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060 Tricking bumblebees and a renewed focus on ecological integrity in Canada's national parks
4 days ago
Orchids tricking Bumblebees Wandering trails around the Bow River valley, it seems like every day there are new and exciting changes taking place. The leaves have begun to emerge and the early season blooms are adding a splash of colour to the meadows and forest leaf litter. Today I saw my first Calypso orchids of the season. These tiny, delicate orchids are one of the first forest flowers to emerge in the spring. The forest floor is still a tangle of pine needles with nary a hint of colour, other than the few green leaves and similarly coloured buffaloberry blooms, willow bushes, and bilberry. Calypso, or Fairy Slipper orchids as they are also known, are one of the most beautiful of the mountain orchids. More intricately coloured than the showier Yellow Ladyslipper Orchid, it takes a keen eye to see the amazing detail in the bloom. Each plant produces a single basal leaf close to the ground. In the spring, not long after the snows have melted, a single stem will emerge to produce a single, tiny flower. They rarely reach higher than 20 cm above the ground and the flowers are only around 3 cm across. In some regions, it's nicknamed "Hider-of-the-north" because it's so easy to miss. While there are 4 species globally, there are only two found in the mountain west, Calypso bulbosa var. americana and Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis. On the eastern side of the great divide, you'll only see the americana variety while British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana and Alaska have both. All of the flowers are similar in appearance. The first thing you'll notice on close examination is the typical ladyslipper appearance. Usually, 3 sepals and 3 identical petals rise vertically and to the side of the flower. The actual slipper has a pinkish cover and the pouch is intricately coloured with dark purple streaks. It sports a yellow beard which holds pollen, and a lower lip. In the eastern slopes, the americana variety has a white to pinkish lip while the western occidentalis variety has a lip covered with darker purple spots. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the Calypso orchid is that it doesn't provide nectar to the bumblebee queens that seek it out looking for a sugary reward. Instead, they get large amounts of pollen deposited on their body with no actual nectar for their effort. This is not very common in nature. As you can imagine, providing a sugary treat is a huge motivator for bumblebees to come visit. Instead, the Calypso provides bright colouration that says, come over and say hi, and then provides little in return to the bumblebee. Food deception, as this behaviour is known, has seen more intense study during the past few decades. Biologists have come up with a number of theories as to why it occurs. Food-deceptive orchids usually see fewer visits by bees for obvious reasons, but it can also help to ensure cross-pollination by making bees less likely to visit the same plant twice. Two competing theories try to explain how food-deceptive orchids are able to attract pollinators even though they don't offer nectar. The first focuses on the fact that they are often one of only a few bright flowers at this time of year, and this may increase their chances of being visited, despite the lack of nectar. Alternatively, they may still benefit from other nectar-producing flowers nearby. Their blooming period overlaps with a few other pollen producers like willows and some bilberry plants. A 2015 study published in Scientific World Journal found Calypso pollen on 7% of bumblebee queens captured on willow plants, and 18.2% of those visited more than one flower. Since flowering willows make an area attractive to bumblebee queens, the Calypso likely benefits from their proximity. On a smaller scale, the lack of a diversity of other flowering plants helps the Calypso to attract queens that may have been attracted to the area for willow or bilberry nectar. Why not just provide nectar like other flowering plants? Quite simply, it's expensive. Calypso orchids save resources by not producing nectar. A single visit by a queen can take a lot of pollen and so they don't need too many repeat visits. They still need to attract the queen though. Their bright yellow pollen beard and purple streaked pouch provide a visual attraction. They also have a strong smell similar to the smell of vanilla. Essentially, while the flower doesn't offer a reward, it still takes advantage of bright colours and a strong scent to attract a hungry bumblebee queen. In the end, these tricky flowers are able to attract enough queens to ensure reliable pollination. That brings up another question: why just bumblebees queens. The simple answer is that the queens are the only bumblebees around when the Calypso blooms. As summer begins to draw to a close, a bumblebee colony begins to prepare for the following year by producing a final brood of larvae that will contain several queens along with some males. It's those queens that will find a safe place to hibernate for the winter, usually around 20 cm below the surface. They produce glycol in their blood to keep them from freezing to death. Other than these few queens, the rest of the colony dies at the end of every season. After a 6-month sleep, these groggy queens emerge to look for the very earliest spring flowers. In this area, Calypso are one of these wildflowers, along with willow, buffaloberry, and bilberry that greet their arrival. It's this grogginess and the naivete of these newly emerged queens that is likely why the Calypso is able to fool them into pollinating them. As she gathers strength and experience, she'll get to recognize Calypso and avoid them in the future. The next year, it'll be another naïve new queen and the process begins anew. Her next order of business is to find a den. They're fond of mouse, ground squirrel, or weasel burrows. They'll even take advantage of an empty nest box as well. Once she finds a den, she begins the real job of preparing for a new brood of worker bees. Unlike honeybees that can have thousands of individuals, a bumblebee colony will only have a few hundred. She starts by building a wax honeypot that she fills with nectar. This will offer her a food supply when the weather doesn't cooperate. They don't make hexagonal honeycomb-like honey bees, but instead, she makes waxy