Sands of time running out for rare Canada desert


As desertification creeps into parts of the world, a rare stretch of sand in Canada’s vast western plains is oddly doing the reverse — slowly sprouting vegetation.

Tufts of prairie grasses are emerging throughout Spirit Sands, a stretch of dunes steeped in local lore in a popular nature park in Manitoba province. The sands only cover about 4 sq. km and in some parts, entire mounds have been completely overgrown.

Today, this small patch is the only desert in Manitoba and one of just a handful in all of Canada. Once vastly bigger, it fanned out across an estimated 6,500 sq. km — about one-fifth the size of Belgium — from the mouth of the Assiniboine River.

Located in Spruce Woods park west of the provincial capital, Winnipeg, the dunes are the last vestige of an ancient river delta that was exposed 12,000 years ago, when a glacier melted northward and a massive prehistoric lake drained to the south.

“What we’re seeing out there right now is part of natural succession . . . vegetation encroaching or moving into what used to be an open sand dunes area,” said Jessica Elliott, head of conservation in the province.

A study in the late 1990s found that the desert had shrunk by as much as 10 to 20 percent over each of the previous four decades, as vegetation encroached.

Elliott pointed to several factors. “The climate is different (warmer) now than it has been in the past, there is more precipitation, wind speeds are lower,” she said, and “we don’t have . . . large bison grazing in the area or large, intense wildfires moving through.”

Technically, Spirit Sands is not a real desert because it receives twice as much precipitation as a typical desert. But the dunes have religious significance for aboriginals, not to mention unique and hardy creatures, including Manitoba’s only lizard species — the northern prairie skink, which lives where the sand meets the prairies and Spruce Woods forestation.

They are a key attraction for tourists, who also visit for camping, hiking trails, horseback riding and river kayaking. According to park officials, 2,300 vehicles have visited since January.

The province has considered a variety of measures to preserve the sand dunes, including using chemical herbicides, lighting a prairie wildfire, weeding by hand or re-establishing a herd of bison in the park, which would also require building a fence hundreds of kilometers long to keep them from wandering away.

But officials now appear resigned to let nature take its course.

“Regardless how much vegetation is on or off the dunes, it’s a beautiful place to be,” said Elliott. “It’s got many attractions, so (we’re) not worried about that at all.”