French explorers had no precise word for the large North American grasslands, but the term prairie [Fr, "meadow"] implied that it was an open, grass-covered, treeless landscape. The Canadian Prairies occupy the southern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and comprise a nearly semicircular arc resting on the 49th parallel and extending through Calgary, Edmonton, North Battleford, Yorkton and Winnipeg. The region is the northern extremity of a vast grassland region extending almost to the Gulf of Mexico.

 Prairie, often considered a featureless flatland, actually contains great diversity, reflecting the depositional features associated with the Wisconsinan GLACIATION. Topography ranges from broad undulating plains to rolling hills and plateaus, often dissected by beautiful valleys and escarpments. While GRASSES dominate the natural vegetation, prairie flowers such as VIOLETS, daisies, crocus (seeANEMONE) and GOLDENROD add to its beauty. The prairie is also the natural habitat of PRAIRIE DOG, BISON, COYOTES, GRASSHOPPERS, POCKET GOPHERS, prairie chickens, songbirds, DEER and antelope (seePRONGHORN).

Extremes of CLIMATE typify the prairies: cold winters, hot summers, one or more wet years with widespread flooding (seeFLOODS AND FLOOD CONTROL) followed by periods of DROUGHT or very dry conditions. The frequency and severity of drought increases with distance from the forest margins. Rarely are climatic normals realized; instead periods of above- and below-average conditions are typical and tend to be cyclical.

The highly fertile prairie soils induced settlers from Europe, eastern Canada and the US to move into the region to farm and ranch in the latter part of the 19th century. Native prairie grasses have been almost entirely replaced by another grass, WHEAT, the major component of western Canadian agriculture, although PULSE CROPS and oilseeds such as CANOLA are increasingly common.

In Canada, the word prairie is also used to refer collectively to the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta (seePRAIRIE WEST).