The Great Plains program
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 Land Use

The soils of the prairies developed under grassland vegetation, which supported substantial populations of numerous animal species. At the same time, sloughs and small lakes dotted the landscape providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Trees in river valleys also provided sanctuary. The vegetation of the region varied from short grasses in the drier sections to tall grasses in areas of increased rainfall to reeds and sedges in low lying areas. Numerous species of plants native to the prairies also existed. The prairie landscape prior to 1870 exhibited considerable diversity.

The advent of settlement on the prairies substantially modified the prairie landscape as large areas of the grasslands were put to the plow. In the process, decimation of the previous large herds of animals, particularly the bison, took place along with their dependent predators and scavengers. The pressure to expand the cultivated area gave rise to drainage of wetlands thereby further destroying habitat for wildlife. Over time a grain monoculture developed in much of the prairie area, a farming practice encouraged by prevailing government policies. It therefore becomes apparent that land use on the prairies has evolved over time. Consequently, land use cannot be regarded as being held constant as other forces continue to be exerted on the land base.

Land has multiple uses as was demonstrated during the development phase. Prime uses include animal and plant habitat and agriculture. As the population expands there is greater demand for land for recreational purposes and for housing in urban centres. With the primary use of the land being for grain production, the incipient decline in the grain economy gives rise to the issue of whether the present pattern of land use is appropriate. The relative contribution of agriculture to the economy generally has also declined, further compounding the land use issue. On the other hand, demand for land for purposes other than agriculture is increasing.

Figure 3.1
Percentage of Prairie Ponds with Margins or Basins Affected by..

Source: Environment Canada, The State of Canada's Environment, 1991. Data on land use are provided in Table 3.4. While the trends in land use are similar for each of the prairie provinces, the degree of change differs. The area of land under crops has risen over time. The additional area has been made possible largely as a result of a decline in land devoted to summer fallow and in the case of Saskatchewan and Alberta to an increase in the area of improved land. Over the ten year period, 1981-1991, the area in summer fallow in Manitoba declined by 50 percent, in Saskatchewan by 16 percent, and in Alberta by 20 percent. While data for the area in improved land are not available for 1991, between 1981 and 1985 a decline of 2 percent is indicated for Manitoba while increases of 2 percent and 3 percent were registered for Saskatchewan and Alberta, these increases being stimulated by the agricultural policies in effect. In the process, there has been a reduction in the area of wetlands on the prairies as indicated by Caswell.1 His data are illustrated in Figure 3.1 .

Table 3.4 Trends in Land Use, Prairie Provinces, 1981-1991 thousand hectares

1981 1986 1991
Area in Farms 7615 7740 7725
Under Crops 4420 4519 4761
Improved Pasture 353 275 341
Summer fallow 598 509 297
All Other Land 2245 2437 2326
Area in Farms 25947 26599 26865
Under Crops 11741 13326 13459
Improved Pasture 975 879 1076
Summer fallow 6704 5658 5713
All Other Land 6526 6738 6618
Area in Farms 19109 20655 20811
Under Crops 8441 9163 9292
Improved Pasture 1581 1377 1742
Summer fallow 2205 2127 1771
All Other Land 6880 7989 8005

Source: Statistics Canada , Agriculture Profiles, Census of Canada, 1991. Current land use on the prairies has reduced the quality and quantity of diverse wildlife habitat in Canada. While farmlands and rangelands do provide enhanced habitat for certain species, other species have declined as a result of agricultural expansion and production practices.

Other uses for land are not necessarily competitive with agriculture. While the land is a critical resource for agriculture, it is also a critical resource for the environment and for society. Restoration of some of the land as habitat for wildlife can be complementary to agriculture. At the same time, diversion of some of the land presently used for grain production into the production of livestock can result in agriculture being more sustainable.

The purposes for which land is used reflect their relative profitability. The profitability of a particular use in turn continues to reflect existing policies. Notwithstanding this situation, the demands of society are exerting pressure on the current pattern of land use. Eventually these demands will result in the land less suitable for grain production reverting to uses similar to those prevailing before the time of settlement.

Additional sites of interest:

Great Plains International Data Network
Environment Canada, Prairie and Northern Region: Land


  1. F.D. Caswell, Prairie Waterfowl Status Report: A Briefing Document, Environment Canada, 1990.[ Back to text ]

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