Waterton Biosphere Reserve in the southwestern corner of Alberta is a rich, ecologically diverse area encompassing grasslands, lakes, foothills, and mountains. Its goal is to balance biodiversity conservation with human use of the land and a sustainable community-based regional economy. As is the case with all biosphere reserves, Waterton Biosphere Reserve consists of 3 zones.
- Waterton Lakes National Park is the protected core of the reserve. The park was established in 1895 and is the Canadian portion of the world’s first international peace park.
- The national park is surrounded by a buffer zone where activities are generally compatible with conservation objectives. The majority of this zone is occupied by provincial parks and conservation trust land, while the remainder includes private ranch land and some farm land.
- Moving further away from the core is the transition zone, which includes the towns of Cardston and Pincher Creek as well as farming and ranch land. Sustainable resource use is encouraged through research, education, and community-based planning but is entirely voluntary.
The biosphere reserve is managed by a volunteer board of directors and full- and part-time employees and contractors. One member of the board serves as a liaison with Waterton Lakes National Park.
The biosphere reserve’s community focus is invaluable as landowners and community members are engaged in identifying areas of concern and work together to address the needs of both farmers/ranchers and wildlife. This is particularly important when it comes to implementing recovery actions for species at risk.
Elizabeth Anderson, Waterton Biosphere Reserve’s conservation biologist, works closely with local ranchers and other landowners. “We have a unique opportunity to work directly with landowners and most of them are quite proud of having species at risk on their land and are interested in maintaining or improving the habitat,” she says. There are sensitivities, however, particularly following the introduction of an environmental protection order for greater sage-grouse in southeastern Alberta. “There are a lot of misconceptions,” Elizabeth says. “Landowners can be reluctant to engage because of perceived issues that might arise if the government knew they had endangered species on their land.” On a more positive note, landowners can benefit from grants that will maintain or improve habitat for species at risk. This could include fencing to keep livestock out of riparian areas at certain times of the year or off-site water to reduce trampling around wetlands. Costs are shared 50/50 although the landowner’s share may consist of time and equipment rather than dollars. Species at risk data collected by the biosphere reserve can also feed into the review process for proposed industrial projects such as pipelines, transmission lines, and wind farms that might be of concern to the landowner.
Community outreach and engagement activities such as presentations, workshops, field tours, and hands-on activities engage local residents in the work of the biosphere reserve. Take-home resources such as the bat exploration kit that allows families to detect bats on their own property have proved popular. Staff are always looking for ways to expand their reach to involve residents of local towns and ranching families.
Protecting Species at Risk
Every living creature requires a space it can call home where it can search for food, raise its young, and shelter from the weather. Two species at risk found within the biosphere reserve have very particular habitat requirements and are the focus of attention at the moment.
Trumpeter Swan: On a continental level, trumpeter swans have made a remarkable recovery. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the biosphere reserve’s population that is stable but not increasing. “With less than 10 breeding pairs, a catastrophic event such as a flood or a bad winter could wipe them out,” Elizabeth says. It’s uncertain why their numbers aren’t increasing. It isn’t lack of habitat, but it could be due to poor habitat quality.
Trumpeter swans don’t breed until they’re 5-7 years old. The young ones, known as loafers, take a long time to scope out possible breeding locations and Elizabeth explains that they have a fairly demanding list of requirements. When investigating potential sites, the swans will be considering who else is in the neighbourhood, the quality of the land and food supply, and the number of predators. They’ll want a quiet area where they can breed undisturbed.
Volunteers have been surveying the area during migration season to determine which water bodies are being used. Volunteer surveyors aren’t encouraged during breeding season to avoid upsetting the birds, but three new breeding sites have been identified thanks to ranchers coming forward with the information.
“The swans had a really good breeding season last year,” Elizabeth says. “This year hasn’t been as good. Some nests may have been flooded during a couple of days of heavy rain in June.”
Northern Leopard Frog: Part of the reason northern leopard frogs are considered a species at risk is because they require three distinct habitats. Successful breeding sites offer shallow standing water, a lack of predatory fish, and plenty of aquatic vegetation for cover and egg attachment. The frogs forage for food during the summer in moist grassy areas, moving further afield during wet spells. By the end of August, the frogs are heading for their overwintering habitat below a log, rock, or vegetation in a well-oxygenated wetland or fast-running stream that will not freeze to the bottom. Young frogs can travel up to 5 km from where they were born, while adults generally move less than 2 km between their three seasonal habitats.
Northern leopard frogs have been reintroduced in three locations in the reserve and it is hoped that they will spread out from these areas as their numbers increase. The biosphere reserve, in consultation with Waterton Lakes National Park and the Wilder Institute, has developed a plan to support the frogs’ recovery on private lands and hopes to post it on the reserve’s website in the fall. The report will be a resource for other groups who are looking for ideas on how to assist northern leopard frog recovery.
Photo credits: Trumpeter swans - Klaus Exner, Northern leopard frog - Andrew McKinlay
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