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Waterton Lakes National Park

Ecological Initiatives in 2016

Listed below are some of the inventory, monitoring, research and resource management initiatives being carried out in Waterton Lakes National Park this year, including a number of multi-agency initiatives.

For more information, please email the park or call 403-859-2224.

Bat inventory

White-nose syndrome (WNS) is an emerging disease that is devastating populations of bats while they hibernate. The disease has now been documented both to the east (Ontario) and west (Washington) of Waterton, creating an urgent need to get baseline information on the distribution and relative abundance of bat species within the park.

Before White-nose syndrome began to decimate bat populations, little was known about bats in the mountain national parks. As a world leader in conservation, Parks Canada developed its own national bat monitoring protocol consistent with the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat) and is working closely with Environment Canada and other partners to ensure that our information will help inform larger conservation initiatives and the recovery of endangered bat species.

Parks Canada staff are using acoustic recording devices to detect and identify bats in areas throughout Waterton Lakes National Park. We are also assessing their winter use of the park and are partnering with biologists in Glacier National Park in Montana to monitor spring and fall bat migrations along the Belly and Waterton river travel corridors.

Project leader: Barb Johnston.
Sponsor: Parks Canada.

Range assessment

During the summer of 2016, we began conducting a rangeland health assessment of the Foothills Parkland Ecoregion of the park. The project goal is to determine the state of the aspen forest and fescue grassland ecosystem.

The assessment will provide a measurement of the roles that ungulates, non-native plants, and forest encroachment play in the maintenance of Foothills Parkland ecoregion, with particular focus on the foothills rough fescue ecosystem. The results of this work will be used to identify any areas of concern and inform future restoration activities.

Project leader: Robert Sissons.
Sponsor: Parks Canada.

Northern Leopard Frog reintroduction

Northern leopard frogs once made Waterton Lakes National Park their home, but they have vanished. This frog, once widespread, started to disappear across Alberta in the 1970s and hadn’t been seen in Waterton since 1980. Extensive surveys of historic breeding sites and suitable habitat throughout the park were conducted in 2003 without any luck.

With the cooperation of Grasslands National Park, we are working to reintroduce leopard frogs to Waterton. In 2015 and 2016 we collected frog egg masses from sites in Grasslands where the frog is abundant, and translocated them to 3 carefully selected ponds in Waterton. Efforts will continue for several years with the goal of re-establishing a breeding population of this species in Waterton.

Northern leopard frogs, an important native species, once played a vital role in the park’s complex ecosystem. These, and other amphibians, are good indicators of the health of freshwater ecosystems. There has been a 40 per cent success rate for northern leopard frog reintroduction in Alberta over recent years and we are using lessons learned from our own and others’ efforts to give our current reintroduction the best chance of success.

Project leaders: Kim Pearson and Barb Johnston. 
Sponsor: Parks Canada.

Monitoring wildlife using remote cameras
Remote camera Remote Cameras
© Parks Canada

Many of the park’s wildlife are rarely seen, which makes monitoring for changes in numbers and distribution challenging. We are using motion-triggered cameras and occupancy modelling to monitoring wildlife in Waterton.

The community of Waterton is located in a critical pinch point between Upper Waterton Lake and the adjacent steep mountains. Cameras are also being used to determine how wildlife are travelling through this critical travel corridor as they move up and down the Waterton Valley.

The goal of the project is to provide information to aid in making decisions regarding wildlife movement through this area.

Project leaders: Barb Johnston and Kim Pearson.
Sponsor: Parks Canada.

Biocontrol of non-native plants
Spotted Knapweed Spotted Knapweed
© Parks Canada

Parks Canada has added a new tool in their integrated management of non-native plants.

In 2012, two species of weevils were introduced into Waterton to control spotted knapweed. One targets plant roots and the other attacks seed heads. These biocontrol insects are one more tool, in addition to mechanical and chemical methods, that we are using to control spotted knapweed.

In 2015, we also introduced a biocontrol species that targets hounds tongue and also augmented our efforts targeting spotted knapweed. We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of this new approach.

Project leader: Robert Sissons.
Sponsor: Parks Canada.

Shepherding deer
A dog handler and her dogs Shepherding Deer
© Parks Canada

For 5 years, from 2011 to 2015, we conducted a pilot project to determine if trained dogs can help create more natural behaviour in deer. The objective was to ensure public safety and protect wildlife, while maintaining quality wildlife viewing for visitors.

A dog handler used shepherding dogs to gently move deer out of the community during fawning season and to rebuild the natural wariness that deer have for people and dogs.

