Restoring Fire, Wolves, and Bison to the Canadian Rockies
Explore how fire, wolves, and bison keep ecosystems healthy in one of the wildest places in North America.
Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada and the Blackfoot tribal lands outside the park are some of the few places where you can get a sense of North America as it was before settlers arrived. Only five percent of Canada’s native grasslands remain, and they are right here, filled with iconic native animals like wolves, grizzly bears, cougars, and eagles.
When this land was colonized by Euro-Americans 150 years ago, the natural balance of the landscape was knocked off kilter, and now the leadership of the national park and the Kainai First Nation are striving to use natural forces, like wolves, bison, and fire to restore a healthy balance. Waterton National Park Natural Resources staff set prescribed fires to keep aspen from taking over the native grassland. Where there are no wolves, elk eat the aspen shoots that grow after burns, clearing space for grass to grow. But here in Waterton, the presence of wolves keeps elk from lingering while they eat, meaning they clear fewer aspen shoots. This tips the scale back toward expanding aspen stands, and decreasing native prairie. The missing piece? Bison. Wild, free-ranging bison historically kept these grasslands open by trampling aspen and tearing them up with their horns. This research is important because it engages the Kainai First Nation and the Blackfoot confederacy, to whom bison, fire, and wolves are sacred, in restoring their ancestral landscape and using their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).
Hike off-trail through rugged, secluded parts of the park, past grizzly bears and herds of elk, and on Blackfoot tribal lands closed to the public, to help researchers untangle the complex interactions between wolves, elk, fire, and bison. You can help by measuring how much vegetation elk are eating, and how the prescribed fires are shaping plant populations and affecting habitat for bison. You will also spend a day on the trail of wolves, following their tracks in areas of high wolf activity, such as their rendezvous sites and travel corridors.
A Typical Itinerary
- Day 1: Meet in Calgary Int’l Airport, travel to Waterton Village
- Day 2: Training on research tasks
- Days 3-5: Hiking to monitor trees, recording signs of wildlife
- Day 6: Wolf-tracking day
- Day 7: Departure
HOW YOU WILL HELP
Monitor fire severity and vegetation
You’ll set up plots and measure prescribed and wild fire impacts on the forest and grassland. In the forest you will also measure the height and diameter of trees, as well as shrub and grass coverage. Over the course of the day, you’ll hike off trail from six to ten miles.
You'll visit wolf "rendezvous" locations where they return to or have been active. You'll find and record evidence of wolf activities, like tracks, remains from wolf kills, fur, or scat.
Field conditions and research needs can lead to changes in the itinerary and activities. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.
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