The Delicate Ecosystem of Jasper National Park

Patricia Lake

Lucy had a wonderful holiday recently in Jasper National Park. It was so invigorating, all the beauty, and autumn colors seen from the car and on hikes. So we decided to dedicate a blog to the ecosystem of Jasper National Park. We recall as young students in elementary school, many years ago, that teachers talked about not interfering with ecosystems, because you can never get it back to it’s natural state. That is a foreign concept in our world today when we often interfere with natural ecosystems. It helps that JNP is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it is protected. (All the photos in this article have been taken by Lucy)

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “Jasper National Park is a protected area located in the Rocky Mountains, about 370 km west of Edmonton, Alberta. Established in 1907, it was the fifth national park created in Canada. It’s also one of seven parks in the Rocky Mountains that make up the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage site (the others are Yoho, Banff and Kootenay national parks, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber provincial parks). Among the reasons for the UNESCO designation are the parks’ mountain landscapes, complete with waterfalls, canyons and glaciers, including those found in the Columbia Icefield.”

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/jasper-national-park

Maligne Canyon

Ecosystems of Jasper National Park

“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.

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.”

Bridge to Island on Pyramid Lake

Life Zones

“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.”

Montane

“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. They recommend to only use officially designated trails while hiking, horse-back riding, mountain biking or cross country skiing in Jasper’s montane.”

Subalpine

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.

They recommend you 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.”

Alpine

“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.”

https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/jasper/decouvrir-discover/ecosystemes

Siteseeing and Dining

View from Becker Cabin Gourmet Restaurant Just Before the Elk Bull Appeared

Jasper National Park is such a stunningly beautiful place to visit any time of year. The many bungalows are open until Thanksgiving. We did notice some shops and restaurants such as at Maligne Lake, or the Italian restaurant at the JPL are only open weekends in late September. Not sure how COVID has affected what is available. Using AllTrails App on our phone, we were able to access information on over 100 hikes, from very short and easy to very challenging. We kept to simpler hikes and went to Edge of the World, Valley of the 5 Lakes, Flower Loop, Maligne Canyon, Athabasca Falls, Mary Schafer Loop, Wapiti Trail, and Lac Beauvert. There are many excellent restaurants. We enjoyed the Becker’s Cabin Gourmet Restaurant (where I had the Wild Mushroom Lasagne with Spinach Pesto), the Raven, Evil Dave’s and JPL Great Hall Gastropub. There is a lot of history to learn about as well as many tourist sites like several waterfalls, the Miette Hot Springs, and horse back riding and the Columbian Icefield. I cannot wait to go back to hike some more trails, and look again into the aqua pristine water while breathing in the clean mountain air.

The Pine Beetle

It is immediately obvious that there are many red or dry grey trees in Jasper, and one might wonder if that is the natural cycle of the forest. Unfortunately it is the more than a decade long infestation of the pine beetle that is killing the pine and fir trees. While visiting the Jasper Park Lodge,  many tourists watched as the very tall, dead Douglas fir trees on the property were being professionally cut down. They have the Fir beetle. The workers say that the Douglas Fir  only grows north as far as about Jasper, so they are stressed in this location, so are easy prey to the beetle. The earth shook as the trees fell, and we took a few photos below.

“The mountain pine beetle burrow in the tree bark, releasing a fungus that clogs and destroys the connective tissues of the trees. So after the eggs hatch the larvae mine the phloem which is the layer between the bark and the wood. Trees can die within weeks of an attack. The pines turn red after they have succumbed to the beetles’ onslaught.

According to Parks Canada, 163,000 hectares of forest in Jasper National Park have been infected by mountain pine beetles.

The Alberta government with assistance from the Federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to stop the spread of the pest. The decade-long efforts have slowed the beetle’s movement toward the carefully managed forests that supply wood for lumber and other purposes located to the east of Jasper. Mountain pine beetles are native to B.C., but are considered an invasive species in Alberta. 

Unfortunately the national park has been changed forever by the beetle’s presence. “The populations in Jasper have reached an epidemic level and they’ve been going like that for at least several years,” said Allan Carroll, a professor of insect ecology and director of the forest sciences program at the University of British Columbia. “As a consequence, there are so many beetles that there’s not much that can be done and instead, Jasper is just going to have to learn to adapt to a whole bunch of dead pine trees in their forests.”

