While better management of human traffic is urged, there's no call to kick people out of the park.
TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Who's the big bad wolf afraid of?
People. And a new report suggests the increasing human presence in Alberta's Banff National Park has a profound and negative ripple effect on the area's ecosystem.
"You can see this stuff from the road. You don't need an ecologist to tell you it's happening," Mark Hebblewhite, an ecologist at the University of Alberta, warned. "The changes are real."
He helped write a report, appearing in the August issue of Ecology, that paints a vivid picture of what happens to any ecosystem when what is known as a "keystone species," such as a wolf, is absent.
While similar studies have been demonstrated in aquatic environments, this is one of the first and largest reports of its type conducted on land.
Over an eight-year period, researchers found that because wolves, which are also known as a "top predator," are afraid of humans, one of their main prey, elk, are capitalizing on that fear by clustering around the town of Banff.
In turn, the elk population, which at times has peaked at 500 to 600, overgraze the willows and aspen surrounding the bustling tourist town.
Because that wood then becomes scarce, beavers struggle to build dams and are more susceptible to starvation and predators.
Songbirds, such as the American Redstart that is largely dependent on willow, also begin to lose their habitat and have largely vanished from the area.
In the science world, this trickle-down effect is called "trophic cascade" and the results are profound, Hebblewhite said.
"This all leads to a much simpler, beige ecosystem. There isn't much variation. There are no tall willows, there are no openings or meadows. There is just a flat, brown grassland."
While the study recommends conservation and better management of human traffic at the national park, he said it's not a "clarion call to kick people out of parks.
"There are ways to minimize the effect of humans in the parks and that has to do with managing their behavior just like we manage the wolves' behavior by building corridors."
Why it matters
Hebblewhite said the report is groundbreaking because for too long researchers have tried to understand unhealthy ecosystems by examining species in isolation.
However, for many years it was difficult to study the wolf in western Canada because in the past century there have been attempts by humans to get rid of the animal. Before Europeans arrived, wolves were widespread and abundant.
Since wolves began to re-colonize the Bow Valley of Banff National Park in the mid-1980s, wildlife conservationists have long complained that their populations are threatened by development, motorists and trains in the park.The major problem is that wolves need a vast area to roam. According to research by the Central Rockies Wolf Project, they generally require 40,000 square kilometers in which to hunt and live.
Ron LeBlanc, a veteran warden at Banff National Park, said that studies such as the Ecology article help to focus their efforts at the massive park, which is visited by 3 million people a year.
"Every day is a balancing act."
LeBlanc said that they already try to mitigate problems between humans and animals by closing or restricting access to certain areas of the park.He said that, four years ago, with the elk population clustering around Banff, wardens began to use deterrent methods, including rubber bullets to scare them away from people.