Stephen Woodley is an ecologist who has worked in the field of environmental management for 25 years. As Chief Ecosystem Scientist for Parks Canada, he works on a number of issues related to protected areas, including developing techniques for monitoring and assessing ecological integrity and ecological restoration. Stephen holds a BSc (Mt.AlisonUniversity) and MSc (University of New Brunswick) in biology and a PhD (University of Waterloo) in Environmental Studies.
Stephen was a member of Parks Canada’s Ministerial Panel on Ecological Integrity. This independent panel was asked to evaluate the success of national parks in meeting their legal mandate to manage for ecological integrity. Stephen is a member of the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Commission on Protected Areas.
How did you become the Chief Ecosystems Scientist for Parks Canada?
I have always had an interest in biology and ecology. I started with Parks Canada as a naturalist. I became one of the very first park ecologists hired at the park level, back in the 1980s. I then went to the University of Waterloo and worked at a center which studied parks and protected areas. After earning my PhD I returned to Parks Canada at our National Office to run the fire management program. This was an exciting time because Parks Canada was begging to use prescribed fire as restoration tool in a big way. After that I stepped outside of Parks Canada to be a member of an external ministerial panel which crafted a new direction for Parks Canada’s national parks based on ecological integrity. That’s when we put the idea of ecological integrity as a management end point.
As a result of that work, we decided to be a much more scientifically based organization – and that included having a chief scientist. I returned to Parks Canada and became the agency’s first chief scientist.
Canada’s national parks system is still in development, true? Can you tell us about the National Parks System Plan and where Parks Canada is with that plan at the moment?
We want to have at least one national park that is representative of each of Canada’s natural regions, so we are aiming at a representative system. Right now, we are 80% complete. We have 42 operational parks representing 28 of Canada’s 39 natural terrestrial regions and covering a total of 301,473 square kilometres.
A region may be represented by a national park or national park reserve. A region is considered to be represented when one or more national parks or park reserves are operational as a consequence of: signing a park establishment agreement (federal, provincial and/or Aboriginal agreements); the lands have been transferred to Canada (from the province); and/or the park/reserve is in a schedule of the Canada National Parks Act.
Since the 2007 State of Protected Heritage Areas Report, Parks Canada advanced projects to establish national parks in the following unrepresented regions—Interior Dry Plateau (South Okanagan—Lower Similkameen Proposal); Northwestern Boreal Uplands (East Arm of Great Slave Lake Proposal) and East Coast Boreal Region (Mealy Mountains Proposal). The 2007 State of Protected Heritage Areas Report indicated that Parks Canada was preparing for negotiations toward the establishment of a national park in the Manitoba Lowlands region. Since then, the Agency has returned to feasibility considerations to better engage First Nations. For further information on the progress made to establish national parks in unrepresented terrestrial regions, your readers can consult the Parks Canada Agency Performance Reports for the periods ending March 31, 2008 and March 31, 2009 on the Treasury Board of Canada Website.
Canada’s national parks encompass a wide range of landscapes-mountains, glaciers, forests, lakes, etc. To someone unfamiliar with your park system, how would you summarize Canada’s national parks system, in terms of the ecosystems represented within?
We are the oldest national parks organization on the planet. We’re even older than the U.S. National Park Service, although the first national park was, arguably, Yellowstone. Banff came very shortly after that. We’re celebrating 100 years of Parks Canada next year and 125 years of Banff this year. The U.S. Cavalry ran Yellowstone for a long time. It wasn’t a Park Service set up.
We cover everything from that very first park in Banff in the high mountains, which is iconic, to the very furthest northern point in Canada, which is an Arctic polar desert, to the very southernmost point in Canada, which is a rich, Carolinian hardwood forest. So we cover the full breadth of Canada. The parks tend to be very large in the north. We just completed a new Nahanni National Park, which is 30,000 square kilometers.
Is that your largest?
No, we actually have one bigger. Our largest is Wood Buffalo National Park. That is four million hectares (10 million acres.).
We aim to manage our parks according to ecological integrity. We understand that they have to be very large if we’re going to be successful at keeping whole, functioning ecosystems and all the biodiversity that is part of those ecosystems. All national parks are comprised of a functionally interconnected mosaic of major park ecosystems. For example, a park in the Atlantic Provinces will be dominated by park forests, intersected by streams, lakes and wetlands, often with a border of coastal beaches and estuaries along the ocean. Our Arctic national parks are dominated by broad expanses of herb-shrub tundra or sparsely-vegetated polar desert, intersected by streams, lakes and wetlands. Each major park ecosystem supports a unique flora and fauna that together comprises park biodiversity. The variety of major park ecosystems that make up our national parks in different regions of Canada reflect the ability of park plants and animals to adapt to the integrated effects of regional climate, topography, soils and glacial history.
