WHITEFISH – On a map, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park resembles a slightly-misshapen topographic pizza with a big slice missing.
This week, three leading ecologists with varied backgrounds converged on Whitefish to explain why extending national park protections to that missing piece – which represents a 100,000-acre chunk of Canadian wilderness – is critical to preserving one of the most intact aquatic ecosystems in North America.
The transboundary Flathead River, which on the Montana side is known as the North Fork, is the ecologically potent “Garden of Eden” that straddles the U.S.-Canada border, extending from the Flathead Valley to southeast British Columbia. And while conservationists agree that the region is one of the best protected watersheds in the United States, the missing pie piece north of the border remains independent of Waterton Lakes National Park.
The Flathead River forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park when it crosses the U.S.-Canada border, and in November Canadian legislation to protect the Flathead River Basin from mining and energy development formally passed the British Columbia Parliament.
This week, conservationists and ecologists continued the discussion in Whitefish with the aim of completing the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
“Twenty years ago, if you told anyone that there would be no open pit coal mining in the transboundary North Fork, you would have been laughed out of the room,” said Harvey Locke, founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which would create a continuous wildlife corridor from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon in Northern Canada. “It is time to complete the Peace Park. This area must stay intact.”
The key to the region’s long-term preservation, the ecologists said Monday night at a seminar on transboundary science, is linking the network of already-established core reserves to provide permanent wildlife corridors and protect against resource development.
“The idea is to fill in that missing piece of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and create a wildlife corridor that would extend from Whitefish to Banff,” said Michael Proctor, the lead researcher for the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project.
Proctor lives in British Columbia and helped pioneer the science of culling grizzly DNA from the hairs of bears to estimate population sizes. He recently published a groundbreaking study that explains the challenges facing grizzly bears in the transboundary region of the Rocky Mountains between Montana and British Columbia, which he characterized as “the last stand” for the grizzly.
Through the study, which used GPS radio telemetry to identify how grizzlies move about their habitat range, Proctor identified reduced gene flow among grizzly populations in wilderness areas that are fragmented by highways and other strips of human development, even small and remote towns.
“In these fragmented populations over highways, we’ve basically found that bears are having no sex,” he said. “And then we’ve found places that are like a university campus. There’s a lot of activity.”
Inevitably, the areas of high activity have linkage zones between wilderness habitat, and Proctor hopes his research will inform conservation efforts such as the completion of the Waterton Peace Park and strategic land purchases by nongovernmental agencies.
“I’m trying to get the bears moving back and forth across these lines,” he said.
John Weaver, a senior conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said without adequate protections in place, the long-term future of grizzly bears, wolverines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bull trout and other native fish species will continue to be jeopardized by development and climate change.
The transboundary Flathead holds a special importance because it is so ecologically unique, a melting pot where maritime species commingle with prairie species and the northern and southern expanses of carnivores like bobcat, lynx and fisher overlap.
“The transboundary Flathead supports the most diverse, intact community of carnivores in North America,” he said. “It is truly a rich and diverse assemblage.”
Referring to the oft-quoted Norman Maclean passage from “A River Runs Through It,” which concludes with the line “I am haunted by waters,” Weaver said ecologists are haunted, too.
“I think we scientists are haunted by the ecological complexity that we see in the natural world. And we are also humbled by it. We are exhilarated by it. And I think that in wonder of it we should honor the transboundary Flathead,” he said.
Although charismatic megafauna like grizzly bears and wolverines attract a lot of attention and are among the most visible species benefiting from conservation efforts, the biological richness of the Flathead River provides the ecosystem’s lifeblood.
Richard Hauer, professor of limnology at the Flathead Lake Biological Station and director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems at the University of Montana, has been researching gravel-bed river systems and floodplains since the early mining proposals of the 1970s.
He said the riparian bottomlands – the interface between land and river – support whole suites of species. Ninety percent of native fish species in the transboundary Flathead use the floodplains, with 50 percent of those species relying on the floodplains for spawning. The area supports 235 bird species, half of which nest in the riparian zones. Three hundred species of stoneflies, mayflies and caddis flourish in the transboundary Flathead, making it “truly one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet,” he said.
And with 90 percent of the total water on the floodplain remaining subsurface at any given time, protecting that groundwater from open pit coal mining is critical to the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem, Hauer said.
“Loss of the floodplains within these systems will literally result in the wholesale loss of our biodiversity,” he said.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.