Of Glaciers And Grizzlies

November 1, 1999 by Laura Byrne Paquet

One of the great ironies of Glacier National Park is that the reason it exists at all is also the greatest threat to its survival.

“The number 1 challenge to the ecological integrity of the park is the national transportation corridor,” says John G. Woods, a park biologist for Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks and author of several books about the area.

Until the 1860s, this stunning region of what is now southeastern British Columbia was almost unmarked by human footsteps, native or European. And no wonder. Craggy mountains foil agriculture and most modes of transportation. Winters are cold. And up to 21 metres of snow fall in the area each year, some of which eventually tumbles down the mountainsides in fearsome avalanches.

But when British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, it insisted on a national railway. The job fell to William Cornelius Van Horne of the Canadian Pacific, and nothing–not even the forbidding peaks of the Selkirks–could stand in his way.

Even so, some thought it made more sense to build the railway through Yellowhead Pass, near what is now jasper, Alta. But that meant hundreds of miles of extra track. So the CPR decreed that the railway would be built through Calgary and in as direct a line as possible to Vancouver. Canadian Pacific Railway crews duly started laying track. through the Prairies.

There was just one slight problem. There was no known pass through the Selkirks. For a while, the CPR looked like a railroad to nowhere. Then the railway dangled a $5,000 carrot and a promise of immortality in front of an American surveyor, Major Albert Bowman Rogers: It promised him a bonus if he could find a suitable pass, and promised to name it after him if he did. He found it in 1881, and just four years later, the rails of the CPR shimmered through Rogers Pass in what is now Glacier National Park.

In 1885, a few weeks after the Last Spike was struck in Craigellachie, B.C., the inevitable avalanches in Rogers Pass temporarily closed the railway.

These days, the railway tracks through the pass have been replaced by a tunnel, but the Trans-Canada Highway has taken their place. And the world’s largest mobile avalanche control program keeps the pass clear of snow. Remote sensors near the pass transmit weather information to a central office, where forecasters use it to predict avalanches. When an impending disaster looms, the forecasters order: the highway closed, and members of the Canadian military fire a 105-mm howitzer into the avalanche paths to trigger a slide. Afterwards, teams clear vast amounts of snow from the pass, then the road is re-opened.

So, despite the wonders of modern engineering, traversing this region is not always easy. But despite the hazards, the magnificent scenery has proved an irresistible lure to travellers. In 1886, the year after the railway opened, the federal government realized the value of the newly opened area and set aside the 1,349 square kilometres, of Glacier National Park to protect it. Sightseers soon began arriving in droves, and the CPR was only too happy to accommodate them–and to earn some extra cash.

Because the rail grade in the mountains was too steep for the engines to pull heavy dining cars, CPR built fancy dining stations along the way. The station at Rogers Pass quickly expanded into a hotel called Glacier House, which opened in 1886. It was a popular retreat for mountaineers for several decades. But in 1916, the railway was rerouted away from the hotel through the Connaught Tunnel under Rogers Pass, and that–combined with some financial troubles at the CPR and the rising popularity of Banff and other resorts–sounded the death knell for the rambling old hotel in the late 1920s.

From then until the early 1960s, most of the small number of people who set eyes on Glacier National Park were either train passengers or hardy backpackers, who tramped in and stayed at the Wheeler Hut, a cabin opened in 1947.

But then the Trans-Canada Highway officially opened at Rogers Pass in 1962, and the park became much more accessible. By 1983, a visitor centre had been built near the Glacier House site. These days, more than 100,000 people visit the park each year, and traffic along the Trans-Canada Highway continues to grow.

Stretches of the highway outside the park have been expanded to two lanes in each direction, and those who work in the park today predict that the route through the park will eventually be enlarged, too. “I would say with confidence that eventually it will be twinned. It’s just a matter of time,” says Bruce McLellan, a wildlife research ecologist with the BC Forest Service. “It’ll happen as long as we’re driving and human populations are going up.”