Parks Canada actually has an Ecological Integrity Branch. Can you give me a brief history of how, when and why that branch was established? (And…how have the threats to ecological integrity changed since its establishment?)
The Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks (which was launched in 1998) and the 2000 Parks Canada Ecological Integrity Action Plan reviewed Parks Canada program with the objective to focus the national parks program on conserving and restoring ecological integrity as a first priority. In response to the panel’s 127 recommendations, the Ecological Integrity Branch was established in 2000 to set national functional leadership for ecological integrity across the Agency.
The threats to Canada’s ecosystems continue to be present and will likely continue in the future, this will not change. What has changed is the tremendous action Parks Canada has taken since the panel recommendations to strengthen legislation, establish a management and reporting structure, secure long-term funding and establish internationally acclaimed monitoring and active management programs to ensure the maintenance and improvement of ecological integrity throughout Canada’s national park system.
Which among Canada’s many national parks do you think have the healthiest, most resilient ecosystems and why? (Are most people aware of this, or are these little known secrets?)
We actually formally assess and measure the health of ecosystems. In 2009, we launched an ecological integrity (EI) monitoring program to measure and track the ecological health of all parks across the National Park system. Park science teams measure key components of park ecological integrity in four to eight ‘Ecological Integrity Indicators’ which represent major park ecosystems. Results are reported every five years in individual “State of the Park” reports and a national “State of Protected Heritage Areas” report. These reports are made publically available on the Agency’s web site.
The parks that are the furthest north and the largest tend to be essentially in pristine conditions. It’s the very small parks in the south which are alienated by different land uses –surrounded agriculture or embedded in a matrix of high road density – that have the biggest ecological problems. That’s where we have to do the most ongoing restoration.
Are there any small parks that surprised you by having a higher degree of ecological health than you expected?
Georgian Bay Islands National Park is tiny and it gets fairly good ratings in terms of its ecological integrity.
I read that…”Canada’s parks are managed to first protect the ecological integrity of the park, and secondarily to allow the public to explore, learn about and enjoy Canada’s natural spaces.” Is this true? Does Parks Canada put the visitor experience second (albeit a close second) behind ecological protection?
Ecological integrity is, legally, our first priority. But as an agency, we also want people to visit these places. We want people to connect to and learn about wild nature in these national parks. That’s a fundamental part of who we are as an organization.
National parks are one of our country’s most enduring and inspiring living legacies, connecting us to the very core of our nature. Our mandate is to manage this legacy by maintaining or improving ecological integrity in national parks while creating experiences and education opportunities that connect Canadians, their hearts and their minds, to these treasured places.
Ecological integrity is fundamental to the opportunities for Canadians to experience, learn from our national parks, and fully appreciate their irreplaceable value. Outstanding visitor experiences are rooted in ecologically healthy environments, where the integrity of the natural resources enhances the sense of awe felt by visitors. Opportunities to learn about nature and the efforts of Parks Canada and its partners to maintain and improve ecological integrity are important to the appreciation of nature and the understanding of the relevance of conservation to Canadian society.
Based on what you’re saying, and on what I read about the agency’s efforts to improve the ecological integrity of its park land in a report called “Action on the Ground II” it seems like the visitor experience is well integrated with Parks Canada’s ecological protection and restoration efforts.
Our mission as an organization is to see these in an integrated way. We know that if we are going to be successful in protecting these places, we need public support. Public support comes from people having personal experiences in these places. We try and create truly memorable experiences for people when they come. We want them to be blown away by a close, personal experience with nature.We also want people to learn about these places-not only when they’re visiting parks, but also when they’re in their living rooms or on line.
Can you share any success stories of how some parks have managed to protect and/or restore ecosystems while also providing access and maximizing the visitor experience?