cups. Into these, she'll lay 5-15 eggs. These will pupate in about 20 days and emerge as adults after 4-5 weeks. From this point on her foraging days are over. These solely female workers will take over those duties and she'll spend the rest of her life in the den laying and tending to eggs. At the end of summer, the colony begins to produce additional queens along with some males. They leave the nest and look for suitable mates. Once mated, the queens will try to feed on as much pollen as possible in order to store up reserves for the winter. She'll then look for a den to hibernate, waking up just in time for a new crop of Calypso to bloom. Let's Talk Parks Canada Way back in episode 26, I dedicated the entire episode to slamming some of the decisions that Parks Canada had made in the previous years that were putting the important ecological integrity of parks at risk. At that time, Parks Canada released the results of an intergovernmental panel that had listened to stakeholders looking into Canadians views on Parks Canada's management of the nation's parks. Simultaneously, they were trying to force feed an $86.4 million dollar bike path from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields - while trails with decades of history were falling into disrepair. To their chagrin, a master of the Freedom of Information Act, Ken Rubin, managed to get all of the original internal documents from Parks Canada's own scientists that reflected the same concerns that many of us had - along with some that I hadn't even considered. To the agencies credit, they didn't deflect the results of the report. They owned. It. Also in their defence, some of the decisions were a reflection of a decade of the Harper government's anti-science, anti-conservation policies. It was a decade of open the floodgates, spend money where it will return the most short-term returns and let the ecology be damned. The Liberals have taken the time to listen to a decade of frustration on how Parks Canada has lost its way. I first came to the Canadian Rockies in 1980 along with my best friend, to hike the 176 km South Boundary Trail running from Nigel Creek in Banff all the way to Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park. Today, routes like the north and south boundary trails are no longer viable backpacking routes. An April 16, 2018 document released by Parks Canada titled Backcountry Fact Sheet for Operators describes the routes as such: "Users of the North and South Boundary trails should consider these more like wilderness routes and expect trees down, with a variety of un-bridged stream and river crossings. Campgrounds are primitive with little if any infrastructure apart from designated areas for cooking, camping and open pits for human waste." When I visited in the 80's, Parks Canada was expanding the facilities at these backcountry sites by providing good toilets, trees for hanging food, and well-designated campsites. It was still a wilderness trail, simply due to the fact that it traversed long distances with little proximity to highways. At the same time, these were also the days of backcountry wardens and we regularly encountered them in the backcountry. In 2018, once you leave the highway, fuggedabout seeing any representative of the Parks Canada Agency. The days of backcountry patrols are long gone. Even the warden cabins are falling into disrepair. Now while the South and North Boundary Trails have always been considered wilderness trails, other trails like the Tonquin Valley Trail in Jasper National Park are not. Back in Episode 10, I talked about growing complaints about Jasper's most popular backcountry trails becoming virtually impassable due to decades of neglect. Jasper's Fitzhugh Newspaper profiled the neglect. It quoted one particular example: "When B.C. resident Philip McDouall set out with three friends to hike the Tonquin Valley Sept. 16, he expected to encounter challenging conditions typical of a backcountry trail. What he didn’t expect to find was appalling trail conditions, dilapidated infrastructure and facilities overflowing with excrement". Of all the trails in Jasper, the Tonquin is one of the most iconic. The article continued: "On top of the appalling trail conditions, he also said many of the campsites are in a state of disrepair with dilapidated cooking areas, broken bear poles and outhouses that were nearly overflowing. At the Clithroe Campsite, in particular, he said the outhouse was so full there was evidence people had been defecating in other areas of the site. 'It was horrible,' said McDouall, 'The way the one chap described it, when you lifted the lid up and sat down you were literally sitting on the last person’s turd'." Why do I dredge up these old stories again? Because this past week the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna published the government's response to the 2017 "Let's Talk Parks Canada" nationwide consultation. The early results of the consultation, which I talk about in Episode 26 was just the first response from the government on the many challenges facing our parks and protected areas, as well as cultural, and aboriginal sites. McKenna, in the government's official response to the consultations published just last week, has reaffirmed Parks Canada's commitment to making the protection of ecological integrity job one. The government has taken a beating over the past few years over the increased development within the parks and the endless focus on bringing more and more cars through the park gates. Most of this was the legacy of the Harper years, but the Liberals are trying to chart a new course. While the words are comforting, we'll need to see whether the words result in action. (I'll add a link to the report in the show notes for this episode). The report puts forward three priorities for Parks Canada going forward: To protect and Restore our national parks and historic sites through focussed investments, working with Indigenous peoples, working with provinces and territories, and ensuring ecological integrity is the first priority in decision making. Enable people to further discover and connect with our parks and heritage through innovative ideas that help share these special places with Canadians. Sustain for generations to come the incredible value—both ecological and economic—that our parks and historic sites provide for communities. The value they bring to fighting climate change, protecting species at risk, and shaping our Canadian identity and jobs and economic