Table of Contents
In 1901, George Bird Grinell, an outdoor enthusiast and editor of Forest and Stream magazine, wrote about “The Crown of the Continent”. This “unexcelled” area, according to Grinell, deserved protection because of its outstanding recreational and aesthetic values. Grinell was thinking of all the high country of the central and northern Rockies. His tireless efforts proved fruitful in 1910 when Glacier National Park was established in the United States. Canada proclaimed Waterton Lakes National Park in 1911, north of the border, adjoining the new Glacier National Park. Earlier, in 1895, the Waterton area had been conserved as Kootenay Lakes Forest Park.
4 - 1: The Crown of the Continent holds many very powerful landscapes. Powerful in their effects on the human spirit. Ironically, they must be guarded against other aspects of the human spirit that have impacted both the beauty and the ecological processes in many of these landscapes.
In 1932 our two countries united the two parks to create Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Further recognition for this unique ecosystem came in 1979 when UNESCO designated the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem as an International Biosphere Reserve, and in 1995 when UNESCO declared Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park a World Heritage Site. Here, we use “The Crown of the Continent” unofficially to focus ecologically on the area along the backbone of the continent from the Canadian border north to the Yukon. It is a mosaic of many special places.
The Rockies commonly are seen as the backbone of the continent. In Grinell’s time, and still, the northern Rockies stand out from other landscapes simply because their ruggedness has safeguarded their wild and beautiful nature from easy destruction. The Crown stands out from other landscapes, no matter how wonderful they may be. At the turn of the century, glaciers were very common in the Rockies near the border, hence the name Glacier Park, but continental and global human activity now impacts the Crown of the Continent. Greenhouse gases and their global climate warming have reduced the number of glaciers by 80%.
Much more now than in the early 1900s, humans also have invaded and directly impacted the Crown of the Continent. But many areas have escaped heavy impact as witnessed by the fact that a small population of wolverines still inhabits the southern part of the Crown. The rugged beauty still makes this a very special place and many of us need periodic visits to get our “mountain fix”. We need to improve our understanding of the ecological processes in the Crown so that our visits and our urge to make our living there will not destroy the very foundation of our attraction. Something more than just a few dedicated parks will be needed.
Many species, such as grizzly bears, need much more space than even a large park. They need a ‘greater ecosystem’. The grizzly population in the southern part of the Crown of the Continent uses all of both Waterton and Glacier National Parks and beyond the boundaries of both. There is no such thing as a grizzly population of either country or either park; it is an international population of grizzlies, needing very large landscapes to supply all their resource needs.
Grey wolves also need areas of tolerable habitat much larger than any public park can provide. Anecdotal evidence from particular marked animals, such as the female grey wolf named “Pluie”, cannot represent all grey wolves. But Pluie’s travels certainly force recognition of the geographic scale that must be considered both in research studies and in management planning. Pluie was first marked in southern Alberta. She then was found in Fernie, B.C., then in the Flathead River valley in Montana just south of the B.C. border. Pluie then turned west to the Spokane area and eventually returned to southern Alberta. She had used over 100,000 square kilometers in less than 2 months. Such anecdotal records helped change both public and political viewpoints even before complete scientific results were available. They also pointed up an important east-west component in wildlife movements in the Crown of the Continent, not just a north-south focus.
Rob Watt’s experience in Waterton Lakes National Park suggests that large carnivores moving into the Waterton populations commonly come from the Flathead valley of B.C. and Montana to the west. The Flathead is a very special valley and Canadians need to recognize the natural wealth of this area. Americans already have. Montana’s senior Senator, Max Baucus, when Chair of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, has already stated that he is opposed to development in the valley. Yet coal mining companies are still allowed to propose strip-mining for low-quality coal in the Flathead without pronounced public opposition. And petroleum producers still covet coal-bed gas fields in the Flathead in Canada and propose fields of 1500 wells, kilometers of pipeline and roads to match without any clear statement from the Canadian public about how we feel about development in the Flathead. What happens to the unmatched natural wealth and to the ability of the Flathead to restock our large carnivore populations in the Crown of the Continent can be decided by the British Columbia and the Montana governments. So far, Montana is showing vastly more insight into future values. It is time for Canadians to take these threats seriously and to cooperate with our neighbours. It is one landscape. Its value is well beyond short-term resource extraction profits.
