4.0 A Place for Nature: Managing for Ecological Integrity
© Parks Canada/Mas Matsushita/MRGNP collection
"The maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, shall be the first priority of the Minister when considering all aspects of the management of parks."
Canada National Parks Act, 2000
4.1 Ecological Context
Glacier and Mount Revelstoke are part of an interior rainforest with relatively mild winter temperatures, warm summers and abundant rain and snow. The vegetation is broadly determined by elevation. On lower slopes, the ecologically-important western red cedar and western hemlock forests occupy less than 20% of the parks. Engelmann spruce, sub-alpine fir, and mountain hemlock on mid to upper slopes open into parkland meadows and then alpine tundra at the highest elevations. Areas at or above the treeline provide year-round or seasonal habitat for such wildlife as grizzly bear, mountain goat, white-tailed ptarmigan, hoary marmot, golden-mantled ground squirrel, mountain caribou and pika.
More than half of Glacier National Park is alpine tundra, rock and glaciers; riparian areas in the valley bottoms occupy less than 0.6% of the total park area. Containing some of the oldest forest stands and rare sensitive species, these low elevation wetlands are critical to long-term ecological integrity. Forest harvesting outside the parks threaten this ecosystem.
The parks protect critical habitat for wildlife species designated by COSEWIC such as mountain caribou (threatened), grizzly bear (a species of special concern), western toad (a species of special concern) and wolverine (a species of special concern). During the winter, when other food sources are buried under two or more metres of snow, caribou eat lichens, which grow on trees in old-growth forests. Preliminary data show some old-growth stands support new species of lichen not recorded in other habitats. The caribou population that uses the parks has decreased from 362 animals reported in 1994 to 187 in 2002. Similar reductions have been noted throughout the entire mountain caribou range.
Avalanches, forest fires and insects, such as the western hemlock looper, are the major disturbances that shape the landscape. Avalanche paths are important to wildlife such as grizzly bear, Columbia ground squirrel and Wilson's warbler. Forest fires provide a diversity of habitat for cavity-nesting birds and grizzly bears, primarily on mid and upper elevation slopes. Limited wetlands of cattail, sedge, water hemlock and skunk cabbage are found in the Illecillewaet River valley, while unique calcarious fens support biodiversity in the Beaver River Valley. These wetlands are as valuable as they are rare. The Beaver Valley fen, which supports 22 dragonfly species, one quarter of the total species found in British Columbia, clearly illustrates the importance of the wetlands to biodiversity.
4.2 Managing for Ecological Integrity
A national park has ecological integrity if all the plants and animals that should be in the park still thrive there, and people use the park and its surroundings in ways that respect the needs of those plants and animals and allow fires, floods, weather and other natural processes to create natural habitat.
Ecological integrity is measured in terms of:
- ecosystem health, including the ability to evolve and adapt to change;
- biological diversity, including the ecological and evolutionary processes that keep species functioning;
- the ability of plant and animal communities to resist or adapt to stresses and change;
- the ability of plants and animals to sustain healthy populations; and
- the integration of people into the environment in ways that sustain both human quality of life and biological diversity.
Parks Canada approaches ecological integrity through the integration of science, adaptive management, the precautionary principle and ecosystem-based management. Science helps marshal the facts and establish a framework for measuring the parks’ ecological integrity in a credible manner. Adaptive management allows flexibility. As information becomes available, management decisions can be revisited, re-evaluated and shifted. Decision-making about natural ecosystems is a risky business given the vast complexity among and between species, the wide swings in the weather from year-to-year, and the possibility of chance events. Therefore, management will proceed with caution, using the precautionary principle and making reversible, limited-impact decisions. Ecosystem management involves working with others to maintain regional ecosystems. The parks cannot survive as islands, and ecosystem sustainability can only come from the informed involvement of everyone in conserving biological diversity.
The desired result is maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity while providing opportunities for understanding, appreciation and enjoyment.
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