5151
Subtleties of mixed-grass prairie compete with eye-popping badlands, creating landscape that has made a big impression on countless visitors, including the young Teddy Roosevelt. Hikers and horseback riders can strike out on the 120-mile-long Maah Daah Hey Trail, which begins at Sully Creek State Park south of Medora. A 58-mile self-guided auto tour of the grassland begins at the Medora office.
Information and maps at McKenzie office, 1 mile south of Watford City on Highway 85; Medora office, 161 21st Street West in Dickinson.
3 Theodore Roosevelt National Park
70,447 acres, NPS, south unit, (701) 623-4466; north unit, (701) 842-2337
See description above. The north and south units of the national park lie within the Little Missouri National Grassland boundaries.
North unit: From Watford City, go south 15 miles on Highway 85 to park entrance. South unit: On I-94, take Exit 27 to Medora Visitor Center or Exit 32 to Painted Canyon Visitor Center.
4 Little Missouri State Park
5,900 acres, NDPRD, (701) 794-3731
Mixed-grass prairie amid dramatically eroded landscape surrounding confluence of Little Missouri and Missouri Rivers, which is now submerged in Sakakawea Reservoir. Best interior access is by horseback.
From Killdeer, go 16 miles north on Highway 22, then east 3 miles on gravel road.
5 Big Gumbo
20,000 acres, Bureau of Land Management, (701) 225-9148
Vast mixed-grass prairie and sagebrush. Named after the state's largest exposure of "gumbo" shale.
From Marmarth, go .25 mile west on Highway 12, then south 18 miles on West River (Camp Crook) Road. Roads are impassable in wet weather.
6 Cedar River National Grassland
6,717 acres, USDA-FS, (605) 374-3592
Rolling hills of mixed-grass prairie. Much of the land lies within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Information and maps at district office, 1005 5th Avenue West, Lemmon, South Dakota.
7 Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
1,758 acres, NPS, (701) 745-3309
Mixed-grass prairie at confluence of Knife and Missouri Rivers provides backdrop for three former Hidatsa villages. Site of Lewis and Clark's first encounter in 1804 with Sakakawea. Visitors' center with museum and walking tour.
From Stanton, go north .5 mile on Highway 200A.
8 Cross Ranch Preserve and Cross Ranch State Park
Preserve: 6,000 acres, TNC, (701) 794-8741; State Park: 589 acres, NDPRD, (701) 794-3731
Superb example of northern mixed-grass prairie and floodplain forest along relatively wild stretch of the much-garroted Missouri River.
From Bismarck, go north about 33 miles on Highway 1806.
9 John E. Williams Prairie
1,601 acres, TNC, (701) 794-8741
Stark prairiescape (locals call the site Valley-of-the-Moon) encompassing alkaline lake and salt-encrusted mudflats. To add to starkness, TNC advises visitors of periodic presence of high winds and wood ticks. Supports large nesting population of threatened piping plovers. Because public access is limited during the breeding season, please contact TNC prior to visiting.
From Turtle Lake, go east and then north 3 miles on Highway 41, then east 3 miles on County Road 27. Where County Road 27 turns north, continue on gravel road, which will jog south briefly, then turn east. Go 2 miles. Preserve entrance is on south side of road.
10 Davis Ranch
7,017 acres, TNC, (701) 222-8464
Impressive expanse of mixed-grass prairie and pothole wetlands on breathtakingly empty Missouri Coteau. Preserve is leased for cattle grazing; visitors are advised to leave gates closed or opened as they find them. Contact TNC regarding access.
From Wing, go north 15.5 miles on Highway 14. Take gravel road to west .5 to 1.5 miles to designated parking areas.
11 J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge
59,000 acres, USFWS, (701) 768-2548
Straddles 50-mile stretch of Souris River; southern portion of refuge encompasses extensive sandhill prairie once the bed of an ancient glacial lake. Auto trails 5 and 22 miles long, 13-mile canoe trail (a designated National Recreation Trail), observation towers for photography and birdwatching. Refuge name honors J. Clark Salyer, chief of the Division of Wildlife Refuges, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, from 1934 to 1961.
From Towner, go about 22 miles northwest on Highway 14.
12 Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge
4,385 acres, USFWS, (701) 752-4218
Unfurling prairie, dotted with pothole wetlands, surrounds large alkaline lake on the Missouri Coteau. Refuge is also a federally designated wilderness area. In summer, harbors 10,000 to 12,000 white pelicans, largest nesting colony of this species in North America. Much of the surrounding land remains in grassland, making this site one of the largest areas of native prairie in North Dakota.
From Medina, go north 10 miles on County Road 68 (55th Avenue Southeast),west 3 miles, north 2 miles, west 4.5 miles, then south 3 miles.
13 Edward M. Brigham III Sanctuary
2,200 acres, nas, (701) 298-3373
Classic prairie pothole landscape encompassing permanent brackish lake and seventy small evanescent potholes amid upland prairie. Excellent site for viewing sharp-tailed grouse.
From Jamestown, go north 8 miles on Highway 20, east 4 miles on gravel road, then .5 mile north.
14 Johnson's Gulch Wildlife Management Area
1,402 acres, NDPRD, (701) 683-4900
Prairie uplands and wooded ravines on eroded eastern flank of Missouri Coteau. One of the best areas in central and east North Dakota for imagining the prairie landscape as it appeared before statehood.
From Kulm, take Highway 56 south 21 miles to Highway 11, go east .7 mile, then south 2 miles and east 2 miles on gravel road to parking area.
15 Sheyenne National Grassland
70,180 acres, USDA-FS, (701) 683-4342
Tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie within the Sheyenne Delta, ancient dune field on edge of Glacial Lake Agassiz. Area contains largest extant examples of tallgrass prairie in Red River Valley. Also has state's largest greater prairie-chicken population and many recreational opportunities.
Grassland is about 30 miles southwest of Fargo. Information and maps at district office in Lisbon at junction of Highway 32 and Highway 27.
16 Pigeon Point Preserve
600 acres, TNC, (701) 222-8464
Spring-fed wetlands, fens, and prairie along Sheyenne River. A superb concentration of biodiversity.
From junction of Highway 18 and Highway 27, go west 10 miles on Highway 27, north 4 miles on 147th Avenue Southeast, then west 2 miles to preserve entrance.
17 Brown Ranch
1,531 acres, TNC, (701) 439-0841
Virtually undisturbed tallgrass prairie on sandy uplands intermingling with wet swales. Ranch is bordered on two sides by Sheyenne National Grassland.
From McLeod, go west and south about 8 miles on gravel road to first four-way intersection. Go west 2 miles, then north .1 mile to office.
18 Grand River National Grassland
155,000 acres, USDA-FS, (605) 374-3592
Rolling mixed-grass prairie and badlands. Abundant opportunities for hunting, fishing, and camping.
Located on the South Dakota-North Dakota border. Major north-south routes through the grassland include Highway 75, County Road 9, and Highway 73. For maps and information, contact district office, 1005 5th Avenue West, in Lemmon.
Excerpted from Prairie by Suzanne Winckler Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsCanada 1 The Dakotas 7 Minnesota 17 Nebraska 33 Iowa 41 Illinois 51 Kansas 65 Missouri 73 Oklahoma 93 Texas 99 Abbreviations lo9 Recommended Readings, Web Sites, and Organizations ill Index 121