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Waterton Lakes National Park

Spotlight on Ecological Integrity

Top 10 conservation stories

National parks protect some of Canada’s most diverse and spectacular natural environments. The breathtaking scenery and inspiring natural surroundings in national parks provide the perfect setting for tuning into nature, learning about it, appreciating it, respecting it and pledging to protect it.

In order to ensure Waterton Lakes National Park remains healthy and unimpaired for future generations, Parks Canada is working to maintain or restore its ecological health.

Here are some of our success stories:

Managing Aggressive Deer in the Community

Visitors enticing deer can contribute to aggressive deer behaviour Visitors enticing deer can contribute to aggressive deer behaviour © Parks Canada

While Waterton has a long history of deer in the community actively protecting their young-of-year during fawning time, the level and period of this bold behaviour has been increasing. The unusual concentration of deer has also attracted carnivores like cougars and bears into the community.

Parks Canada and community members are working in partnership on a Community Deer Advisory Group, with several initiatives already implemented and assessed, as well as testing new adaptive approaches. The park began by raising public awareness using caution signs, community bulletins, street theatre, publications, website content and media stories. Some deer were marked with coloured paint and those marked twice were relocated to a remote area of the park. This approach was not as effective as hoped, with many of the deer returning to the community.

Waterton Lakes National Parks initiated a pilot project to determine if trained dogs could reduce human-deer conflicts. Specially trained handlers and their dogs are gently hazing deer from the community during the spring fawning season, thereby reducing the potential for conflict. The aim is not to eliminate deer from the community, but to re-establish a more natural and safe situation where everyone can enjoy watching the deer.

Northern Leopard Frog Reintroduction

Juvenile leopard frog in Waterton Lakes National Park Juvenile leopard frog in Waterton Lakes NP
© Parks Canada

Once the most widespread frog in North America, the northern leopard frog began to decline in the mid 1960s and have not been seen in Waterton Lakes National Park since 1980.

In April and May 2007 and 2008, park staff re-introduced northern leopard frog eggs to the park. Later in the summer, a minimum of 70 small frogs in the project area were counted. This was a first step toward re-establishment of a self-sustaining population of this frog in the park.

Now, we are monitoring to see if we have breeding frogs calling for mates. Using special listening technology, we are optimistic we’ll hear the croaking sound of success. This project is part of wider interagency initiatives in Alberta relative to the northern leopard frog as a species at risk.

Cooperative Conservation Champions

Staff and researcher work together on salamander project Staff and researcher work together on salamander project © Parks Canada

The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is near the centre of a large ecosystem known as the "Crown of the Continent". Plants and animals grow, winds blow and waters flow in and out of the two national parks. As a small park, decisions made by individuals and organizations beyond park boundaries can have significant effects on the plants and animals found in Waterton Lakes National Park.

In turn, decisions made by park managers can affect others in the surrounding region. To successfully meet the environmental, social and economic goals of the region, Waterton Lakes National Park works with its neighbours to maintain the health of the park and surrounding area. The key to achieving these goals effectively is through cooperation.

Collaborative efforts include:

Non-Native Plant Management

The priority for this initiative is to eradicate, control and prevent seed production by non-native plants that threaten park vegetation communities and the economic interests of park neighbours. To reduce these invasive species, staff use a variety of methods including hand-pulling, cutting, digging, and spraying. Native seeds are sown at disturbed sites to assist with their recovery.

Knowing that many hands make light work, Parks Canada encourages and welcomes volunteers to help restore the local ecosystem and participate in non-native plant management. Volunteers participate in events like the Knapweed Rodeo or the Adopt-a-Patch program where volunteers pull weeds in a defined area of ‘their own’ over a longer term. At the 2010 Knapweed Rodeo, 57 volunteers contributed 419 hours of weed-pulling and wrangled 86 large garbage bags of knapweed.

These efforts prevented an estimated 10 million knapweed seeds from spreading across the Blakiston Fan! Efforts to re-establish healthy plan communities have been equally successful, with staff and volunteers planting more than 1,400 native seedlings in two locations at a single event. The wildflowers planted were grown at a nursery in Glacier National Park, Montana, from seeds collected in Waterton Lakes.

Whitebark Pine and Limber Pine Restoration

Waterton Lakes National Parks is in a race against time to save whitebark and limber pines. These slow growing, long-living trees occupy windswept and rocky slopes in high-elevation forests throughout the Rocky Mountains. Despite their small numbers, they play a vital role in the ecosystem. These tree species play a vital role in sub-alpine ecosystems as they help stabilize steep slopes, influence the rate of snow melt, and provide food, cover and shelter for many wildlife species.

These trees are now dramatically declining and in danger of completely disappearing from the park. This is due to a combination of threats that are killing the trees and creating conditions that limit growth of seedlings. White pine blister rust (an invasive, non-native fungus) and mountain pine beetles are weakening and killing the pines; and many years of fire suppression have created conditions better suited to other trees. Loss of these trees would radically change the Rocky Mountain sub-alpine ecosystem as we know it today.

In response, seeds are being collected from pine cones believed to be resistant to the blister rust. Special cages are fastened around the cones to protect them from birds and squirrels until the mature cones can be retrieved. Some seeds were donated to a genetic seed bank, but most will be used to grow seedlings for use in restoration projects.

