Shane Gibson/MetroA massive highway project connecting the second phase of CentrePort Canada Way to the Trans-Canada Highway near St. François Xavier may put a rare tall-grass prairie preserve at St. Charles Rifle Range in harms way.

A massive highway project that’s touted as critical to growing Manitoba’s economy may also put one of the province’s few remaining tall-grass prairie preserves in peril.

The province is planning to extend CentrePort Canada Way — the four-lane expressway linking Inkster Boulevard to the west Perimeter Highway — to the Trans-Canada Highway near St. François Xavier.

The expressway will be an important trucking route for CentrePort Canada, the 20,000-acre inland port expected to bring huge economic opportunities to Manitoba.

But the new roadway’s proposed path runs through the St. Charles Rifle Range, land owned by the Department of National Defence (DND) and home to one of the province’s largest remaining plots of tall-grass prairie.

“It’s surprising to me that they’re even consider that… because there’s land on either side that isn’t sensitive ecologically,” said ecologist and president of Prairie Habitats Inc. John Morgan, whose Manitoba-based company specializes in restoring native prairies.

“Tall-grass prairies have a lot of species —  both plants and animals — that are not found anywhere else, and some have potential for foods and medicines. It’s why we call them the rainforests of the prairies.”

The 250-acres of tall-grass prairie is nestled behind a shooting range the DND has trained at since acquiring the land more than a century ago. That ownership has been what’s kept the tall-grass prairie untouched, explained 17 Wing Winnipeg environmental officer Marc Dettman, who worries what will happen to it if the range if the land is sold.

“The problem is that because there’s no species at risk here, there’s no way to protect the tall-grass prairie,” he said. “It is definitely a rare ecosystem, but unfortunately ecosystems themselves don’t have protection under our species at risk legislation.”

In a statement, the province said they are in the beginning stages of design and are working on a route that “will preserve as much of the existing natural prairie habitat as possible.”