The Ojibway Prairie Complex is the largest protected tallgrass habitat left in the province. Now the cornucopia of rare flora and fauna that depends on the prairie is threatened by a multi-million-dollar bridge project

by Lorraine Johnson

Alan McKinnon guides me along a muddy trail leading to the Detroit River, reminiscing about a childhood spent in close contact with nature, while holding his nine-year-old daughter Ruby’s hand. He remembers gathering friends, hopping on bikes and spending long afternoons exploring the hidden pathways that cut through this overgrown field of scrubby trees in southwestern Windsor. As he speaks, dirt bikes and ATVs appear out of nowhere, kicking up gravel and earth, roaring by too close for comfort. Ruby senses our nervousness and lobbies to be lifted onto her dad’s shoulders, ostensibly for safety but clearly for fun. Before us lie the shores of the Detroit River and, across the water, Zug Island, an industrial tableau of factories and blast furnaces. On the other side of the sumacs and cottonwoods behind us lies a corridor of wildness leading from the overgrown field, through oak woodland to, finally, a kilometre away, the tallgrass prairie of the Ojibway Prairie Complex.

The Ojibway Prairie Complex, also known simply as Ojibway, is the largest remaining protected prairie in Ontario and comprises a cluster of five natural areas just 10 minutes from downtown Windsor. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation owns and administers four of the sites – Ojibway Park, Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Park, Black Oak Heritage Park and the Spring Garden Natural Area – while the nearby Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve is under provincial jurisdiction. Collectively, the nearly 400 hectares that constitute the Ojibway Prairie Complex amount to almost half of the total expanse of natural areas in Windsor.

At the height of summer, you can stand in the tallgrass prairie of Ojibway and close your eyes, blocking out the riot of colour and all visual clues to the landscape, and even so, you know that you are standing in the midst of a special place. The loud buzz and hum of thousands of busy insects, the darting calls of birdsong and the small-mammal rustlings leave no room for doubt – this is an ecosystem alive with activity. That this unique place exists in Canada’s busiest border city makes it even more special.

Over the years, however, there have been many threats to the prairie. In the early 1970s, the nearby Windsor Raceway planned to build a training track in Ojibway Park. A proposal was also made to dump fly ash (a coal-combustion byproduct used for making cement) in the prairie, and in the mid-1970s a local community college wanted to teach a course on heavy equipment operation in what is now Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Park. Some events seem almost quaint today, such as when Boy Scouts camped in Ojibway, a practice later stopped by the parks commissioner at the time.

In recent years, the threats have become more high stakes and community calls to protect Ojibway more vocal. At the centre of current debate about the security of the prairie and prairie-dependent species in Windsor is a large, multi-million-dollar bridge project, which includes not only a new international bridge crossing but also a new six-lane freeway, along with associated service roads and an inspection plaza.

The defining myth of Ontario’s wilderness is all about trees, and so it has taken naturalists years of educational effort to insert prairie and savannah into the province’s natural history narrative. Although Ontario is indeed dominated by forest, tallgrass prairie and oak savannah have also flourished.

Of the three main types of prairie – tallgrass, mixed-grass and shortgrass – tallgrass prairie is the type that developed in the easternmost region of North America and extended into southern Ontario. Here, higher amounts of precipitation mean that tall grasses and lush wildflowers dominate the prairie. Big bluestem and Indian grass sway in summer breezes past shoulder height. Colourful blooms change with the seasons – from the spring appearance of yellow star-grass through the summer show of ironweed and grey-headed coneflower to the fall asters and goldenrods – a display unmatched in any other Ontario ecosystem.

Nevertheless, the prairie ecosystem is threatened throughout its North American range. Before European settlement, approximately 77.5 million hectares of tallgrass prairie stretched across North America, dominating a large portion of the mid-western United States along the eastern edge of the Great Plains. Today, less than an estimated 5 percent remains and, of that, less than 1 percent is protected. The situation is similar for the prairies of Ontario. Wasyl Bakowsky of the Natural Heritage Information Centre estimates that at least 80,000 hectares, and possibly more, of prairie and savannah existed in pre-European settlement Ontario, mostly in Essex, Kent, Lambton, Middlesex, Elgin, Norfolk, Brant, Hamilton-Wentworth and Northumberland counties. Today, less than 2 percent remains. Such bleak statistics telescope to the species level at Ojibway: more rare plants per hectare are concentrated here than in any other protected area in Ontario.

Much of Ontario’s tallgrass prairie and savannah was lost to agriculture and development before most people even recognized the unique nature of this ecosystem. It was as if we couldn’t see the grasslands for the trees, and prairie in Ontario remained under the conservation radar, although a few individuals tried to drum up interest. John Macoun, Dominion Botanist for the fledgling country, explored the Windsor area in 1892 and described the vegetation as “the eastern extension of the prairie flora.” (More poetically, he also called it “a garden of rarities.”) Macoun’s observation roused little interest, though references to the treeless expanses of southwestern Ontario abound in surveys and early settlers’ accounts. Michigan botanist C.M. Rogers visited Windsor in the 1960s and published an article in The Canadian Field-Naturalist titled “A Wet Prairie Community at Windsor, Ontario.” Again, few people took note. What is perhaps most interesting about the article is not just that Rogers recognized that prairie existed in Ontario, but also his tone of resignation: “The fact that the expanding city will surely shortly obliterate it makes it seem worthwhile to describe this community now.”

Yet the prairie vegetation that Macoun and Rogers wrote about in Windsor managed not only to persist, but to be protected. And the quirk of history that led to the protection of the Ojibway Prairie Complex may well rest with a fortuitous visit by botanist Paul Maycock in the 1960s. According to Ojibway’s chief naturalist, Paul Pratt, Maycock happened to be in the office of the district forester when a call came in from the salt company that owned what is now the Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve. “The company had a big field they wanted to plant with trees,” explains Pratt. “Paul Maycock went down to check it out and said, holy cow, you’ve got tallgrass prairie and savannah here. You can’t plant it up with spruce!” Maycock approached the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the salt company and the Ministry of Natural Resources with his findings, urging that the prairie be protected.

Maycock’s astute observations and advocacy sparked the interest of the naturalist community and, over the years, Ojibway became something of a pilgrimage destination for botanists. With every plant inventory done, it seemed that new species were found. Pratt talks about going on a “little walk” with Tony Reznicek, botanist and curator of the Herbarium at the University of Michigan, in 1974 and discovering four plant species new to Canada.