The twinning will be an undisputed boon for drivers, but the busy highway and railway represent a threat to an already fragile ecosystem. For one thing, they discourage wildlife from using some of the park’s land. Mountain caribou, for instance, will come right up to the edge of the Trans-Canada, then shy away. “We have very, very few caribou crossings of the road now,” says McLellan, who is involved in a joint research project that has been tracking caribou with radio collars since 1992.

Considering that the entire park does not provide enough land to properly support the caribou, habitat fragmentation is a serious issue, particularly because all of the world’s 2,500 mountain caribou live in southeastern B.C. And the highway isn’t the only threat facing them.

In the last three decades, logging outside the park has increased. “The park has gone from essentially having pretty wild boundaries … to now having the forest roads … right up to the boundaries in many areas,” adds John Woods.

And even though the areas are often replanted with new trees, those won’t help the mountain caribou. During the winter, the animals subsist on a type of lichen that grows mainly on the branches of old-growth trees. Even recreation poses a threat to the caribou. “They live in places where snowmobilers really like to go, and heliskiers go,” says McLellan. Trails and noise can disrupt the caribou’s movements.

Caribou are one focus of ecologists working in and around the park. Bears are another.

According to various estimates, British Columbia is home to between 6,000 and 13,000 grizzly bears, or up to half of Canada’s total grizzly population. But the numbers are guesses at best.

To give wildlife managers the hard data they need to protect the bear population effectively, numerous agencies are co-operating on the West Slopes Bear Research Project. Researchers are studying the habitat use, characteristics, and movements of black and grizzly bears throughout the upper Columbia River basin, which includes the park. They gather samples of bear fur on bits of wire stretched through trees during the shedding season in June, and send them to a lab at the University of Alberta for DNA analysis. That analysis can tell them exactly which bears have been where.

The project was supposed to last five years but has been extended indefinitely. initial findings have already turned up one disturbing fact: More bears are dying in the area immediately around Glacier National Park than in some other parts of the mountains. Since most of the bears have a range that extends far outside the park boundaries, keeping them safe inside Glacier isn’t enough. That’s why the bear research project involves government, academic and non-profit partners at local, provincial and federal levels, says Woods.

Co-operation appears to be working. In Revelstoke, 72 kilometres west of the park, there’s a project that educates people on ways to prevent encounters with bears. Bears and humans have an uneasy relationship; the animals are attracted to garbage dumps, orchards and other sources of food in settled areas, but their presence threatens people. As a result, bears are often shot and killed. But since the Revelstoke project began, the number of bears that conservation officers have had to destroy in the area has dropped from more than 30 in 1995 to just four in 1998.

Unlike mountain caribou, bears do cross the Trans-Canada and the CPR occasionally. However, researchers are still trying to figure out whether those transportation corridors present a major obstacle to bears hunting for food and habitat. If so, there may be a solution.

In 1990, Woods studied a twinned section of the highway near Banff National Park, where eight animal underpasses and a high fence reduced car collisions with bighorn sheep, elk, moose and deer by roughly 95 per cent. However, it’s still not certain whether such methods would help bears and mountain caribou.

And ecologists have many more animal species to consider when managing the park’s resources. For at least part of the year, Glacier and its sister park, Mount Revelstoke, are home to 53 species of mammals and 235 species of birds, including bald eagles, rufous hummingbirds, porcupines, coyotes and moose. Interestingly, there are few game fish in Glacier; the icy rivers and lakes don’t support them.

The frigid waters are due to the park’s namesake and primary attraction: The 422 glaciers that cover 12 per cent of its area.

Glacial action has given the park some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. For instance, Mount Sir Donald has a classic, pointed “Matterhorn” shape, caused by glaciers nibbling away at all sides of the mountain over hundreds of years. Valleys throughout the park have been carved into U-shapes by the motion of glaciers. Milky-white streams and rivers, clouded with sediments dug up by the glaciers, cut through the park. Glacial rivers also created one of Canada’s largest cave systems, the spectacular Nakimu caves.

