Restoring Native Prairies at Ojibway

Project type: Prairie Restoration
Location: Ojibway Prairie Complex, Windsor, Ontario [open Google map]
Status: Restoration complete, conservation of species ongoing, open to public

An abandoned baseball field, a derelict farm, a former arena lawn—I had asked where to find the best examples of prairie restoration within the Ojibway Prairie Complex, a patchwork of properties throughout the city, 834 acres in total.  Pointing to a large map on the Nature Centre wall, Ranger Tom Preney was very helpful in his recommendations.  He also seemed quite knowledge about each site, its land use and restoration histories. Some were actively restored by prescribed burning and seeding; others were left to their natural successions and seedbanks. After the briefing Tom sent me on my way with a handshake. a handful of bumper stickers, and a list of sites to see.

Once the bottom of a mega-lake at the end of the last Ice Age, the region has since drained, leaving a sandy landmass known previously as the tribal lands of Ojibway, currently as the City of Windsor, Ontario. Prairie (and the occasional Oak savannah) was the dominant ecosystem for the past ten thousand years, of which only an estimated 0.5% remain today.[1]

Early/Modern History
  • In the 17th century, French expeditions to the region noted cornfields of the Huron Indians, as well as an abundance of wildlife.  Birds flocked in the millions, including prairie chickens and trumpeter swans (now locally extinct), and passenger pigeons (now totally extinct).
  • In 1749, the French began farming the Ontario side of the Detroit River, known as Petite Cote.  By 1790 the area became known as la Cote de Misere because fertility had been depleted.
  • During the industrial era Ojibway changed hands from the U.S. Steel Corporation, to the Dominion Steel and Coal Company, to the Canadian Salt Company.  Other than some testing of military vehicles during WWII, none of them put the land to much use due to various reasons.  This coincidentally allowed for the survival of some prairie land.[2]
Foundation of the Ojibway Prairie Complex included a series of land purchases by the City of Windsor:
  • Ojibway Park in 1957,
  • Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve in 1973 (from the Morton Salt Co.), 
  • Black Oak Heritage Park in 1987,
  • Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Park in 1990, and 
  • Spring Garden Natural Area from 1999 to 2008.
Map courtesy of the Ojibway Nature Center website [link].  Modified to show sites visited.

Like its properties scattered throughout the city, the restoration history of Ojibway Prairie is also complex.  Initiatives generally include:
  • The Nature Centre was originally built in 1974-6.  The current one replaced it in 2010. 
  • Protection of endangered species has been an ongoing effort at Ojibway.  The Nature Centre website lists the species at risk. [3]
  • Prescribed burns have been a regular practice since they began in 1978.  A prairie, by definition, depends on fire (as opposed to a meadow, which depends on other disturbances such as floods or droughts) to regenerate its grass species as well as prevent the establishment of woody species.
prescribed burn
Photo courtesy of Ojibway Nature Center website.  A timeline of photos shows regrowth after a 2003 prescribed burn [link].

For specific examples prairie restoration, here's a closer look at three of the sites I visited, as recommended to me by Ranger Tom.

I. Former farmland
  • Since its acquisition in 1973, this land was left alone to revegetate naturally.  Currently it is mostly grassland, with some savannah and woodlands encroaching on the periphery, such as the slow-growing walnut trees pictured below.  
  • Soil in this region is poorly-draining sand with a layer of clay beneath.  Therefore, being either waterlogged or bone-dry depending on the season, the land is better suited for prairie grasses than trees (or crops).  This may explain its abandonment as farmland, and the failure of the French farmers 200 years before.

II. Former baseball field
  • Like the farmland, this area was also allowed to regrow naturally without any assistance or seeding.  According to Ranger Tom, the current vegetation grew from the seedbank, meaning the seeds that accumulated over time, waiting (sometimes for hundreds of years) for the proper conditions to germinate.  Such conditions in this case were the absence of lawnmowers and baseball players.  In only a few years since its abandonment, the baseball field is almost entirely hidden under prairie grasses and flowers. [Compare 2006 to 2015 satellite images, below]
  • Black Locust removal is an ongoing project just north of the baseball field, along the bikeway.  According to Tom, these fast-growing pioneer trees were shading out purple milkwort, an endangered prairie flower.  

Google Earth, 2006
Google Earth, 2015

III. Former arena lawn
  • Unlike the previous two sites, this one saw deliberate revegetation efforts.  Previously a typical lawn tended with mowers and chemicals, it was converted to prairie by allowing weed growth, then prescribing fire, then broadcasting native grass and flower seeds.
  • A portion of this prairie is fenced off for endangered prairie flowers.  Colicroot are marked and protected here. 

Endangered Colicroot at Ojibway Prairie

.Check out these other Prairie Restoration sites:
  -Fermilabs , Illinois
  -Neal Smith NWR, Iowa
  -Armand Bayou, Texas

[1] "Overview of Ojibway Prairie Complex." Ojibway Nature Centre website [link]
[2] "History of Ojibway Prairie." Ojibway Nature Centre website [link]
[3] "Ojibway's Species at Risk." Ojibway Nature Centre website [link]

"Guide to Establishing Prairie and Meadow Communities in Southern Ontario." Tallgrass Ontario. London, 2004. [link]

Ojibway Nature Centre, homepage [link]
Friends of Ojibway Prairie, homepage [link]