The 2017 Kenow Wildfire affected wildlife big and small in Waterton Lakes National Park.

The long-toed salamander, listed as a species of special concern by the Province of Alberta, was one of the smaller creatures to feel the fire’s effects.

In spring 2008, Parks Canada installed tunnels under a section of Waterton’s Entrance Road to reduce vehicle-caused deaths of the salamanders and other small wildlife. These tunnels help the salamanders safely navigate underneath the road during their ritual breeding migration between Linnet Lake and the lower slopes of Crandell Mountain.

Remnants of the old salamander tunnel fencing
Remnants of the old, plastic salamander tunnel fencing destroyed by the Kenow Wildfire
The new, permanent fencing
The new, permanent fencing created with re-used guardrails

Before the tunnels were installed, the salamander road kill rate in that area in 1994 was 10%. The tunnel system was effective in reducing the road kill rate to 1.6% in 2008 and to 0.6% in 2009.

However, the Kenow Wildfire destroyed the fences that directed the amphibians into the safety of their crossing tunnels. Without the fences these small, unassuming animals were able to wander into harm’s way on the road!

The tunnels had also provided safe passage for a variety of other creatures, such as grey tiger salamanders, western toads, garter snakes, squirrels, chipmunks, hares, shrews, voles, and skunks. Moreover, we also needed to clean-up the leftover material from the melted plastic fences.

A long-toed salamander
Long-toed salamanders spend most of their time underground or in the water. However, in Waterton they have to cross the Entrance Road to reach important habitat. Before their crossing tunnels were installed, this migration put them at risk from vehicles

We believe that most long-toed salamanders in the Linnet Lake area survived the wildfire underground. When not in the water, salamanders spend most of their time on land, about 99.9%+ of their lives! We were reassured the salamanders survived when an adult was observed in the area in October 2017.

Something needed to be done, so Parks Canada staff from a variety of departments and a crew of intrepid volunteers came together to clean-up the damaged fences, install temporary fences for the 2018 season, maintain the tunnels, and rebuild the permanent fences.

 A Parks Canada staff member stands next to the destroyed salamander fencing
A Parks Canada staff member stands next to the old, destroyed salamander fencing, ready to start clean-up and repair
Temporary fencing
Volunteers installed temporary fencing to protect the salamanders while a more permanent solution was developed

Shortly after the wildfire, Parks Canada put out a call for help. Volunteers came out in force, with 50 people volunteering over 280 hours over three events to remove damaged fencing, install temporary fencing, and clean and repair the salamander tunnels. This helped the ambling amphibians safely travel to their breeding habitats while Parks Canada developed a more permanent solution.

Along both the Red Rock and Akamina parkways the wildfire either destroyed or compromised many kilometres of guardrail so it could no longer safely fulfill its original function.

A group of volunteers
Over the course of three events, 50 people volunteered to help the salamanders
Volunteers working
Between them, the volunteers put in over 280 hours

Together an enterprising Parks Canada project manager and a Parks Canada scientist realised some of those guardrails could be salvaged and installed as permanent fences leading salamanders to the wildlife crossing tunnels.

This provided multiple benefits by reusing rather than discarding the guardrail material, creating a more permanent structure than the previous plastic fences, and by providing a cost-savings over purchasing entirely new fences.

A Parks Canada project manager looks at the new salamander fencing
A Parks Canada project manager looks at the new salamander fencing
People working to install the new fencing
A Parks Canada environmental assessment coordinator and contractors during the fencing installation

Despite snow, rain and wind, a contractor salvaged and installed approximately 750 metres of guardrail as wildlife fencing in the fall of 2018. These guardrails have gone from protecting Waterton’s visitors to a second use protecting some of the park’s smaller creatures.

Long-toed salamanders are an Alberta species of special concern that are protected within Waterton Lakes National Park. Parks Canada is committed to finding innovative ways to protect these important animals in a fiscally and environmentally responsible manner.

The new salamander fencing near the road
Finished salamander fencing near the Entrance Road