Yet, despite the effect the massive slabs of ice and snow have had on this region, the name Glacier National Park could become an eerie remainder of times past within just a few generations.

The park’s glaciers are products of the so-called “little ice age,” which began about 600 years ago. But these ancient giants have changed dramatically in the last century. When Glacier National Park opened 113 years ago, visitors could step off a train at Rogers Pass and take a short, leisurely stroll to the toe of the Great Glacier–now the Illecillewaet Glacier. Since then, the ice has receded more than a kilometre up the valley. Between 1850 and 1951, the glacier lost half its volume and one quarter of its area, decreasing from 9.27 square kilometres to 6.7 square kilometres. Despite slight growth between 1950 and 1991, caused by increased snowfall, the glacier is once again retreating by between 10 and 20 metres each year.

Glaciologist Mindy Brugman of the Columbia Mountains Institute of Applied Ecology, CMIAE, studies the park’s icefields. She is disturbed by the changes taking place in the park, which, she attributes to global warming. “If present trends of warming and glacier recession, continue, within the next 50 years even the vast Illecillewaet icefield could change dramatically,” she wrote in a recent issue of the park’s newsletter. “It could become a high rocky plateau of barren rock and icy cold lakes, much like regions to the south that have long since lost their glaciers.”

A glacier is basically a gigantic relative of those long-lasting piles of snow outside urban hockey arenas. Because glaciers are located high in the mountains, the spring thaw doesn’t melt them entirely, and gravity compresses the snow into ice. New snow that falls on top of them in later years deflects the sun’s rays further, and the glacier grows.

Glaciers need two things to survive: Cold temperatures and lots of snow. Glacier National Park has both in abundance. In July the average temperature at Mount Fidelity, on the west side of the park, is just 15 degrees Celsius. in October, the daily high is just three degrees and over a metre of snow falls during the month. By January, the daily high is minus eight degrees and the monthly snowfall tops 2.5 metres.

But a minor change in temperature can affect glaciers dramatically. Brugman points out that average temperatures have climbed just four-tenths of a degree Celsius since 1900, but that increase has been enough to seriously shrink the glaciers. And if the glaciers disappear, the whole character of the park could change. Glaciers contribute between 40 and 90 per cent of the flow of the Columbia River during the summer. They also affect climate, animal habitats, food sources and hiking trails.

Looked at one way, the ecological situation in the park doesn’t seem promising. Loggers are closing in on the mountain caribou’s old-growth forests, traffic is building and glaciers are shrinking. But in the 19th century, another group of people confronted seemingly insane obstacles in this very area; with willpower and money, they built a railway that seemed like an impossible dream. These days, scientists and others who love the park have already begun using their willpower and money to preserve the park for the 21st century, and beyond.

Contacting The Park

There are many ways to delve more deeply into the park’s history and natural attractions. If you visit the park, start at the Rogers Pass Centre, which is open all year, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays in November. The phone number is: 1-250-814-5232. The centre may be closed at different times during the winter.

The park has several short, self-guided trails that give you a taste of Glacier’s history. The Abandoned Rails Trail takes you along the rail grade abandoned after the Connaught Tunnel was built. The Loop Brook Trail passes the pillars that once supported sections of track. And the Hemlock Grove Boardwalk Trail winds through a stand of old-growth Western Hemlock. Longer hiking trails include routes that lead you to lakes, the Illecillewaet Glacier, alpine meadows and scenic views.

There is one hotel in the park as well as campgrounds and alpine huts.

For armchair travellers, books about the park include John G. Woods’ comprehensive guidebook, Glacier Country, and Snow War, his account of the constant battle against avalanches, Glacier House Rediscovered, David Finch’s history of the long-gone hotel; and a small trail guide called Footloose in the Columbias. And if you’re online, check out the park’s excellent Web site at http://www.harbour.com/parkscan/glacier/

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