Aquatic ecosystems are more than just homes for fish. Our mountain rivers form the headwaters of major watersheds (Bow, Red Deer, Clearwater and North Saskatchewan). They provide clean water and a source of life within a variety of settings.
These aquatic ecosystems are the richest pockets of life in Banff National Park - and, in many cases, the most altered. In the park's past 100-plus years of management, park waters have been stocked with exotic fish, natural channels re-routed and waters polluted locally or indirectly from a long, long away.
Wetlands are waterlogged areas in which the water table is at or just below the surface, such as bogs, fens, swamps, and marshes. The Vermilion Wetlands near the Banff townsite is an important example. This wetland supports the highest diversity of wildlife in the park. It is vital to migratory birds and seasonally critical for large mammals such as wolves, black bears and elk. Nine percent of the Vermilion wetlands have been directly impacted by human activities, e.g. such as the construction of park trails and facilities, the Canadian Pacific Rail line and Trans Canada Highway.
The Riparian Zone
Have you ever wondered about the forested area along the edges of streams and rivers? It is called the riparian zone - the interface between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This zone is not easily delineated but is a mosaic of landforms, communities and environments within the larger landscape.
These riparian zones are key components in maintaining the diversity of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The riparian zone is often exceptionally fertile and productive, and a place of abundant water and shelter. Flocks of migrating songbirds use riparian forests for shelter and food. The linear nature of riparian zones and their dense vegetation make them an obvious choice as movement corridors for wildlife.
People are also drawn to riparian areas for a variety of recreational, practical and aesthetic purposes. The town of Banff, roads and railway line are all built in the riparian zone of the Bow River. Ultimately, the quality of the riparian areas and the quality of the streams' water are closely related, and we must manage riparian areas with care.
Thermal springs are among the most unique natural features of the park. They provide habitat for rare plants, invertebrates, and fish. There is one endemic snail, Physella johnsoni, found in only a handful of thermal springs in the park and no where else in the world. This species was listed as endangered by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) in 2000.
There are many thermal spring outlets on Sulphur Mountain, including Upper Hot Springs, Kidney Springs, Upper and Lower Middle Springs, Upper and Lower Pool Springs, Cave Spring and Basin Spring. The Upper and Lower Middle Springs are within the Sulphur Mountain Wildlife Corridor and are closed to the public.
Tropical Fish in the Rocky Mountains?
There are 19 fish species (9 introduced), 4 amphibians and 1 reptile found in the park. The Spotted Frog is the least common frog in Alberta and is at is eastern edge of its range in Banff. Pollution, habitat disturbance, and run-off containing road salts may affect these frogs.
The Long-toed Salamander is one of only two salamander species in Alberta. The Wandering Garter Snake is restricted to the montane eco-region and is considered rare in the park.
Lizard Lake now called Pilot Pond
Many times in the past humans have interfered with natural systems without understanding or considering the possible consequences. One example is the case of Pilot Pond, a small kettle pond located off the Bow Valley Parkway. It used to be known by locals as Lizard Lake because of the large number of Long-toed Salamanders that lived there. The Long-toed Salamander is rare in Banff National Park.
The population of salamanders was nearly eliminated by stocking Rainbow and Brook Trout into Pilot Pond between 1926 and 1974 as trout eat salamander larvae. The population in Pilot Pond is beginning to recover since the cessation of stocking.
Natural Processes and Artificial Impacts
The mountain environment is greatly influenced by natural forces, such as flooding, avalanches, precipitation, and erosion. As well, man-made dams and channels have altered the flows on many of the park's water bodies. For example, Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the park, is actually a reservoir. The Bow River drainage is approximately 53% of the park's watershed and contains the greatest number of lakes. Approximately 41.5% of the waters in the Bow watershed are regulated.
When most people think of water quality, they think of it being clear and clean to drink. Scientists, though, determine the quality of water by the kinds and amounts of substances (solids such as silt, bacteria, toxic chemicals and nutrients) dissolved and suspended in the water, and what those substances do to the inhabitants of the aquatic ecosystem.
Some water pollutant sources are: sewage, fertilizers, highway salt, pesticides, petroleum products, leaching from landfill sites, PCBs and garbage. Apart from pollutants generated within the park, aquatic ecosystems are contaminated with chemicals from sources outside of the park. The long-range transportation of air-borne pollutants may come from as far away as the southern United States, Europe and southeast Asia.
Tertiary treatment technology, such as sewage treatment plants, can reduce nutrients. How we treat the aquatic ecosystems in Banff National Park also affects the quality of the water for downstream users beyond our boundaries. As individuals we can be responsible consumers by conserving water, recycling non-degradable products and choosing non-hazardous household products.
Park Waters Under The Microscope
National parks are excellent living classrooms for learning how natural systems and processes function. Every year research studies are undertaken to learn more about mountain park aquatic ecosystems as well as to contribute to projects of regional or global significance.