Parks Canada is responsible for establishing and managing national parks in ways that ensure their ecological integrity while fostering public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of these areas. Facilitating memorable experiences and a sense of connection for visitors plays a vital role in building long-term support for the protection of ecological integrity and the preservation of the parks system as a whole. Reaching out to Canadians where they live, work and play also ensures that national parks remain relevant across the country. From a personal perspective, our use of prescribed fire for ecological restoration really stands out as a success story. Fifteen years ago, we were considered nuts to be lighting fires in national parks. Now, there is a very good public understanding of the need to burn to keep some places ecologically healthy. We provide opportunities for people to watch prescribed wildfires and we explain what is happening and why we’re doing it. We burn on prairie grasslands. We burn stand replacement fires in highly visited areas like Banff.
Another success story involves the protection and restoration of Garry oak ecosystems. Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site, and nearby areas of British Columbia contain tracts of Garry oak ecosystems ranging from shady woodlands to open meadows – that are home to many species found nowhere else in Canada. Some 43 species found in Garry oak ecosystems are listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Outreach and cooperation are key to the recovery team’s efforts. Collaboration with First Nations and partnerships with various levels of government and citizens’ groups are essential. The recovery team works diligently to get the word out about the need to protect and restore Garry oak habitats. Presentations, interpretive panels, and newsletter articles are among the communication tools. The recently published Garry Oak Gardener’s Handbook, which received a National Citation from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, is actually inspiring neighbors to create attractive Garry Oak gardens.
Another story that stands out is the restoration of the Douglas-fir bunchgrass ecosystem in Kootenay National Park. A century of fire suppression and subsequent forest in-growth in the park had degraded traditional winter habitat for bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). The in-filled forest that resulted from fire suppression activities no longer provided the long sightlines the sheep require to spot potential predators. Research into the issue found that the sheep had adjusted their use of the area away from their traditional winter range, which increased the risks they then faced of car and railroad collisions. To address this issue, since 2002 the park has restored approximately 200 hectares of land to its historical state.
The only way we could restore that ecosystem was by doing a massive mechanical thinning operation followed by prescribed burn. We had feller bunchers – giant machines used in modern industrial forestry which snip trees off at their base and throw them into a large trailer-operating for months in the park. We had logging trucks filled with logs leaving a national park!
Through a combination of forest clearing and prescribed burn, the area is now more hospitable for bighorn sheep and other species that depend on open forest/grassland habitat. Radiotracking indicates that the sheep are beginning to use the restored area. We were able to work with citizens, park visitors and stakeholders so they understood why we were doing this. Once they understood, it became part of their experience. Now when they return and walk through those bunchgrass ecosystems, they see the sheep and native plants that have come back. They see a really successful restoration. That’s a way of connecting restoration to the visitor experience.
To what do you attribute your success in gaining that public understanding? What communication vehicles did you use?
The philosophy of seeing the visitor experience, public education and ecological protection as integrated is a successful approach. It’s not merely scientists or restoration ecologists figuring out the best way to restore ecosystems and doing their thing. You have to bring people along and generate public support if you’re going to be successful into the future. We used a variety of techniques-town hall meetings, guided walks on the site, door-to-door flyers, articles in newspapers, etc. The best techniques involve bringing people on the ground and getting them personally involved in the experience,
Additional public outreach efforts that contributed to Kootenay’s success include programs such as “Bighorn in Our Backyard” and the Head Bangers Tour, which were created to build on the interest of visitors and local residents to observe wildlife by offering them a unique opportunity to observe bighorn sheep in their natural habitat during the fall rut. Newly created interpretive trails are also expected to increase interest and understanding about the sheep, their habitat, and ecological integrity issues within the park.
Tell me about Parks Canada’s Citizen Science programs.
Citizen science programs have become an important aspect of Parks Canada’s public engagement work in recent years. These programs connect people to nature, enhance their understanding of the natural world, help build a growing constituency of volunteers and supporters within the communities in and around national parks, and generate knowledge to support park management decisions.
A great example exists in Kejimkujik National Park and Historic Site, which is at the core of the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve, an area containing some 30 species at risk. Protecting all those species is a big job, so park staff and its biosphere reserve partners have engaged a small army of volunteers in the hands-on recovery. Over the past three years, 500 volunteers contributed more than 25,000 volunteer hours to species at risk recovery and environmental conservation.
There’s a rare population of turtles in Kejimkujik called Blanding’s turtle. Volunteers help us locate turtle nests during the season, cover the nests with mesh boxes (to protect them from predators like racoons) and become nest guardians, so to speak. When the turtles hatch out, we collect some of them, take them to a lab, and “head start” them for two years so they get big enough to be out of the range of predation. Over 40 head-started turtle hatchlings have been released, and First Nations have always been there to help celebrate their release with prayer, traditional music and dance. That has led to amazing personal connections and support. We had a retired executive who actually developed a GPS tracking system for these turtles on his own volition with his own money. That’s restoration with enormous support.
