Great Canadian Parks / Alberta

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The Parks / Alberta / Waterton Lakes National Park

One consequence of the movement of the Lewis Overthrust, is the lack of foothills in Waterton National Park. But it is a remarkable vista this expanse of prairie that abruptly erupts into mountains. On the eastern side of the park, the elevation soars as high as 1220 metres only a kilometre from the prairie floor. It also grants Waterton an immense diversity of wildlife and plant species.


The bison paddock is a reminder that these beasts once roamed the fescue prairie along with the elk and coyotes, muskrats and mink. Mountain species such as Bighorn sheep, mountain goats and cougars thrive here, utilizing the variety of habitats available to them on a seasonal basis. While the mountain goats tend to keep to the craggy ridges of the alpine, bighorn sheep are frequently seen in town in late summer, taking advantage of cultivated gardens, and preparing for the fall rut. Moose frequent lakes and ponds throughout the park area; black bears can be found emerging from the forest quite unexpectedly. Grizzly bear and wolves are more elusive, but increasingly dependent on this small island of protected habitat.


More unlikely inhabitants are the Harlequin duck, normally found on the West Coast and, occasionally, nesting Trumpeter swans.


Diversity is perhaps even more evident in the flora of Waterton Lakes. Comprising six ‘life zones', wetland, prairie and parkland at the lower elevations, montane in the mountain valleys and lower slopes, up to the sub-alpine and alpine zones, the park protects over 900 catalogued species of wildflowers, more than half the known species in all of Alberta. At least one reason for this abundance is the climate Waterton receives more precipitation than the rest of the province by virtue of its meeting of prairie with the mountains of the Divide. The influences of westerly weather also bring more chinooks, those unseasonably warm winds, to the eastern faces of the park, as Pacific air masses rapidly descend down the mountains, gaining in temperature and melting away all traces of winter in a matter of minutes.

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