Recently, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, working together with Parks Canada ecologists, has recognized that more protection and stewardship outside the parks is critical to many species and ecological processes. Non-government groups have supported this new outlook. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has purchased land and negotiated conservation agreements for large areas of private land as a buffer for the east side of Waterton Park. This “Waterton Park Front Project” is a clear example of two modern directions in conservation of special places: citizens’ organizations funded by private contributions are adding critical support to government conservation agencies, and agencies charged with park management are applying some of their resources to the vital landscapes around and between parks.
The Crown of the Continent is a broad-brush designation. But it is a practical management unit with an active research and management group attempting to knit together all the parks into a ‘greater ecosystem’ by conserving many of the environments and processes that form the ecologically critical connections between those parks and reserves. Here we will look at parts of the Crown of the Continent, starting at the U.S. border and looking north along parts of the high country and with a visit to the northern Crown, in the Kluane area of the Yukon.
The Crown of the Continent is an environmental mosaic. Like other mosaics, it is made up of patches — habitat patches. But one of the features of this high country is a strong pattern of gradients — smooth, steady changes — most often dictated by altitude. Steady changes in altitude, moisture and temperatures select those plants that can survive and the results show as zones of vegetation up the slopes.
Where heavy snow loads, weather and gravity interact, avalanches slice down across these zones with huge forces and at high speeds as they roar down the slopes to the valleys. The instant of an avalanche is dramatic but the effect of its track is much more powerful and long-lasting. The mechanical removal of the vegetation and the installation of a new drainage path redesigns the slope for many decades. Along those lines of disturbance, the avalanche chutes, new associations of plants increase the amount of the sun’s energy that is captured and stored by “Green Magic”, and the eaters of green plants harvest the food energy. Grizzlies get fat on young avalanche tracks. And those chutes, with their lush bait of green plants, lead the grizzlies upslope, sometimes right to the top.
Weather conditions can become severe with altitude and the level of severity can be made extreme by seasons. This condition in the Crown of the Continent is dramatically contrasted with the near lack of weather under the water in the Bay of Fundy or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the high country of Waterton National Park, such as around Cameron Lake, the southwest winds are forced up over the mountains, their moisture is cooled, condenses and falls as snow. Over the 8 months that winter lasts here, 5 to 6 metres of snow falls. At winter’s end, there may be 1.5 to 2 metres of snow on the ground. It is not severely cold but the consistently huge snowfall and the depth of the snowpack forces the whole community of living things to adapt to it. It is a ‘snow forest’.
Elsewhere In the high country, the landscape is a natural patchwork of habitats. There are gradients in the patchwork with altitude that are constant or change only slowly and predictably. The seasonal periodicities also are either constant or slow and predictable. They form the characteristics of the ecosystems and the organisms can adapt because changes are slow. Even the most severe habitats near and above the treeline are mastered by the wolverines, provided we don’t change them too rapidly. But the landscape mosaics — the ecosystems — of the Crown of the Continent are being reshaped by forces that move much faster and make adaptations by organisms more difficult. Global climate change is faster than normal environmental changes. The 150 glaciers that gave the U.S. Glacier National Park its name are melting so rapidly that the last one is predicted to disappear by 2030. Other human-generated forces, such as our invasion of the high country, are even faster. Some forces of change in the Crown of the Continent may combine human driving forces and distorted natural effects. In the southern portion of the Crown of the Continent, the effects of mountain pine bark beetles provide an example.
In the 1990s the bark beetle spread east across the Rockies. Previously, sustained cold (-20 C in fall, -40 C in winter) killed beetle larvae each year and prevented an epidemic. With global warming, this control was removed. Simultaneously, forest management, including fire suppression, caused a widespread increase in mature (80 year old) stands of pine. Previously, forest fires removed older stands of pine from the landscape. But with fires suppressed by modern fire fighting methods, a banquet table of older pine stands increased the beetle population. These landscape changes combined with economic forestry policy that favoured increased areas of lodgepole pine, the beetle’s favourite, produced an epidemic of pine beetles and their aftermath of killed pine trees. But when the pine beetle became epidemic, it fed on any kind of pine and several other conifer species.