Parks Canada recently led (in collaboration with provincial and territorial park agencies, members of the Society for Ecological Restoration International, academic institutions, and others) the development of the first-ever Canada-wide guidance for ecological restoration practices: Principles and Guidelines for Ecological Restoration in Canada’s Protected Natural Areas. Consistent with our mandate, the document promotes an approach that integrates restoration, visitor experience, public education, and the protection of cultural resource values.
Can you give us a brief summary of this document?
The document sets out a set of clear principles that should form the foundation of all ecological restoration actions: Effective in restoring ecological integrity; Efficient in using practical and economic methods to achieve functional success; and Engaging through implementing inclusive processes and by recognizing and embracing interrelationships between culture and nature. It provides a set of guidelines to focus decision-making about the types of interventions that would be desirable under various circumstances, and it outlines a seven-step framework that identifies how a broad range of factors should be integrated into the restoration planning and implementation process.
How have the principles and guidelines been received since they were published in 2008?
They were endorsed by all Ministers responsible for national, provincial and territorial parks in Canada, as well as by the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas. We wanted the guidelines to be broader than Parks Canada restoration objectives, so they are being used right across Canada.
It’s probably fair to say that Parks Canada is the most active in terms of restoration activity, but the guidelines are being used by many of Canada’s provincial and territorial parks and protected area agencies, where they are seen as a model for inter-agency cooperation. They are also being used as an educational resource in university programs (e.g., University of Victoria).
We’re also hoping to take them global. We have Parks Canada staff member leading a task force to take this set of restoration guidelines and make them a set of international guidelines for ecological restoration in protected areas through the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas. There will be a whole bunch of international restoration examples which illustrate this integrated approach of good science, involvement of people through personal experience, and good public education.
Can you give me an example of how these principles and guidelines have been applied?
This area in south-western Saskatchewan was home to millions of free-roaming bison prior to European contact. The disappearance of the bison in the late 19th century has had profound impacts not only on the traditional cultural landscape of local First Nations but also on grassland ecosystems in the Prairies. These ecosystems were historically dependent on grazing by large herbivores to create the diverse pattern of vegetation required to sustain a wide variety of native species. As a result of habitat destruction and cultivation, prairie grasslands are now one of the most threatened ecosystems in the country. Only 19% of Saskatchewan’s original mixed grass prairie ecosystem remains intact, and much is fragmented into small parcels. Grasslands National Park is the only national park in Canada set aside to protect this special ecosystem, and represents one of the last remaining large contiguous areas of mixed grass prairie in western Canada. To improve ecological integrity in the park the Agency initiated the “Prairie Persists” project to recreate the ecological processes that are linked to large herbivore grazing and natural fires, while also restoring cultivated lands within the park.
In May 2006, 71 plains bison were successfully released into the 17,800-hectare West Block of the park. Cattle are being used in other areas of the park to restore the grazing process. Progress has also been made in reducing the prevalence of agronomic exotic species such as crested wheatgrass (Agropyron pectiniforme) and preventing the spread of invasive species such as leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) into the park. In combination with revegetation efforts in previously cultivated fields in the park, over 280 hectares have been restored.
A core element of the “Prairie Persists” project is a host of educational programs for local youth offered through the Prairie Learning Centre – an innovative educational partnership between Chinook School Division and Grasslands National Park. These restoration efforts are not only contributing to the long-term ecological integrity of the park, but are also helping to restore First Nations’ relationships with the land. Canadians now have the opportunity for a unique and powerful visitor experience by being able to see free-ranging plains bison – a powerful symbol of the prairies and Canada’s history.
(Note: for additional examples of the application of Principles and Guidelines for Ecological Restoration in Canada’s Protected Natural Areas, see Parks Canada’s “Action on the Ground II: Working with Canadians to Improve Ecological Integrity in Canada’s National Parks )
The UN proclaimed 2010 to be the “year of international biodiversity.” Is Parks Canada focused on actions specifically related to biodiversity?
