Efforts by the governments of British Columbia, Montana, and the United States seemingly have removed mining-related threats to Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. But an international team of scientists believes both Canada and the United States must work harder to protect the resources of the International Peace Park.
Though the field team's final report to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage Committee presented in July in Brazil did not differ in tone from some of the tidbits that leaked out following the field team's visit to the two parks last September, its formal presentation put on record the team's concerns over the long-term health of the two national parks.
Officially, the UNESCO team said mining in the transboundary Flathead watershed to the north of Glacier and west of Waterton Lakes would pose tremendous threats to the two parks.
The mission team’s view, based on critical review ... is that the likely impacts are such that implementation of mining and energy development in the Canadian Flathead watershed would present a serious threat, incompatible with maintaining the Outstanding Universal Value of the WH property. Among the elements that make up OUV for the World Heritage property, those that would suffer most significant disturbance and irreparable damage are the rivers and extensive floodplains of the Flathead drainage. The cold, clean river waters, unimpeded intermixing of surface and groundwater systems and silt-free river beds provide optimum habitat essential for the growth and survival of migratory native salmonids, including the endangered bull trout and a pure strain of westslope cutthroat trout. Other significant OUV elements that would be disturbed or lost are key areas of natural terrain and intact vegetation cover providing migratory corridors for many species of native carnivores (especially grizzly), cats, mustelids and birds. Outstanding scenic and aesthetic values would also be lost.
Of course, since the team's field visit last September, officials in British Columbia have announced a moratorium on mining in the area, and U.S. officials likewise have agreed to work to prohibit exploration and development of mining resources in the North Fork Flathead River Basin in Montana.
While both the field team and the full World Heritage Committee noted those actions, in its decision statement the committee said it noted "the ongoing threats to the property from possible impacts on wildlife connectivity arising from issues outside the property, including residential, industrial and infrastructure development, and forestry practices, in both Canada and the United States of America, and requests the State Parties to jointly ensure that connectivity is considered as a key factor in planning and environmental assessment of such developments, in order to ensure the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value of the property."
Will Hammerquist, the Glacier field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, called the field team's report and the full committee's position "historic," but also said "there are some things in (the final report) that unaddressed."
Specifically, he pointed to page 38 of the 51-page report where the field team raised concerns over the long-term health of wildlife corridors in the region.
Steps should also be taken to minimise the barrier to wildlife connectivity due to mining, transportation and communication lines and associated developments in the Crowsnest Pass of B.C., and where such barriers exist, appropriate mitigation measures should be planned and implemented. In particular, there should be a long-term moratorium placed on any further mining developments in south eastern British Columbia, immediately west of the Alberta border, in the corridor of natural terrain that creates vital habitat connectivity and allows the unimpeded movement of carnivores and ungulates between the Waterton-Glacier property and Banff/Jasper NPs of the Rocky Mountains WH property in Alberta. Other measures should include minimising future infrastructure development and removal of unnecessary structures, maintenance of core natural areas and rehabilitation of degraded areas, and development of a pro-active plan for enhancing connectivity in the area.
Mr. Hammerquist pointed to strip mine operations near the Elk River watershed and voiced concern as to how their expansion could impact migratory routes.
“What’s the long-term implications of this type of strip-mining going on to the north?" he wondered. "Look at Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. That’s an island population.”
While the NPCA representative noted that Glacier's grizzly bear population still has a viable ecological connection to grizzlies in Canada, he also asked whether that will be the case 10 or 15 years down the road.
"Those are questions we really need to look at,” he said.
Beyond the threats of mining, other issues still could impact the two parks if not addressed, the field team's final report said. Among the most pressing concerns, the team said, is climate change and how it could impact the two parks that share a common border between Montana and Alberta.
"Wide-spread and rapid environmental and ecological changes are occurring in the Waterton-
Glacier property, and throughout the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, as a result of changing atmospheric conditions and climatic regimes," wrote the authors, Paul R. Dingwall, who represents the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and Kishore Rao, from the World Heritage Committee. "These accentuate the need to retain a large intact natural landscape to allow plants and animals to adapt to the changes. They also present difficult challenges for management of the property, and will require increased crossborder collaboration, and co-operative management with landowners and key stakeholders in surrounding lands."
Specifically, the report called for overall resilience to climate change to be developed by "reducing habitat fragmentation, and ensuring ecosystem connectivity and genetic diversity"; encouraging further research and management that could mitigate "the negative ecological impacts of climate change"; adaptive management steps with an emphasis on "enhancing the resilience and capacity of wildlife and plants in adjusting to changing environmental conditions"; and, among other things, "encouraging collaborative management with land managers in the wider Crown of the Continent ecosystem in aspects of wildlife protection, ecosystem restoration, control of introduced species and fire management, among others."
"Ex-situ methods that might be considered for enhancing the survival of native animals and plants include species re-location, assisted migration and captive breeding," the authors suggested. "Research effort might focus on identification of sensitive, vulnerable and other indicator species for measuring and monitoring the rate, trend and extent of changes; establishment of baseline studies on a range of ecosystems over 3-5 year periods; incorporation of cumulative effects analysis in research; and undertaking of environmental assessments, including socio-economic assessment."
Noting the rich wildlife resources in the region -- The Flathead River basin is considered to contain the greatest diversity of plants and animals in the Rocky Mountains. It provides critical habitat for 16 species of carnivores – a community unmatched in North America for its variety, completeness and species diversity, including at-risk species such as lynx, grey wolf and wolverine. It is reported to harbour the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the interior of the continent. The watershed is the last intact wildlife corridor for grizzly bear, wolf and Canadian lynx along the Canada/US border. Its riparian floodplain is a natural corridor for migrating wildlife and birds. -- the team's report urged the two countries to work on maintaining wildlife corridors free from developmental sprawl.
Grizzly and grey wolf, in particular, range from the Waterton-Glacier and Flathead areas as far north as Banff and Jasper NPs in Alberta. Human developments, including a major highway, railway, transmission lines and settlements, along the east/west trending Crowsnest Pass Highway (Highway 3) north of the Waterton-Glacier and Flathead areas, constitute a significant connectivity barrier. A study of six carnivore species, conducted between 2001 and 2004 over an area of 30,000 km² in the Southern Canadian Rockies, revealed that the Crowsnest transport and development corridor severely restricts movements of animals. Reproductive female grizzlies are particularly vulnerable to these effects and this has the potential to fragment natural populations. Trains are revealed as the greatest source of animal mortality, but the greatest impact is from the spin-off development that occurs along the highway. The study recommended that urgent consideration be given to maintenance of core natural areas with a high level of security, and the development of a pro-active conservation plan providing for connectivity across and around the Crowsnest Highway.
In other areas, the team found that both Canada and U.S. officials were largely managing forest resources along the two parks "with the maintenance of the Outstanding Universal Value of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park World Heritage property."
"There are guidelines addressing biodiversity, habitat connectivity, ungulate winter range, grizzly bear conservation, management of old-growth forest areas, and access and backcountry recreation," the report noted.
Overall, the authors wrote, the natural resources of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park are too great to lose.
"Retention of the large expanse of natural landscape in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem is of vital importance for avoiding habitat fragmentation and providing the ecosystem connectivity essential for the growth and survival of native plants and animals in the region. The Waterton-Glacier World Heritage property forms the core protected area in this regional ecosystem, and its natural integrity is inextricably linked with the neighbouring transboundary Flathead watershed," they concluded.