Dr. Kathy Martin and colleagues at the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Wildlife Service had an invaluable study underway before the bark beetles infested their study area. The researchers were able to follow population changes in the bird species inhabiting the forest when the beetles devastated the trees. As the beetles killed the conifers, there were dramatic changes in available nesting cavities, in food such as insects and their larvae and in seeds. Birds that forage on dead and dying trees for insects, including woodpeckers, increased their numbers. Many other species, including small-bodied hole-nesters, declined, some dramatically. After increasing in early stages of the beetle outbreak, nuthatches declined by up to 80 percent. As the tree kill becomes more complete in the study plots, a more complete picture will emerge.
Harvesting “bugwood” is a new, but very temporary, industry in the west. The post-beetle ecosystem processes, as hinted at by Kathy Martin’s data, will be very different where all the “bugwood” has been removed or burned or bulldozed.
Where the beetles kill forest on lower slopes, cattlemen, already running their stock in those forests, see an opportunity to expand their grazing land. Removal of the dead trees to prevent spread of the beetles and to reduce fuel for wildfires can easily be extended by bulldozing the residual slash off the land into piles and windrows.
What was forest several months ago can now be used as grazing land, at least temporarily. With expenditures for maintenance, perhaps permanently. If the local view of economic development tends toward cattle ranching and away from forestry, such management practices may be encouraged. The nature of the landscape mosaic, the natural ecosystem, will be changed very rapidly. The natural ecosystem will not adapt to such rapid change. Instead, the ecological processes in the soil, in the vegetation, and in the lower atmosphere will all be replaced by different processes. The organisms that depend on those processes also must change. Different species will move in from elsewhere. Plants and animals that are adapted to disturbed systems will stand the best chance. When we choose to restructure the landscape mosaics of the Crown of the Continent, we should make such choices only when fully aware of the large-scale and long-term effects of our actions.
Where human forces are not driving the ecological processes, survival and success of living organisms on the Crown of the Continent depends strongly on those living beings evolving adaptations to alleviate the impacts of weather. So we find marmots that hibernate and grizzlies that can’t quite hibernate but do manage a winter dormancy and pikas that ‘make hay’ when the sun shines and live from their ‘hay piles’ when winter comes. Mountain goats grow a multi-layered shield of fur all the way to their toes and a stoic personality to match.
Herbivores such as elk and mountain sheep move down off the mountains into the valleys where weather is less severe and food easier to find. Why do these animals return to the high meadows in summer? Clearly, food becomes available seasonally in the high country but there is more food in the valleys. Wolves and coyotes follow the herds when they are in the low valleys but these predators don’t follow as freely when the herbivore herds move to the high summer meadows.
Perhaps even more significant is the fundamental observation that before humans dominated the prairies below the mountains, those grasslands were the prime habitat for many of the species now associated with the mountains. Of course, species such as pikas and mountain goats always lived only in the high country — true mountain species. It is possible that as we humans appropriated almost all the productivity of the grasslands, the large and mobile native herbivores were forced into the mountains. The intense activities of humans, focussed on capturing as much as possible of the productivity of the grasslands, may have reshaped where some species were able to live. The relatively unproductive mountain habitats may be a refuge from us rather than the first choice of several species.
Certainly, human culture competes with the wild species for prime valley space. North-south movement of land animals from high point to high point in the Crown of the Continent can be limited by topography. Some human developments, such as ski facilities, further limit that high country movement. Much of the movement by animals along the backbone of the continent happens when they are down in the intermountain valleys. Human activity severely limits movements of wild species in the valleys and effectively builds barriers that prevent access to habitat patches that otherwise could be available. Not only does this further reduce availability of critical resources for the wild species but it also restricts demographic and genetic exchange among subpopulations.