The pines are also protected from mountain pine beetles by using pouches of chemicals (e.g. pheromones) that trick the beetles into avoiding them. Staff are also carrying out small prescribed fires to create suitable sites to plant pine seedlings. So far, the park, with the help of volunteers and visitors, has collected more than 59,000 limber pine seeds, 2,800 whitebark pine seeds and has planted over 2,500 whitebark pine seedlings.

Salamander Migration Tunnels

The long-toed salamander, a species of special concern under the Alberta Wildlife Act, includes Waterton Lakes National Park in its limited breeding range. Salamander population monitoring near the park’s Visitor Centre indicated significant mortality.

The cause--vehicles running over salamanders as they crossed the road. Scientists estimated a loss of 10% to 41% of the population. Different solutions to the problem were attempted, with mixed results. Then, in 2008, the park tried something new: installing four tunnels under the road to provide a relatively safe passage between the salamander's over-wintering habitat and breeding habitat at Linnet Lake.

Ongoing monitoring, using cameras in the tunnels, shows the salamanders, as well as other amphibian species and small mammals, are making regular use of the tunnels, thereby avoiding the perils of vehicle traffic while crossing from one side to another. Salamander deaths from vehicle traffic have since been reduced to between 0.6% and 1.6% of the population. When it comes to ecosystem integrity, big or small, Parks Canada protects them all.

Reducing Our Footprint – Reclaiming Disturbed Sites

Fescue grasslands and the rich variety of plant species are two of Waterton’s most distinctive characteristics, but they are currently declining, mainly due to the continued spread of non-native plants. In order to address this, Parks Canada has responded with two key approaches.

One approach is to restore several disturbed sites created by people back to fescue grassland. Several staff houses located outside of the community were removed and two large storage/trade waste sites located in fescue grasslands were consolidated into a smaller existing compound.

The former sites were cleaned up and are being restored to native plants. In addition, other small sites disturbed several decades ago when gravel and topsoil were taken for use elsewhere in the park, are also being restored. These efforts are aimed at restoring native grasslands affected by past park activities.

Restoring fescue grasslands is difficult, so developing successful techniques is crucial. Waterton Lakes is working with Glacier National Park and the University of Alberta to carry out research to find effective methods to restore fescue grasslands. The findings may prove invaluable to other organizations striving to restore disturbed grasslands. Safeguarding fescue grasslands ensures high-quality forage for a variety of ungulate species.

Education and Public Outreach – Waterton ESI (Ecosystem Investigator) Camp

Involving children in national parks today ensures ambassadors for tomorrow. The Waterton Ecosystem Investigator Camp (ESI) is an overnight outdoor education camp based in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Students experience the park ecosystem and learn how its different parts, including people, have shaped the landscape. Students also explore ecological issues facing Southern Alberta and how they can help make positive changes for the environment, regardless of where they live.

The camp collaborates with the local Kainai and Piikani First Nations and engages urban, regional and local students. Specific goals focus on Southern Alberta’s rough fescue and montane forest ecosystems as part of a larger five-year project titled 'Restoring Terrestrial Ecosystems Together'. The camp is linked to the Alberta Education curricula and features a variety of Grade 5 students from southern Alberta communities who come together to build positive relationships. For three weeks each term (spring and fall), there are two, three-day camps per week, with about 330 people participating in total. 

Students' Comments:

"I loved being a weed-buster and helping the silky lupine. I felt like a superhero."
"It felt good to be running around in the fresh air."
"I really liked the native awareness part a lot! The Napi stories were fun to listen to."

Teachers' Comments:

"The field trip provided a starting point and experience that I am going to refer back to frequently in my Social Studies and Science units."
"It was a great bonding opportunity for the kids."

Fun statistics - fall 2010:

Restoring the Role of Fire in the Foothills-Parkland

Fires have occurred in Waterton for thousands of years, as a result of lightning and Aboriginal use of the land. Evidence and fire records indicate the last significant fires in this eco-region occurred during European settlement in the 1890s. Without fire suppression, about 20 fires would have normally taken place in the last 100 years. Historic photographs show that removing fire from the landscape has allowed willow, aspen and evergreen trees to spread into park grasslands, with losses of 30% over the last 100 years.

Since 1989, a key method used to restore prairie vegetation in the park is through prescribed fires. These carefully-planned fires reduce expansion of aspen and shrubs into the grasslands while promoting new growth of native grasses. In turn, this revitalization increases the variety of habitat for wildlife. Burning the build-up of dead grass and branches also reduces the risk of extreme, difficult to control wildfires which could threaten people and facilities in the park and on neighbouring ranch lands. In the last five years, the park has carried out prescribed fires on almost 2,500 hectares of the Foothills-Parkland.

Improving Wastewater Treatment and Re-Use

Constructed in 1977, Waterton Lakes National Park’s original sewage wastewater treatment plant was designed to meet 1976 Environment Canada effluent standards. While state-of-the-art at the time, the need to improve the treatment and reuse of water in the park became apparent as the facility aged. One of the key objectives of the 2000 Waterton Lakes National Park Management plan aimed to eliminate effluent discharge into the Waterton River and to divert treated effluent to golf course irrigation.

The upgraded plant, completed in 2009, uses treated effluent which allows the golf course to stop taking water from Blakiston Creek and has also eliminated the discharge of treated effluent into Middle Waterton Lake.

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