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The wildest place in town

Living Prairie Museum preserves our area's land as it once was

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press 
The Living Prairie Museum and Interpretive Centre.

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press The Living Prairie Museum and Interpretive Centre.

It's a park and a museum, but not much else about the Living Prairie Museum is ordinary.

For starters, it gets set on fire at least once a year.

Nestled in by Ness Avenue and Moray Street, not far from the southwest corner of Richardson International Airport, the park is one of the last pieces of remnant prairie in the area, director Kyle Lucyk said.

In the 1960s, scientists set out to identify the last bits of Manitoba tall grass prairie that had not been turned into farmland, city or something else. They chose the roughly 13-hectare area that makes up the museum as one of the best examples of tall grass prairie, and in 1968 the area was set aside for preservation. That means it's one of the only areas in the city that hasn't changed in a couple of thousand years, Lucyk said.

"It's never been tilled, never been a football field, a house, a golf course. This has been prairie since the last ice age," Lucyk said. "With minor disturbances."

There are areas, such as the nature playground, where people can throw around Frisbees and have picnics, but Lucyk said to get the most out of the park, you have to treat it like it's not a park.

"It's not that kind of park. The real way to enjoy the park is to walk. Take the time to make observations and see the complexity and diversity of the ecosystem," he said.

When the land was still wild prairie, and the city of Winnipeg was still a dream, the prairie was naturally cultivated in part by the bison that roamed the area, and the aboriginal people who would burn certain areas in order to herd the bison to where they wanted them.

These days, the bison are gone, which means all the cultivation has to be done by human hand, Lucyk said.

"It is intensively managed," he said.

Summer students weed out Canada thistle that has worked its way into the area. And then there are the burnings, which still happen every spring or fall, in order to let different plants grow. Lucyk said the roughly 150 different plant species that make up the prairie like fire to varying degrees. The burning lets those plants that like recently burned ground to flourish.

"We're on about a four- or five-year cycle. We've divided the prairie into different sections. We have a whole flush of fire-loving species," Lucyk said. He points at a patch of tall, red-coloured grass, which came out after the burning last fall.

"That's big blue stem. Over time (after a burning) we'll see less and less big blue stem, but other things like wild rose, who don't like fire as much, will start to appear."

If the land were kept unchecked, the wild rose, which is a shrub, would eventually take over, Lucyk said. The burnings help reset the land so the big blue stem can grow again. And though seeing a whole prairie burn can be exciting, usually it's a slow process, Lucyk said.

"They can be exciting. Some of them can be boring, when it's not windy. Sometimes they just take forever," he said.

There's also an interpretive centre at the site, which has exhibits and information about the area's ecosystem. Even when it's closed, Lucyk said visitors are welcome to take one of the booklets by the front and back door and use them on a self-guided tour of the park.

oliver.sachgau@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2014 B1

History

Updated on Monday, August 11, 2014 at 10:34 AM CDT: corrects typo in name

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