Wild and magnificent
Updated March 28, 2011
Wild and magnificent, Jasper National Park rolls across the main and front ranges of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, from the Columbia Icefield in the south to the Resthaven Glacier in the north. Its northwestern boundary skirts the lower slopes of British Columbia’s Mount Robson, highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
Rivers with evocative names like Sunwapta, Whirlpool, Astoria, Maligne, Rocky, Snaring, Miette, Fiddle and Snake Indian tumble down from peaks and glaciers, carving their way to the Athabasca, which later joins the Mackenzie River flowing to the Arctic Ocean.
Rugged peaks, icefields, glaciers, scree slopes and flower-studded alpine meadows make up the alpine ecoregion – more than 40% of the park. The subalpine ecoregion, with steep slopes of thick coniferous forests, heavy winter snowfalls and rushing creeks, covers another 50%. The remaining area of less than 10% is the montane ecoregion of grasslands, wetlands, Douglas fir, pine and aspen forests cutting through the middle of the park from west to east following the Miette and Athabasca river valleys.
The montane ecoregion is very important for wildlife, particularly in winter. Warm Chinook winds ensure a shallow snow pack allowing good grazing for ungulates; forested areas provide adequate cover for their predators. All wildlife species that were here when the national park was created are still present – except for the bison.
Human history before the arrival of Europeans is a faded tapestry of native legends but there is evidence that Sarcee, Sekani and Kootenays used different parts of what is now the national park. In the 17th century the fur trade began to spread its tentacles across the country, reaching out from Montreal along the river systems leading from the Rocky Mountains. The passes over the Continental Divide into the vast British Columbia interior were lower in the north so what is now Jasper National Park became the main route for the fur brigades. With the fur traders came the explorers, surveyors and adventurers followed in the 19th century by the railways and settlers.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago the greater part of Canada was still wilderness with inroads only just beginning into her vast forests; much of the prairies were grasslands teeming with wildlife; her rivers were free-running, undammed and unpolluted. It took the discovery of mineral hot springs in 1883 in what is now Banff National Park to persuade politicians in far-off Ottawa that some features in what appeared to be endless wilderness were so unique as to require protection from uncontrolled development while at the same time providing the potential for earning tourism dollars. Government surveyors soon realized that the hot springs were located in some of the most spectacular scenery on the continent and 1885 saw the creation of Rocky Mountains Park around the springs; it was later renamed Banff National Park.
By the turn of the century a loose collection of protected areas was being formed in the Rockies – their boundaries changing depending on the whims of the politicians. To the north of Banff, Jasper National Park was finally established in 1907, covering almost 11,000 square kilometers. Of the Rocky Mountain National Parks it is the largest and the most representative of the natural region of the Front and Main ranges. In 1984 – together with Banff, Kootenay and Yoho national parks and the British Columbia provincial parks of Hamber, Mount Assiniboine and Mount Robson – Jasper became part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site under UNESCO, sealing its reputation as a tourism destination for people from all over the world.
Now the park is facing a very real threat to its integrity. Funding cuts by the federal government have enabled tourism interests to convince Parks Canada to allow what many Canadians would regard as inappropriate activities in a national park. A new Management Plan for the park, cleverly worded with a notable deficiency of specific goals and targets will allow Parks to escape accountability and agree to everything from a giant skywalk to zip-lining, hang-gliding and canopy tours.
But almost 90% of visitors come to the park for the wilderness experience and for the sense of peace they can find away from the concrete jungle. This experience includes sightings of the iconic wildlife that is now being asked to ‘share’ this wilderness with increased human numbers and noisy ‘visitor experiences’.
It is the nature of wildlife to be shy and protective of its young so it retreats instead of ‘sharing’. Tracks in winter indicate it has become more secretive and, in some particularly disturbed and fragmented areas, avoids what once used to be prime habitat.
It is still out there somewhere in the wetlands, forests and vastness of the alpine peaks and meadows and glimpses of it may be seen from time to time. That is why we dedicate this small electronic space to these spectacular and incomparable species that are the true owners of this national park and World Heritage Site.