Red Trees Infested with Pine Beetle, Photo credit Lucy

Carroll says the forests of Jasper won’t always be filled with rust-coloured trees. After a few years, the red needles fall off, leaving a grey-coloured tree. The human eye will eventually adjust how it sees the landscape, naturally focusing more on the green shrubs and healthy growth that will surround the dead trees. In four, five or maybe 10 years time, it won’t be that obvious, except to the trained eye, that there has been an outbreak there at all,” he said. 

Fire Threats

But in the meantime, some Jasper residents are increasingly worried about not just the esthetics of red, rusty forests, but also the fire hazards that accompany several square kilometres of dry trees. Christine Nadon, who manages communications for the town of Jasper, said dry conditions are not new for the town and that both the town and Parks Canada are prepared for potential fires. This year they have ramped up training, equipment and collaboration with regards to potential fires. As well an area west of the Jasper townsite are having the dead trees thinned.”

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/jasper-pine-beetle-decline-1.5192411

Pine Beetle Decline in 2018-2019

“Good news, is that  delayed mating in 2018 and cold winter in 2019 killed off most of the pine beetle. Scientists sampled 25 sites in the park. After completing the survey in May, they found the mortality rate of the populations they examined was 98 per cent.  “This is really the first year that we’ve had significant decline in the population,” said Roger Brett, lead researcher of the study.

Brett said he has been mapping mortality rates of pine beetles in Jasper for six years and has never seen populations decline like this. Normally, they would double from one year to the next, he said. We are also cautioned that since these results are from sampled sites, it may not be accurate for all the Jasper National Park. Also if the pine beetle is not 100% removed they will continue to be a pest….but at least they are slowed down for awhile.”

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/jasper-pine-beetle-decline-1.5192411

How Pine Beetles are Managed

“Through the Pine Strategy, prescribed or controlled fire and strategic harvesting, Alberta is encouraging a more natural diversity of tree ages that will be more resilient to threats from destructive insects, disease and wildfire.

Short Term Strategy

Depending on the area or zone assigned to the forests based on an assessment of the level of MPB, there will be different levels of treatment. Level 1 treatment , also known as single-tree treatment, is a tactic that is among the most effective means of managing the beetle and is used on the “front line”  of beetle infestations, or Leading Edge Zone along the eastern slopes. Level 2 treatments of “block or patch harvesting” of trees is used in the Active Holding Zone.  Thirdly, where there is already a lot of destruction from pine beetle, (Inactive Holding Zone) the main goal is to focus on other forest management objectives such as: fish and wildlife habitat, timber, watershed protection and wildfire fuel management.

Long-term Strategy

“Alberta’s pine forests are made up of an abundance of over-mature trees susceptible to insect attacks and catastrophic wildfires. About 60% of Alberta’s pine forests consist of trees aged 80 years and older.

Alberta created the Pine Strategy to address the amount of timber susceptible to mountain pine beetle and create a broad cross-section of different tree-age classes in the forest that will be more resilient to threats from destructive insects, disease and wildfire.

Under this strategy, Alberta has identified the most susceptible stands and worked with Forest Management Agreement (FMA) holders to amend their current management plans to reduce the amount of susceptible pine, on their operating land-base, by up to 75% by 2026.”

https://www.alberta.ca/mountain-pine-beetle-in-alberta-strategy.aspx

Can you believe that it has been almost a year since our first blog? At the end of the month we will celebrate what we call “babyblog” by writing a blog looking back over the experience. We figure if this blog were a book it would be about 500 -600 pages long. We would love your feedback as we plan for our second year. 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Delicate Ecosystem of Jasper National Park

  1. Maureen

    Thanks for the beautiful post on Jasper. I visited there in the summer of 2018 and so many of your photos were familiar. We actually stayed at Becker’s cabins for 3 nights and saw elk every morning outside our cabins. Everyday we saw breath taking views and despite the smoke from the B.C. fires that summer it was easy to see why this is such a treasured park. We did a few hikes and it reinforced the need to work with nature and preserve these precious ecosystems. Thanks ladies for always writing with such care and thoughtful attention to our beautiful planet.

    Like

    1. Audrey Cartile

      Thank you for this well written blog (as always) and the beautiful photos of Jasper National Park. The pine beetle information was disturbing but by including the strategies being adopted to address the problem, I finished the blog feeling that the situation was less hopeless. GREAT WORK!

      Like

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