The technique has proven to be very effective. So effective, in fact, that for the past two years the handler has had relatively little work to do. The number of deer in Waterton village has decreased significantly. In addition, the number of aggressive incidents reported dropped yearly, from 36 in 2010 to only four in in 2015.

In 2016 there will be no deer shepherding in the community of Waterton. We will be monitoring the response of deer and their predators closely to help us develop a long term management stategy. Safety of residents and visitors is of utmost importance to Parks Canada. This program supported Parks Canada’s mandate to conserve wildlife, restore habitat connectivity and safely connect people with nature in their national parks.

Project Leaders: Parks Canada, Waterton Community Wildlife Advisory Group and Chris Jobe (dog handler).

Video: Extraordinary Dog, Extraordinary Job

Restoring five-needle pine populations
Restoring Whitebark and Limber Pines Restoring Whitebark and Limber Pines
© Parks Canada

Research and monitoring efforts show a high loss of whitebark and limber pine in Waterton. Whitebark and limber pines in the Canadian Rockies are threatened by a variety of factors. These include an introduced blister rust, fire suppression, mountain pine beetle and associated replacement by more shade tolerant trees, and by rapid global climate change.

Parks Canada staff are actively working to protect and restore these species. We protect potential blister rust resistant seed trees from mountain pine beetles, and collect their seeds. Again this summer, park staff and volunteers will plant the seedlings that have been grown from these seeds.

We are also using carefully planned prescribed fires to open the canopy in targeted areas to prepare them for planting.

Project leader: Robert Sissons, Parks Canada.
Sponsors: Parks Canada, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

Video: Saving Waterton's Whitebark Pines

Tracking ticks

The Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick are pest and disease vectors in western Canada. Ticks are collected from a number of locations and habitats, including Waterton Lakes National Park.

The project will determine numbers of these two species throughout their geographic distribution and relate this to environmental variables. This will allow future evaluation of continued range expansion and changes in population density.

It will also be useful to produce risk maps for ticks and tick-borne disease transmission. Laboratory tests will determine the extent of genetic differences among tick populations, which may provide insights into differences in biological characteristics that influence transmission of the pathogens.

Project leader: Tim Lysyk.
Sponsor: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

High elevation aquatic invertebrate survey

With a changing climate leading to loss of glaciers and high elevation snow fields, invertebrate species that specialize in the associated cold water habitats are at risk.

Late in the summer of 2016 volunteers will join researchers on both sides of the border of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park to conduct a high elevation aquatic invertebrate bio-blitz. We are seeking information on the presence and distribution of species, including two stoneflies that have been petitioned for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, to help in informing the listing decision and understand their vulnerability to climate change and other impacts.

Project leaders: Joe Giersch, Chris Downs and Barb Johnston.
Sponsors: USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, Glacier National Park and Parks Canada.

Terrestrial invertebrate biodiversity survey

Initiated in 2005, this survey has contributed immensely to the baseline knowledge of park terrestrial invertebrates. Focusing survey activities on selected habitats and engaging taxonomic experts to provide authoritative identifications of the collected material is the key to its success.

This work continually adds to a database of park species and their specific localities. This year we will continue to sample ground fauna using pitfall traps, as well as surveys trageting earthworms.

Project leader: Dr. David Langor, Canadian Forest Service.
Sponsor: Canadian Forest Service.

Using fire to restore grasslands
Using fire to restore grassland Using fire to restore grasslands
© Parks Canada

Decades of fire suppression in the park has had many ecological consequences, including the loss of native grasslands through encroachment of aspen and shrubs. This has cascading effects through the ecosystem.

To meet our restoration goals, we continue to actively reintroduce carefully planned and controlled fires to the grasslands to restore grassland communities. We are also monitoring the severity of fires, response of grasslands to elk browsing, and the effectiveness of the prescribed fires in meeting restoration goals.

Project Leads: Scott Murphy and Cristina Eisenberg.
Sponsors: Parks Canada and Earthwatch Institute.

Tracking an emerging salamander disease
A long-toed salamander Long-toed Salamanders
© Parks Canada

In 2011, an outbreak of a salamander-specific virus (ATV or Ambystoma tigrinum virus) caused the complete die-off of a resident population of tiger salamanders in a park pond. This event sparked research into the characteristics of the virus and the host salamander population.

Work continues to monitor the recovery of this particular salamander population. Researchers work at this and other regional sites that have also experienced outbreaks to learn more about this emerging pathogen.

Project Lead: Dr. Cam Goater.
Sponsor: Lethbridge University.