Parks Canada is the National Focal Point for the Convention on Biodiversity’s Programme of Work on Protected Areas and contributes to the international and domestic biodiversity agenda in this context. The agency is protecting a wide range of Canadian biodiversity. For example, by setting aside lands in the Mealy Mountains of Labrador as a national park reserve, we will protect the biodiversity of vast expanses of wetland, tundra, and boreal forest. On the opposite coast, through our work with the Haida Nation and other interests to create a national marine conservation area reserve off the shores of the existing Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Canada will become the first country to protect a region from the alpine meadows of the mountain tops, to the depths of the ocean floor beyond the continental shelf. The reserve will protect some of the world’s most abundant and diverse marine communities, and this wealth of marine resources will continue to sustain local communities as well as a recreational and commercial fishery.
We are also working with individual species. We recently reintroduced the Black-footed Ferret to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. We also reintroduced the Plains Bison, returning them to the habitat where they once roamed in the millions. Internationally, we have transferred Wood Bison from Elk Island National Park to Alaska and Russia. And our efforts continue on behalf of many species. Canada has won international recognition for our conservation efforts not only for the vast areas of land and water that we have set aside, but also for the manner in which we work with local communities and Aboriginal peoples to ensure their traditional uses and cultures are sustained while working collaboratively to manage these sacred places.
How does Parks Canada incorporate traditional knowledge in its efforts to improve ecological integrity?
We try to incorporate traditional knowledge wherever we can. About half of our national parks are managed cooperatively with First Nations and were actually established as part of land claims agreements. This especially applies to the north. We have cooperative management boards in the north to manage these places. We bring science to the table. They bring traditional knowledge. We try to incorporate traditional knowledge in our State of the Park reports in a very explicit way. We do not try to make it compete with science. It’s another knowledge system which comes to the table for decision making.
Is it possible to say-or estimate-what portion of your annual budget goes toward the protection and/or restoration of ecosystems?
Parks Canada is investing $90 million (Canadian) over five years in targeted funding in a series of initiatives to help address pressing ecological concerns in national parks across Canada. These projects will protect and restore stressed ecosystems in Canada’s national parks, with the direct involvement of the Canadian public. That is a separate restoration fund outside the base we have to hire biologists, ecosystem technicians, fire managers, etc.
It’s important to remember that Parks Canada also runs an historic sites program, which is very large in its own right. We also run a developing marine areas conservation program. One of the things we do in Parks Canada that I’m proud of is we connect our monitoring program to our investment. When we look at our State of the Park report for a particular park, it lists the ecological issues we have to deal with where restoration is required. The park’s business plan-where they ask for additional funding to do work-must be based on that report and it has to be based on the ability to make a difference through ecological restoration.
Prior to updating our management plans every five years, we redo our State of Park reports. So management plans are done with good knowledge of the conditions and trends within each ecosystem.
Broadly speaking, what is the greatest challenge to protecting the ecological integrity of Canada’s national parks?
The condition of ecological integrity of the parks is often dependent on factors that are difficult to influence through park management actions e.g., urban and industrial development outside park boundaries, etc. Understanding the impact of these factors and finding innovative ways to address them is a challenge for Parks Canada and all Canadians.
The greatest challenge into the future is climate change. We have a problem-globally and in Canada-with conserving biodiversity even without climate change. We have a high number of species at risk. When you layer climate change on top of that challenge, it’s an enormous challenge for this and future generations. We have to rethink the way we do land management and be far more integrative in our systems approaches to our whole suite of protected areas and the intervening land so we can allow these ecosystems to best adapt to climate change.
Does Parks Canada have a formal climate change action plan or strategy?
We do, although it’s fair to say it’s evolving. I don’t think anyone knows completely how to deal with climate change. We think we need to work together in all parts of the country to have large core protected areas and to connect these protected areas through a working landscape so we have a permeable landscape through which biodiversity can move. And in areas where we do not have a large, protected core, we need to be in the full restoration game. We have this “protect, connect, restore” mantra for large landscape planning as the future path forward to deal with climate change. That’s an idea right now. It has not been operationalized.
What are some specific, regional threats?
Climate change is the continental threat. Other continental threats include nitrogen deposition and long-range transport of pollutants. We’re still seeing pollutants like toxaphene accumulating in old fish in high mountain lakes in the Rockies, for example.
On a region level, in the south, roads and major traffic corridors going through parks are a major challenge. We’re dealing with them in creative ways. We’re restoring connectivity through BanffNational Park, for example, by investing tens of millions of dollars in mitigations for the Trans Canada that runs through Banff. We’re putting in highway crossing structures for wildlife. We’ve completely fenced off the highway so wildlife doesn’t get onto it. The crossing structures are working extraordinarily well. We’re seeing all kinds of wildlife using them.
