Ecosystems and habitats
Climate, geology, soil, plants, animals – and humans all interact in one large complex web of life. In Jasper this web is especially fragile. Here existence depends on the intricate relationships between flora and fauna, weather and landscape. These relationships, called ecosystems, can be upset by the smallest of changes, affecting even the largest of animals, including Jasper's monarch, the grizzly.
Jasper National Park is located on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains of west-central Alberta, east of the continental divide. This location strongly influences its climate, geology, plants and animals, and also has affected its human history. The mountain landscape has been formed by a variety of geological events over millions of years. This has resulted in a rugged topography with a large range in altitude from about 985 metres in the Athabasca Valley to nearly 3800 metres at the top of Mt. Columbia.
These altitudinal differences influence the climate, with higher altitudes being colder and generally wetter, while lower altitudes are warmer and drier. As well, Jasper National Park's location east of the continental divide also affects the climate. The eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains are drier than the western slopes in adjacent British Columbia due to a rain shadow effect. This occurs when storms moving eastward from the Pacific Ocean drop much of their moisture on the western slopes as the clouds are forced higher by the mountains. The eastern slopes are also more frequently subjected to Arctic air plunging southward, especially in the winter. As a result of these two influences, Jasper is generally colder and drier than areas to the west.
Climatic differences at different altitudes produce different environments which are inhabited by various combinations of plants, animals, and other forms of life. These are recognized as three different life zones - montane, subalpine, alpine - which are described below.
Ecologically, plants and animals are not independent of their environment or of each other. All of these components - climate, geology, soil, plants, animals, and so on - influence one another in a complex web of components and interactions called an ecosystem. In the sections that follow, each of these ecosystem components will be described in greater detail.
Jasper National Park is divided into three life zones - montane, subalpine, alpine - which are broad landscape units with characteristic species, communities and physical environments. Climatic differences associated with changes in altitude are the main determinants of these differences in biodiversity. Higher elevations are generally colder and wetter, while lower elevations are warmer and drier. Local differences in slope angle and direction can create local microclimates. Steeper slopes are generally better drained and drier than moderately sloping or flat areas. South-facing slopes are drier and warmer than north-facing ones at the same altitude.
The ranges of plants and animals across this altitudinal range are related largely to their tolerances to cold, heat and drought. Other factors that influence distributions include food species, competition with other species, and soil conditions. The wettest areas are occupied by lakes, ponds, marshes and fens. Grasslands occur in the warmest, driest portions of the park and forests in moderate environments. Trees can't grow in the cold conditions of high altitudes above about 2200 metres and so forests are absent, replaced by low shrub and wildflower communities.
The montane life zone is warm, dry and found only on the very bottoms of the Athabasca and Miette Valleys in Jasper. Here Douglas Fir stands hug south facing slopes, the furthest north in Alberta this species grows. Warm chinook winds sweep through the valleys in winter, melting snow and making forage in the extensive grasslands easy for elk, moose, deer and sheep. Bears, waking in spring, roam in and out of the montane, feasting on the red-and-orange buffalo berries for weeks at a time in the fall. Wolves and cougars move through the valleys in search of food while bald eagles and osprey nest near the rivers, close to the pike and mountain white fish they feed their young.
The montane is also where humans live. The community of Jasper, the Canadian National Railway, the Jasper Park Lodge, the Yellowhead Highway, 2 large campgrounds, a power station, pipeline, garbage transfer station, sewage waste plant, and a number of chalets and lodges all dot the montane landscape. Almost 2 million people stop to visit the montane every year, while another 1 million drive through it on the Yellowhead Highway.
Wildlife, like humans, use the valley bottoms as transportation corridors and rely on the montane for food and shelter. There is concern that human use in the valleys is adversely impacting wildlife corridors, fragmenting the ecosystem and giving animals less and less room to live. Parks Canada is actively studying these wildlife corridors using cameras with infrared triggers to better understand where wildlife roams in Jasper and how human use, especially the creation and use of unofficial trails, is affecting them.
Parks Canada is committed to maintaining a high quality trail system in Jasper for everyone's enjoyment. The use and creation of unofficial trails is however displacing wildlife from their natural habitat. Please only use officially designated trails while hiking, horse-back riding, mountain biking or cross country skiing in Jasper's montane.
The subalpine is a great sweeping forest that curls around mountainsides, fringed at treeline by grotesquely stunted trees called krumholtz. Dark and wet, the mostly spruce mixed with pine and sub-alpine fir forest that stretches up from the montane is habitat for a limited number of animals. Pine martins, large cat-like weasels, and their larger cousin the wolverine roam the subalpine. In the winter, lynx, moose and caribou frequent the life zone, using their large paws and hooves to maneuver through the deep snow. Clark's nutcrackers, the boreal chickadee, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, varied thrush, yellow-rumped warbler and the dark-eyed junco also call the subalpine home.
In the past, great forest fires have been known to engulf nearly all of Jasper's subalpine forests in a season or two. The last such fire was 1888-89 when almost 40% of the park's forests burned over the course of two summers. For years Parks Canada has prevented forest fires from starting in Jasper. New research and a greater understanding of forest fire ecology has however changed attitudes and management styles. Seen as a process of rejuvenation rather than of destruction, forest fires are now carefully managed in some parts of the park. These ‘prescribed burns' return nutrients to the soil, helping to ensure a healthy ecosystem of diverse plant and animal species in Jasper.
Be Careful With Your Camp Fire - While fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, a poorly extinguished camp fire can quickly turn into a forest fire that puts lives and property at risk. Ensure your fire is completely out before leaving it.
Characterized by howling winds that scour the rocky earth, the alpine is the most intricate of Jasper's three life zones. Flowers that survive in the alpine do so using subtle techniques. Large, cup-shaped pedals act like mirrors, focusing sunlight on the centre of the flower, where pollen is produced. This creates a warm, mini-environment, attracting small insects that spread the pollen to other plants, procreating the species. Reddish pigments in flowers also help convert light into heat and act as a kind of antifreeze for the plants.
"Whistling" marmots and pikas are the most often seen inhabitants of the alpine. These small mammals live in dens under the rocks making high-pitched whistles or squeaks when danger appears. The hardy ptarmigan is the only bird to frequent the alpine year-round. Turning white in the winter, it is perfectly camouflaged and burrows deep into snowdrifts to survive the cold temperatures.
The alpine life zone is the most fragile life zone in Jasper. While difficult to reach, some alpine areas in the park are relatively accessible. The Whistlers tramway and certain trails, especially in the Columbia Icefield and Maligne Lake areas, allow visitors to discover the alpine with only a minimal amount of effort. Wild plants and flowers will not reproduce if trampled or picked, and even something as simple as moving a stone can decrease a plant's chance of survival.
Please stay on the trails and remember to take only memories and pictures with you when you leave.