In the Bow River valley, appropriation for human purposes includes building and expanding highways that both use up the valley and also become barriers between habitats. The TransCanada highway was built parallel to the Bow River in many places, thus limiting access to the river and productive riverine habitats for many species.
Over 9.5 million people each year shatter the integrity of the Bow valley on this highway. Ongoing ‘twinning’ is increasing both the area occupied and impacted by the highway and its construction margins. Twinning also is increasing the severity of the barrier presented by the roadway. No engineering modifications have been installed to moderate the effects of the noise emanating from the traffic. It is known that multi-lane highway noise can prevent nesting success by birds in otherwise productive habitat in the Netherlands. Soft vegetation is a poor noise barrier. So some multi-lane highways in western Europe have been excavated into the earth, to create a noise-blocking, earthen berm to protect the adjacent habitats.
Engineering modifications that are being applied along the TransCanada in the Bow valley are various devices intended to reduce the high numbers of animals killed by traffic. The presence of the TransCanada in the Bow valley and in Banff National Park has been accepted despite its obvious degradation of ecological integrity of the valley and the park. The engineering structures are remedial, not reinstatement of natural processes. For the past 25 years ecologists, such as Dr. Mike Gibeau, in Parks Canada have encouraged transportation engineers to experiment with structures intended to mitigate the barrier effect of the TransCanada Highway and reduce the extreme mortality of wildlife trying to cross the highway. Much of the highway through Banff Park has recently been fenced. The effects of the fence are not easily separated from effects of crossing structures. There are now 24 underpasses and overpasses along 45 kilometres of the TransCanada in Banff National Park.
Early assessments of the effectiveness of these crossing structures lacked a solid base of monitoring data and gave a pessimistic impression of the effectiveness. Since 1996 Dr. Tony Clevenger has monitored the use of the crossing structures every three days. He has recorded over 80,000 crossings by large mammals over that period. The majority of crossing has been by deer and elk but carnivores also have used the structures. Black bears have crossed the highway more than 1000 times. Grizzlies have used the crossing structures over 300 times in that decade but only in a selected area. It is not yet clear that the effects of the highway on grizzlies have been sufficiently neutralized. Hairs are now being caught as the animals use the crossing structures. DNA from the hair follicles allows identification of individual animals using the crossings. In 2005, three different female grizzlies and three different male grizzlies used a single crossing during 3.5 months.
Reducing the deaths of wildlife on the highway is a major objective and it is being met. Road deaths of elk and deer are estimated to be down by over 96 percent where crossing structures have been built, and deaths of all species of large mammals are down by over 80 percent. Reductions of mortality are welcome but we do not know what the normal movement patterns were before the highway intervened or what the effect has been on the movements of the estimated 60 grizzlies in Banff National Park.
It takes time for wildlife to adapt to an underpass. For large carnivores such as wolves and cougars, the learning curve may be as long as five years. Unfortunately, during this delay, the wolf population in the area has been severely reduced by road kills, affecting their social structure, and by reduction of access to their food supply. Large ungulates such as elk can learn much faster. Human activity around crossings is a major deterrent to their use as well as a nuisance in the monitoring research.
Thanks to forward-looking Parks Canada staff, the increasing problem of transportation impacts on the landscape ecology of mountain valleys is being addressed effectively. Those impacts were very great. Both the number of animals killed by highway traffic and railroad traffic, and the rates of crossings through underpasses demonstrate that the barrier effects of the TransCanada in the Bow valley have been great enough to significantly affect those wildlife populations. Banff National Park now has the largest complex of wildlife crossing structures in the world and is leading in the study of mitigation of the conflicts between wildlife and traffic. The cost of each wildlife overpass can be over $20 million. The proposed number of additional crossing structures for the continuing twinning of the TransCanada has been cut in half because of costs.