We’re also restoring connectivity on a smaller scale in other parks. We just put in crossing structures for the long-toad salamander at Waterton National Park. We’re doing an experiment in St. Lawrence Islands National Park to see where both fencing and crossing structures would be most effective around the St. Lawrence Parkway. There’s no question that roads are a major challenge.
The other inherent challenge is that the parks in the south are very small. Small, isolated populations tend to “wink out.” They tend to disappear simply because of numerical variation. Populations tend to go up and down in nature. There may be a good year, then a bad year. If you have a couple of bad years in a row, the population may go to zero, and then there’s nowhere to repopulate from. According to the rules of island biogeography, small parks which are more isolated will tend to lose more species than large parks which are less isolated, and we’re seeing that. In parks like Point Pelee National Park, we’ve lost a large percentage of reptiles, amphibians and fish because of this island biogeography effect. Examples of species in Pelee which have simply disappeared include Tiger Salamander, Fowler’s Toad and the grey tree frog.
What are some of the other threats faced by Canadian national parks?
Threats to park EI differ regionally based on park size, land use in adjacent areas, and the home range requirements of populations of park animals. In Kejimkujik National Park, we’re seeing mercury pollution, which is airborne deposition from the industrial heartland of the United States. In southern Ontario parks are generally small, adjacent land use includes agriculture and residential development, and impacted park populations include amphibians, reptiles, and interior forest songbirds. National parks in the Boreal Forest area are moderate in size, are often surrounded by industrial forest land use, and the sustainability of wide-ranging species such as caribou and black bear can be compromised. Arctic national parks are not threatened in the short term due to their very large size and lack of significant adjacent land use, but are at the vanguard of long term climate-driven ecological change. The ecological effects of climate change will eventually provide a significant threat to all national parks.
What are some of the most threatening invasive species affecting Canada’s national parks? Can you give a few examples and tell us how the agency is responding?
There certainly are problems with invasives in national parks. There’s no question about that. It’s not as big a problem as it is further south. We don’t have these massive infestations where species are being quickly eliminated because of invasives, but I’ll give you some examples.
The butternut tree, for example, is a species at risk simply because of an introduced disease from Europe. Another important invasive species in park marine ecosystems on the Atlantic coast is green crab. Introduced through the bilge water of trans-oceanic ships, this aggressive species is invading estuaries and lagoons where it is displacing native species and directly impacting important eel grass habitats.
The effective management of invasive alien species requires cross-jurisdictional, multi-sectorial partnerships and sustained collaboration among stakeholders within the greater ecosystem of each of the national parks. For example, Parks Canada actively participates in the “Don’t Move Firewood Campaign” to help control the spread and impact of invasive species such as the emerald ash borer (EAB) in Ontario and Quebec and the Brown Spruce Longhorn Beetle (BSLB) in the Atlantic.
There are many examples of active management initiatives across the country which include strategies to manage invasive alien species in order to restore ecosystems. For example, the fescue grasslands in WatertonNational Park will be reinstated through prescribed burns, removal of invasive alien species and reclaiming disturbed sites using native plant species.
Another example is restoration of Garry Oak ecosystems in southern areas of Vancouver Island through the control of the spread of invasives such as Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry and English ivy. This is a good example of involving citizens and stakeholders in action because we have volunteer groups actually out there pulling these weeds to restore Gary Oak ecosystems.
There is a brand new disease of bats in the northern U.S. and southern Canada right now called “White Nosed Syndrome.” It’s a fungus which is known from bats in Europe. All of a sudden, it’s showing up here and we don’t know how. It’s in several bat caves in New York, Vermont and Quebec. It’s a fungus which grows on the skin of bats. It’s called White Nosed Syndrome because the bat gets a bloom of fungus on its nose. It appears that when they’re hibernating over the winter, they are so bothered by this fungal growth that they come out of torpor (their hibernation mode) to scratch. Because they come out of torpor, they more energy and they simply starve to death over the winter. In caves where this has been located, there have been devastating losses of bats-over 95%.
What is Parks Canada doing about White Nosed Syndrome?
We are restricting access to caves. We don’t know how this disease is transmitted and we don’t know how at this point how we can solve this problem other than to restrict the bats’ movement.
Does Parks Canada have any kind of official standpoint on the reintroduction of keystone species?
