Ecosystem monitoring measures changes in ecosystems over time. In Parks Canada we manage ecosystems to maintain and restore ecological integrity (EI). Thus the specific objective of the Parks Canada monitoring program is to measure changes in the ecological integrity of park ecosystems.

Why monitor?

Parks Canada's central management mandate is to enhance and restore ecological integrity while fostering public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment. EI Monitoring provides park managers with critical information on changes in ecological integrity with regard to that mandate. Parks Canada is presently in the process of assessing our present monitoring program, and adjusting these programs to provide more comprehensive reporting of changes in park ecological integrity.

A well-designed EI monitoring program can provide useful information:

  • Assess the effectiveness of our management actions;
  • Increase our understanding of ecosystem change;
  • Find areas where further research is needed, and;
  • Serve as an 'ecological baseline' to which non-protected landscapes can be compared.
Wetland in Riding Mountain National Park of Canada
Temperate rainforest in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada
Mixed Grass Prairie, with the Badlands in the distance, Grasslands National Park of Canada
Arctic tundra at Oliver Sound, Sirmilik National Park of Canada

History of Parks Canada monitoring

Over the years, Parks Canada has been a leader in ecosystem monitoring in the protected area community. Ecosystem management has occurred within parks since the 1930s, and the term ecological integrity was introduced to park policy as early as 1979. National parks across the system have been monitoring different aspects of park biology for many years, in response to a wide variety of management concerns. The important role of EI monitoring in national parks was brought into clear focus through the Parks Canada's response (coming soon) to the Report of the Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada's National Parks. What is new at this time is that managing for the integrity of park ecosystems has been legislated as the primary management focus, and parks are now required to report comprehensively on the whole park ecosystem.

The EI monitoring framework

The EI monitoring framework was developed by Parks Canada to provide a conservation science context for comprehensive EI monitoring and reporting in national parks. The EI monitoring framework divides park ecological integrity into two components - plant and animal diversity, and ecosystem processes. The framework also identifies categories that describe the principal stressors that affect park ecosystems.

Assessing ecological integrity: suite of indicators

(characteristic of region)
Species richness
  • change in species richness
  • numbers and extent of exotics
Population dynamics
  • mortality/natility rates of indicator species
  • Imigration/ emigration of indicator species
  • population viability of indicator species
Trophic structure
  • size class distribution of all taxa
  • predation levels
Ecosystem functions
(resilient, evolutionary potential)
Succession/ retrogression
  • disturbance frequencies and size (fire. insects, flooding)
  • vegetation age class distributions
  • remote or by site
  • by site
Nutrient retention
  • Ca, N by site
(unimpaired system)
Human land-use patterns
  • land use maps, roads densities, population densities
Habitat fragmentation
  • patch size, inter-patch distance, forest interior*
  • sewage, petrochemicals, etc.
  • long-range transport of toxics
  • weather data
  • frequency of extreme events
  • park specific issues

Changing the way we monitor park EI

A major task for each park will be to adjust their present EI monitoring programs to ensure that revised monitoring programs can report on specific management activities, and on the whole park ecosystem, as dictated by management objectives and outlined by the EI monitoring framework. This process is underway through a national survey summarizing all monitoring presently occurring in national parks. A pilot survey in Atlantic parks indicated that considerable monitoring is occurring, but is focussed primarily on monitoring animal populations.

A major challenge for each park will be to develop core- monitoring indicators that are relevant for a park, but can be summarized regionally and nationally. The monitoring and reporting of the ecological integrity at park-level and national levels can be visualized as a monitoring pyramid.

The Parks Canada ecological integrity monitoring pyramid

Another major challenge of the program will be to develop new approaches to synthesizing and presenting complex ecological information into a format useful for park management, and for communicating to Canadians on the condition of national parks.