Saskatoon Ph.D. Student says fire is key to saving grasslands

A delicate balance. Murray Foubister

Healing with fire

The natural Canadian grassland is often overlooked as a natural wonder of the country’s geography. Lands flattened by the passing of glaciers millennia ago house a vast array of unique animal and plant species. Today, however, this landscape is sparse, requiring the aid of conservation efforts in order to thrive. In fact, as defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, grasslands are the most threatened ecosystem when it comes to extinction.

At the University of Saskatchewan, Ph.D. student Dale Gross, is focusing his grasslands research on Indigenous ways of sustaining the land. Gross, along with others on the project, has been working at Nature Conservancy Canada’s Old Man on His Back, a ranch in the southwest corner of the province.

Gross explained what has led to the precarious position for these ecosystems.

“The primary reason for that loss [of grasslands] is that it’s easily converted to agricultural activities.” Gross summed up the implications of these practices by stating that, quite plainly, they lead to a loss of biodiversity.

He highlights the large-scale changes grasslands have seen since settlers flooded the prairies.

“Grazing has occurred on grasslands in Canada, North America and in many parts of the world, so that ecosystem has adapted to grazing by large animals. In North America, over many thousands of years, that animal was bison. Bison were mostly eliminated about 150 years ago in North America and now they’ve been largely replaced by domestic cattle, mostly from Europe.”

Where his research is concerned, Gross is interested in implementing Indigenous methods of sustaining the lands.

“Wildfires raged across North America, uninterrupted by cultivated lands or roads or anything for many thousands of years up to, again, about 150 years ago. The First Nations people also set fires to do many things that they wanted to do, but one of them was to influence the distribution of bison. Bison and grazing animals are attracted to the green grass and plants that grow back following fire because those plants tend to be more palatable in nutrition than the other, unburned grasses.”

“The ecosystem is adapted to that type of activity: the grazing and the fires. So, when you remove those things from the system, the species that are adapted to those types of activities over many thousands of years, do not have the variety of habitats that they’ve come accustomed to and they start to have negative consequences because of it.”

“The idea then was that we would try and introduce fire into an ecosystem that was largely intact in that portion of Saskatchewan to see what the response would be from the grazing animals themselves, the plants, soil and any type of species that we could try to uncover and offer land owners, conservation groups, policy makers, constructive ideas as to how they could go about reintroducing fire and grazing into grasslands that are left.”

Gross said that research of this kind has been much more active in the U.S.

“Very few [Canadian] ranchers are incorporating this type of work into their activities to manage their grasslands. There are a few conservation agencies – and that’s a broad term – [that] have begun to use this technique as well in Canada, but they could use some information to go about it in an optimal fashion.”

Due to the unconventional nature of these land practices, Gross and his team have encountered many obstacles around fears, stigmas, and a general unawareness.

“All we’re trying to do is reintroduce what First Nations people have been doing for thousands of years. But in Saskatchewan, wildfires are seen as deadly and something to be afraid of. Prescribed fires, wildfires . . . people don’t necessarily see that distinction.

“It usually takes one on one conversations with people [to] work through their fears – which can be legitimate. The media reports on ‘controlled burn gone bad,’ and really, what they’re reporting on was somebody lighting their garbage on fire and it getting away. So, you’re working against a lot of biases and try to educate in a respectful manner. We’re making more progress, but it’s just not there yet.”

Gross gave the example of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, a well-known example that showcases just how successful these approaches to grassland conservation can be.

“Once [Grasslands National Park] was created, they eliminated grazing on a lot of that land because the idea was that overgrazing was damaging to the grassland and damaging to the habitat for wildlife and species at risk. What they found was that when they removed the grazing, they had so many weeds come in… there was actually less habitat available. So then they started to reintroduce bison, reintroduce cattle, and then fire came following, but it was a slow progression as understanding took place.”

Gross said that a change of perspective can be enlightening.

“It’s a real cultural education; ecology is secondary to the sociology. [The First Nations peoples’] activities are going to help us sustain the amount of biodiversity we have in this province, North America and the world at large. We just have to listen.”

Partners in Gross’s research are Hannah Hilger and Jackie Kroeger: both Master’s of Science students working on the project. As well, Dr. Eric Lamb, an Associate Professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the U of S, is serving as Gross’s Ph.D. supervisor. Gross is also thankful to Matthew Braun, the Science Manager with the Nature Conservancy Canada.

Gross and colleagues’ research will be featured in an episode of CBC’s The Nature of Things this fall.

Gross welcomes any interested parties to contact him with questions or curiosities. He can be reached at

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