Parks Canada has a long history of species re-introductions including predators such a spine martin, fisher and peregrine falcons and herbivores such as bison. We don’t have any separate policy on keystone species. Rather this idea is inherent in the concept of ecological integrity. Where predators or keystone species are absent, we consider re-introductions, population enhancement or replacing their role in the ecosystem with management interventions.
Are there plans to reintroduce wolves or any other keystone species in Canadian national parks?
Having the full suite of trophic levels within a park is a key part of our definition of ecological integrity, so we do work to ensure that predators are present in our national parks. We did a big project to restore wildlife movement corridors around the town of Banff. Because it’s mountainous terrain and predators like wolves and cougars use the valley bottoms for movement, the town of Banff was acting like a cork in the bottle. We took out a number of facilities on one side of the valley and restored a wildlife movement corridor. That has worked very well. We also drove the elk out of the town of Banff, which was acting as a predation refuge. Elk were having their young on people’s doorsteps. We have a zero tolerance policy for elk in town. We get them out where they can interact with predators and the predators can move around this restored wildlife corridor. We have restored a much healthier predator-prey relationship there.
There are no plans to reintroduce wolves in any particular place at the moment. We’ve done a number of successful reintroductions of mesopredators, such as fisher, martin and Peregrine falcons, in national parks. As I mentioned earlier, we reintroduced Black-footed Ferret, which is a keystone predator in prairie dog colonies, in Grasslands National Park. So far, they are surviving very well.
In St. Lawrence Islands National Park, we have an overabundance of white-tailed deer because there are no predators. Wolves are gone. We are actually playing the role of predator by harvesting white-tailed deer in cooperation with First Nations-the Mohawks of Akwesasne Reserve. We set the target of the number of animals we want to remove from that system and [the Mohawks of Awkesasne] do it in partnership with us. The public has been completely supportive. It’s a win for us and a win for the Mohawks because they can continue their traditional harvest activity and get wild meat for their population.
In addition to bison and the Black-footed ferret, can you give us another example of a species at risk and tell us what action Parks Canada is taking toward its protection?
Parks Canada is responsible for the protection and recovery of species at risk and their critical habitats on lands and waters managed by the Agency. Since 2000, our Species at Risk Program has focused on fulfilling our responsibilities under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and contributing to the improvement of ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks. At the same time, federal efforts are closely integrated with provincial and territorial programs. Strong inter-agency partnerships are a hallmark of Parks Canada’s efforts to protect and recover species at risk. We also work closely with Aboriginal governments, local communities, and stakeholder groups to ensure the protection and recovery of species at risk within greater park ecosystems.
Pink Sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata) once took root along the shores of Vancouver Island. The sweet smelling annual herb, with its rounded clusters of blossoms on long trailing stems, is well adapted to salt spray beaches. It grows along the shores of California and Oregon – but its existence on Vancouver Island has always been tenuous at best. Because Pink Sand-verbena was last seen on Parks Canada land (in 2001), we are leading its recovery. The primary objective is to re-establish the species where it most recently was found, at Clo-ooseBay in Pacific Rim. We’re also looking for other areas of suitable habitat so the plant can be established at more sites. These precious plants grew slowly at first and suffered some early challenges (an aphid infestation for example). But to everyone’s great relief they finally started to flower and seed profusely in 2007.
What other countries’ national parks agencies do you regard as leaders in terms of the protection, enhancement and restoration of ecological integrity and resilience on park land?
We have very positive relationships with many park agencies around the world. In November 2009, the Honorable Jim Prentice, Canada’s Environment Minister and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, announced an unprecedented memorandum of understanding with the U.S. and Mexico to cooperate on wilderness conservation across North America. The announcement was made at the 9th World Wilderness Congress (Wild 9) in Mexico, where the Minister delivered a keynote speech on Canadian leadership in wildlife conservation.
Parks Canada also has memoranda of understanding with the US National Park Service and the Kenya Wildlife Service, as well as an exchange agreement with Parks Victoria (Australia). We all learn from each other.
Most Leaf Litter readers are engaged in conservation planning, ecosystem restoration and regenerative design. Any final thoughts you’d like to leave with our readers?
I think ecological restoration is our future. If we’re going to have a bright, successful, biodiverse future, we’re going to have to up our expertise and capacity in ecological restoration. It’s how we’re going to get through this population/climate change knothole. It’s going to be a fundamental part of our future.