Change can be challenging in Kluane National Park
In Kluane National Park and Reserve, one expects certain kinds of change: blue-green glaciers calving into rivers, massive seracs collapsing in icefalls, mountains pushing ever skyward as the tectonic plates beneath them grind together.
Some change is cyclic, as with the ten-year rise and fall of populations of animals like the snowshoe hare. Other is catastrophic, as when Glacial Lake Alsek breached its ice dam 150-odd years ago, sending a wall of water rushing out to the Pacific Ocean.
All of these changes can be seen as part of the natural order of things: not so unexpected in a place like Kluane, where Pacific storms pelt the largest concentration of high peaks in North America, forming the most extensive non-polar ice fields in the world.
View of the Kaskawulsh glacier with mountains in the background.© Parks Canada / Butterall
However, over the last decade, a less welcome sort of change has been affecting Kluane. As in the rest of the North, the climate in the Kluane region is warming, and the ecosystems of this spectacular landscape—once considered so pristine—seem to be struggling to adapt to this new regime.
The Kluane region has played host to the worst outbreak of spruce bark beetle in Canada. Periodic infestations are usually killed off by winter cold snaps, but this outbreak—first spotted in 1994—has continued much longer than normal. Researchers suspect that warmer summers have encouraged the growth of beetle populations and made it more difficult for the trees—stressed by drought—to evict the invaders by producing large amounts of pitch.
Aerial view of spruce beetle effects on the spruce trees.© Parks Canada
It is not known whether climate change is responsible for the precipitous drop in the number of kokanee salmon spawning in lakes in the park. On average, about 2,600 of these land-locked trout used to spawn in Kluane every year. In 1996, a banner year, researchers counted more than 8,000 spawning kokanees; but in 2006, surveyors only counted 94 of them.
Kokanee salmon swimming in the water.© Parks Canada / Halverson
Even Kluane’s massive glaciers seem to be wasting away; an Alaskan study published in 2002 found that many glaciers in the region, including the Kaskawulsh, are thinning at a rate of 1.8 metres per year.
“Change is really stressful for ecosystems,” confirms Ray Breneman, the manager of ecosystem and warden operations in Kluane.
It is also stressful for park managers, as their main mandate is protecting the park’s “ecological integrity”--ensuring that the park’s ecosystems continue to be whole and complete, and not significantly altered by humans.
In this era of climate change, ecological integrity can present a shifting target that is harder to hit. The only way to figure out whether or not changes are short-term blips, or normal parts of a longer cycle, is to track them--and fortunately Kluane began this work several years ago.
The park has many partners in the Kluane Ecological Monitoring Project, which is building on research already conducted by the Kluane Boreal Forest Ecosystem Project. This intensive decade-long research effort, conducted out of the Arctic Institute Research Station, contributed greatly to knowledge of the food web in Kluane and all of the boreal forest.
Wardens have been monitoring sheep, goat and moose populations in the park, and so far have not observed any significant changes. They also have been surveying the kokanee populations, trying to determine why they have declined and whether some fish might be spawning in unknown locations.
Female Dall sheep on top of a cliff looking down.© Parks Canada
Breneman says climate change will not necessarily be bad for all species, particularly since about eighty percent of Kluane is covered by ice and snow. Receding glaciers could widen the park’s greenbelt—the green fringe along the eastern edge of the park—creating more alpine habitat for wildlife like Dall sheep and mountain goats.
But exotic species such as sweet clover and alfalfa might invade the newly exposed ground, and compete with established species in the park. Also, melting glaciers could raise water levels in Kluane’s lakes and rivers, affecting the nest sites of species such as Arctic Terns and Trumpeter Swans.
Swan on an island.© Parks Canada
While the outcome of the spruce bark beetle infestation is not yet known, Breneman says that the insects have not eliminated the park’s spruce forests; many young spruce trees are still alive and trees are also regenerating in the park. He says that Kluane’s unique location and history might have made it more vulnerable to the insects in the first place.
The region’s stands of mature white spruce are almost all of the same age as they began growing after the draining of Glacial Lake Alsek, which covered much of the Kluane area as recently as 1852. Also, Kluane is in a “lightning shadow” where strikes are infrequent, so wildfires have not encouraged the growth of a more mixed forest better able to resist the beetles.
“So maybe insects are playing the role of fire,” says Breneman. “When you have mature trees, sooner or late something is going to happen.”
Breneman describes Kluane as being midway between a remote northern park such as Vuntut, and southern parks such as Banff and Jasper. These accessible parks are always at risk of becoming protected islands surrounded by a sea of development, and when this happens, wildlife populations almost always suffer the consequences.
Even though Kluane protects 22,100 square kilometres of land, making it Canada’s second largest mountain park, Breneman says wildlife there could still be harmed by development outside of the park’s borders. The massive icefields of the St. Elias Mountains form a barricade to the west of Kluane’s greenbelt, so species such as moose and grizzly bears will have nowhere else to go if habitat outside of the park continues to be fragmented.
Frosty branches with sun in the background.© Parks Canada
Despite all of these challenges, Kluane still has many natural advantages—one of which is sheer size: Along with Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and BC’s Alsek-Tatshenshini Park, it is part of the largest international protected area in the world.
Also it has not yet faced the same level of development pressure as southern parks, so there is still time to learn from experiences there, and prepare for the future.
“We have the opportunity to be very proactive,” says Breneman. “We can still mitigate before things happen, so there are great opportunities here.”