Canada's national parks provide a home for many plants and animals - from lilies to majestic forests, and from insects to grizzly bears. An important challenge for parks Canada is to know what plants and animals occur in a given park, what ecosystems they use, and how these species and ecosystems are changing over time.

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganese), Point Pelee National Park of Canada
Children surrounding a large cedar on the Giant Cedar trail in Mount Revelstoke National Park of Canada
Long-horned Beetle, La Mauricie National Park of Canada
Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), Kluane National Park and Reserve of Canada

Park inventories tell us what kind of plants and animals we have, and for some species, about how many we have. In the same way that animals and plants can be classified into species, park ecosystems can be classified into ecosystem types. For example, wetlands, forests, grasslands, and arctic tundra are examples of park ecosystem types that we can identify and inventory by mapping.

Wetland in Riding Mountain National Park of Canada
Temperate rainforest in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada
Mixed Grass Prairie, with the Badlands in the distance, Grasslands National Park of Canada
Arctic tundra at Oliver Sound, Sirmilik National Park of Canada

In addition to knowing how many kinds of plants, animals, and ecosystems we have, we also need to know how the number or health of park species or ecosystems are changing over time - this is the job of monitoring.

This section of the Parks Canada internet site outlines the inventory and monitoring activities that we carry out in National Parks.

Inventory

Warden collecting fish monitoring data

A principle role for Canada's national parks is to provide habitat for the plants and animals that are typical of the natural area in which the park is located. Parks provide habitat for very common species as well as rare and Species at risk. Each park has a list of the major plant and animal species that occur in the park, and these species are tracked using the Species-In-Parks (SIPS) database. The species list is updated, as new information is made available.

It is obviously impossible to count the thousands of species that occur in our national parks. However, for many of the main species, such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, Rocky Mountain elk, mountain goat, mountain sheep, caribou, and grizzly bears, Parks Canada biologists conduct regular surveys to estimate how many animals occur in and around a particular park. This work is often carried out with partners such as the Canadian Wildlife Service or provincial and territorial governments.

Short-Tailed Swallowtail (Papilio brevicauda) in Gros Morne National Park of Canada

The hundreds of species that make up a park species list are actually only a small percentage of the total number of species that occur in a park. There are thousands of species of insects, invertebrates, protozoans, fungi and bacteria that occur in the millions in all of our park ecosystems. For example, it has been estimated that there may be thousands of species of these organisms in a single handful of forest soil.

These thousands of species perform very important ecological functions such as pollination of plants by insects, decomposition of leaf litter on the forest floor by bacteria that provides essential nutrients for tree growth, and fungi that live inside tree roots and help trees take up water and nutrients out of the soil.

Ecosystem succession: Forest trees grow and die, and are replaced by younger trees growing under the canopy

We will probably never know all of these species and we certainly won't be able to count them all. The way we manage our parks to try and make sure that these species persist is by making sure that the range of ecosystem types that are typical of a natural region are represented across the park landscape. This is one of the principle functions of developing an inventory of park ecosystems.

Natural regeneration of a burn area, Kluane National Park and Reserve of Canada

Inventories of park ecosystem types are conducted periodically to provide an assessment of the distribution and condition of park ecosystems. This inventory needs to be updated periodically to account for changes in ecosystems that result from ecosystem succession and disturbance. Ecosystems change over time in a process called ecosystem succession.

For example, forest trees grow and die and are replaced by younger trees that were growing slowly under the canopy. Forest ecosystems may also change very rapidly in response to large-scale disturbances such as forest fires, insect infestations, or landslides, and this initiates a new progression of forest ecosystem succession. Other ecosystems such as wetlands and grasslands also change slowly over time, and may be altered dramatically by disturbance.

Prescribed burning in Mount Revelstoke National Park of Canada
An avalanche slope on the Balu Pass trail, Glacier National Park of Canada

Monitoring

Caribou with EI Monitoring graph overlay
Parks Canada Ecological Integrity Monitoring Program

What is ecosystem monitoring?

Ecosystem monitoring measures changes in ecosystems over time. In Parks Canada we manage ecosystems to maintain and restore ecological integrity (EI). Thus the specific objective of the Parks Canada monitoring program is to measure changes in the ecological integrity of park ecosystems.

Why monitor?

Parks Canada's central management mandate is to enhance and restore ecological integrity while fostering public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment. EI Monitoring provides park managers with critical information on changes in ecological integrity with regard to that mandate. Parks Canada is presently in the process of assessing our present monitoring program, and adjusting these programs to provide more comprehensive reporting of changes in park ecological integrity.

A well-designed EI monitoring program can provide useful information:

  • Assess the effectiveness of our management actions;
  • Increase our understanding of ecosystem change;
  • Find areas where further research is needed, and;
  • Serve as an 'ecological baseline' to which non-protected landscapes can be compared.

History of Parks Canada monitoring

Over the years, Parks Canada has been a leader in ecosystem monitoring in the protected area community. Ecosystem management has occurred within parks since the 1930s, and the term ecological integrity was introduced to park policy as early as 1979. National parks across the system have been monitoring different aspects of park biology for many years, in response to a wide variety of management concerns. The important role of EI monitoring in national parks was brought into clear focus through the Parks Canada's response (coming soon) to the Report of the Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada's National Parks (coming soon). What is new at this time is that managing for the integrity of park ecosystems has been legislated as the primary management focus, and parks are now required to report comprehensively on the whole park ecosystem.

The EI monitoring framework was developed by Parks Canada to provide a conservation science context for comprehensive EI monitoring and reporting in national parks. The EI monitoring framework divides park ecological integrity into two components - plant and animal diversity, and ecosystem processes. The framework also identifies categories that describe the principal stressors that affect park ecosystems.

The EI monitoring framework

Assessing ecological integrity
Biodiversity (characteristic of region)
Species richness
  • change in species richness
  • numbers and extent of exotics
Population dynamics
  • mortality/natility rates of indicator species
  • Imigration/ emigration of indicator species
  • population viability of indicator species
Trophic structure
  • size class distribution of all taxa
  • predation levels
Ecosystem functions (resilient, evolutionary potential)
Succession/ retrogression
  • disturbance frequencies and size (fire. insects, flooding)
  • vegetation age class distributions
Productivity
  • remote or by site
Decomposition
  • by site
Nutrient retention
  • Ca, N by site
Stressors (unimpaired system)
Human land-use patterns
  • land use maps, roads densities, population densities
Habitat fragmentation
  • patch size, inter-patch distance, forest interior*
Pollutants
  • sewage, petrochemicals, etc.
  • long-range transport of toxics
Climate
  • weather data
  • frequency of extreme events
Other
  • park specific issues

Changing the way we monitor park EI

Number of monitoring projects by category for the Atlantic parks

A major task for each park will be to adjust their present EI monitoring programs to ensure that revised monitoring programs can report on specific management activities, and on the whole park ecosystem, as dictated by management objectives and outlined by the EI monitoring framework. This process is underway through a national survey summarizing all monitoring presently occurring in national parks. A pilot survey in Atlantic parks indicated that considerable monitoring is occurring, but is focussed primarily on monitoring animal populations.

A major challenge for each park will be to develop core- monitoring indicators that are relevant for a park, but can be summarized regionally and nationally. The monitoring and reporting of the ecological integrity at park-level and national levels can be visualized as a monitoring pyramid.

The Parks Canada ecological integrity monitoring pyramid

Another major challenge of the program will be to develop new approaches to synthesizing and presenting complex ecological information into a format useful for park management, and for communicating to Canadians on the condition of national parks.