However, crossing structures provide only mitigation. Transportation planning did not seriously address all its long-term effects on human society let alone its effects on all our other planetary cohabitants. Now park managers are asked to mitigate those oversights. The mitigation does not restore the ecological integrity of the landscape to what once was normal. And it is applied only in one small area of the Crown of Continent. One small success at mitigating impacts of transportation corridors should not be used to rationalize more roads or road expansion. The desires of weekend skiers, and other motor traffic, must be critically evaluated and balanced against the ecological future of all living things, natural processes and the integrity of landscapes. However the mitigation achieved by these structures is spreading. Waterton National Park is planning tunnels to save salamanders from the wheels of progress and the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University is becoming involved in the research. Promoters of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation initiative are hopeful that such structures may relieve barrier effects of roads elsewhere along the Crown of the Continent.
Mitigating the barrier effects of towns is more difficult. Humans compete with wild species in the mountain valleys for both transport routes and for living places along those routes. Canmore, Alberta is a pointed example but there are others. Canmore is an ironic example because it has been home to so many outdoors people with a local economy that depends on the environment. Yet their settlement has become an example of unmanageable impact on the ecology of the landscape in which they live. For 25 years the citizens of Canmore have been aware that their town was both appropriating the valley habitat and also was a barrier to wildlife movements along the valley bottom. An early question was: If we leave an unbuilt strip on each side of the town, how wide must it be to allow wolves and bears to move past the town? Gradually the consideration apparently changed to: how can we extend development farther up the slopes and still argue that it is environmentally green? So we now see the need for wildlife to adapt to moving across golf greens if they wish to pass by the town.
In Canmore and in other mountain valley settlements, such as Banff, we have apparently decided that human interests take priority over natural processes. It has become acceptable to force the substitution of distorted ecological processes and distorted behaviour of wild species in order to enhance short-term Hedonistic desires and mercantile gain. Those are arrogant decisions.
Farther north in the Crown of the Continent, human impact is less intense — so far. In Kluane National Park and Reserve, natural processes still dominate. In 1980 it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site — a globally significant mountain wilderness, including part of the Saint Elias Mountains and Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan (5950 metres or 19,522 feet). From the slope of Vulcan Mountain, you can view the Kaskawulsh Glacier and probably see no people at all.
The Kaskawulsh glacier is a fusion of two valley train glaciers that flow together where they enter the same valley. The line of glacial till down the middle of the Kaskawulsh shows where the two edges fuse.
Until recently, Kluane glaciers were advancing. On average they were advancing 10 metres each year with some bursts of up to 1 kilometre in a year. In 1966-7, the Steel glacier advanced 15 metres in one day. More recently, glaciers have been receding. If you keep watching long enough, you may see a small ski-plane land on top of the distant ice plateau. Fair warning that humans are not absent, even from the top of the Elias ice cap, the largest continental ice sheet in the world (outside polar ice caps). This ice field sheet extends all the way to the Pacific.
Nunataks are bare piles of rock sticking up through the ice sheet. Recently, Dr. David Hik of the University of Alberta discovered thriving colonies of collared pikas living on nunataks in the St. Elias ice field. The little fist-sized rabbit relatives somehow arrived at these nunataks across at least 10 kilometres of barren ice cap, or they were always there and rode it out as the glacier formed around their habitat. St. Elias pikas may have an advantage over pika colonies in warmer environments as global warming takes effect. The Ruby Range colony, near Kluane Lake in the Yukon suffered 80 percent mortality in one year during the 90s which was the warmest decade for a century. Colonies farther south in the Crown of the Continent may also be at risk if climate warming is the cause. Pikas are killed if their body temperature rises as little as one degree Celsius above their normal temperature. There apparently is a global decline in pika numbers so the cause is unclear. Pikas have low genetic variability and may be unable to adapt to changing conditions.
Viewing the toe of the Kaskawulsh glacier from Vulcan Mountain you can see some of the newest land in the world. Near the toe of the glacier the melting ice has dropped piles of glacial ‘till’ forming little patches of newborn land. Till is just ground up rock and soil that was picked up and embedded in the glacial ice and ground finer as the moving ice scraped over rocks and other embedded till. On some of the piles of fresh till near the glacier’s toe, you will see some black spruce trees struggling to gain a foothold on this emerging landscape.
The meltwater from the glacial toe flows east as the Slims River — the silty Slims. The Slims is loaded with fine particles of till from the melting ice. The load is so great that silt bars are continually forming and rising above water. The tops of those silt bars become powder-dry and little whirlwinds moving along the river valley pick up that silt and swirl it up to the tops of the highlands that border the valley.
The dry silt carries a rich load of nutrients attached to the silt particles. The highlands in Kluane are ‘silt-fertilized’ just as the flood plains of rich river valleys are silt-fertilized. The fertility of Kluane highlands is from the same process as the fertility of many flood plains that are renowned for their ability to produce plant growth.
In Kluane, unlike most other northern ecosystems, nutrients are supplied at exceptionally high rates, not from decomposition but directly from breakdown of the rocks. The trick is that the glacier has been grinding up the rock for a very long time producing an assortment of particle sizes, including the very finest silt particles. The cycling of those nutrient-laden silty particles from the melting glacier’s toe to Kluane’s vegetation is helped along by the winds in the Slims valley. The normally geologically slow process of moving nutrients from rock to green plants is unusually rapid and unusually uphill.
It is this natural process of silt-fertilization that gives Kluane a productivity that is unexpected for such an ecologically young system, especially at this northern latitude. Kluane is definitely productive and its endemic Dall sheep demonstrate that plenty of forage is produced. Caribou, grizzlies, ground squirrels and wolves also are convincing signs of ecosystem productivity.
Ecosystem productivity does not result from fertile soil alone. All the critical natural processes must be functioning reliably. When this is so, the result will be habitat heterogeneity, a patchwork of green plant production, prey species, protective cover, special nutrients such as salt licks, and mates for reproduction. There are two inescapable needs in a patchwork of such resources: a large enough area to contain enough resources for survival, and behavioural freedom for animals to move among the patches across that large area in order to capture enough resources to survive. The large area of semi-wilderness in and around Kluane fills these needs. Encroachment by human activities around Kluane could still change that.
Publicizing the notion of a survivable network of habitat patches extending from the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is an effort to mitigate our impacts on many species. Impacts of our removal of habitat, our fragmentation of the habitat we do leave and of human development projects right up to its edges. The Y to Y concept hinges on the linking of reserves, parks and other habitat units by ‘corridors’. The trouble with corridors is that arrogant humans (and their planners) keep narrowing those corridors — inexorably. Not only do we want the narrowest corridors, but we also want to use the corridors in our multi-use fashion — nature walks with dogs, golf courses, mountain bike trails, ATV trails — and movement paths for wildlife.
The Y to Y concept also depends on a subtle assumption that a north-south network of connected reserves and parks will assure survival of healthy populations of charismatic species. Both anecdotal and experiential evidence suggest strongly that an east-west geographic dimension also is required.
The other subtle assumption of Y to Y, and many other projects, is that if the charismatic grizzlies and grey wolves have reproducible populations, all the other vital species will automatically be protected. There is little evidence that plants, bacteria and many other organisms, vital to the functioning of landscape-scale ecological systems, are necessarily carried along to survival by the charismatic species. More attention to the fundamental natural processes is needed.
It would be unwise to believe that a “string-of-beads” model of landscape planning, where the string is a narrow “corridor” of cover that is not breeding habitat, will neutralize our impacts on natural ecological systems. The reality is that landscape-scale ecosystems function well only when their natural processes work well enough to maintain the system. Survival of all the natural processes and the species and structures that execute those processes will be assured only by a network of areas of habitat that are connected by corridors that also are areas of habitat for all the species and processes of the system, not just movement corridors for charismatic species.
Table of Contents
|1||GM||Bow River, AB|
|2||GM||Princess Royal Island, BC|
|3||GM||Cameron Lake, AB|
|6||JA||Flathead Valley, BC|
|7||JA||Flathead Valley, BC|
|8||JA||Flathead Valley, BC|
|14||GM||Bow River, AB|
|16||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|28||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|29||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|30||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|31||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|32||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|33||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|35||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|36||GM||Bow River Valley, AB|
|JA – copyright © Jeff Amos|
|GM – copyright © Gray Merriam|