opportunity for local communities. These are all things that we have been fighting for for the past decade in the mountain west. During the engagement process, the number one concern voiced was simply that the parks were not being protected and that ecological integrity was NOT the first priority. Respondents also voiced concerns over the reduced role of science and scientific funding in the decision-making process. Parks Canada has historically produced some of the most compelling wildlife research in the country and many of the respondents, myself included, reflected this disillusionment. Along with reductions in scientific funding, rigor, and the freedom to publish, respondents lamented the lack of maintenance of existing facilities. I've covered this in the preamble to this story but the challenge remains. Decades of decline leave long lists for renewal. In defence of Parks Canada though, many good things have begun to happen on this front. There have been huge investments in trailhead facilities in Jasper, along with dramatic investments into the Mount Edith Cavell day-use area. While the focus currently seems to be on repairing long-neglected front-country facilities, it's also important that funds are equally invested in even more decrepit backcountry campsites, trails, bridges, and signage. The more backcountry facilities deteriorate, the more damage the use of backcountry trails generate. If trails are experiencing deep rutting or flooding, hikers will bypass these areas leading to widening or braiding of trails. If outhouses are not maintained than hikers will bypass them and backcountry sanitation is also compromised. Parks has also realized that decisions have not been made transparently in the past. Decisions allowing the Glacier Skywalk, and tentatively an $86.4 million dollar bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields are only two examples. Other decisions allowing expansions to the Lake Louise Ski areas should also be coming into question. The Icefields bike trail should be immediately cancelled and reviews into the Lake Louise Ski Hill Expansion properly assessed. Participants in the study displayed a lack of trust in the transparency of decisions along with the ability of Parks Canada to really put ecological integrity on the top of their priorities. When stated goals simply don't match management decisions, trust gets eroded. Minister McKenna also vowed to focus on both ecological integrity AND to "restore funding to research, ecological monitoring, and public reporting." The past decade has not been easy on Parks Canada and the nation's parks and reserves desperately need stable funding to ensure important research is ongoing. The 30-year study of wildlife movement corridors and highway crossing structures is a great example. The global value of this study is largely based on its long years of study. Good science takes time, and this study shows dramatic changes in wildlife adaptation to crossing structures over time. Without stable funding, science like this would be lost. We need the federal government to be a leader in research, ecosystem and facility restoration, and environmental assessments. These pillars can help to reduce some of the damage caused by a decade of neglect. Traffic management in busy parks was also a key point in the feedback received by Parks Canada. Over the past decade or so, with deteriorating backcountry conditions and increased frontcountry development, some 95% of the traffic visits the same 2% of the park - the paved corridors. As an example, traffic on Banff Townsite roads increased 17% between 2014 and 2017, increasing from 22,600 to 27,500 per day during July and August. This weekend's Victoria Day holiday could see a repeat of last year. On the Sunday of the long weekend, Banff saw 31,600 cars moving in and out of the townsite. The roads are only designed to accommodate 24,000 cars per day. The cars backed up at both entrances to town with delays in some cases stretching as much as 30 minutes. This doesn't even take into account the increased transit service in the mountain parks. Local Roam Transit saw an increase of 25 percent during July and August. While the final numbers are not in, it's expected that some 700,000 riders will have taken advantage of the service. In addition to this, vast numbers used shuttles from Calgary to Banff, Banff to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, and from the Lake Louise overflow campground to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. Last summer, ATS Traffic performed magic in terms of keeping vehicles moving, reducing traffic jams, and keeping people from parking for kilometres along busy roadways. While this is laudable, we need to ask ourselves an important question: how many visitors are simply too many? If our focus is on bringing more and more and more people to the shore of Lake Louise, we may reduce traffic snafus, but we are also negatively impacting the visitor experience. Ten years of the Harper government trying to push as many cars as possible through the gates to cash in on the rush didn't factor in the importance of the experience. Tourism is fickle. The experience is critical. Last summer, I was on a multi-day trip and was finishing my day at a hotel in the Village of Lake Louise. My most beautiful lady, Jules was coming to meet me to stay the night and have a nice dinner at the Station Restaurant. She drove from Canmore to the Lake Louise exit. To meet me, she needed to take a left turn off of the exit, but the ATS Traffic staff forced all cars to turn right towards the ski hill. She complied, even though it was the wrong direction. When she had an opportunity, she did a u-turn to head back towards the village. When she got to the village, no vehicles were allowed up the road towards the Chateau. Instead, they were all required to turn right to go towards the Station. She was becoming increasingly frustrated and was on the verge of heading home when she was finally allowed the right of way. Essentially, they were stacking cars off of the highway. The roads don't have the capacity to accommodate so many vehicles trying to go up the hill to the Chateau, so the ATS staff were simply stacking the cars along any road that was available. This prevented cars from backing up into the busy traffic lanes of the Trans-Canada Highway. It was one of the most painful tourism experiences I've witnessed, but safety was the primary concern. When we walked to the restaurant, we chatted with drivers stuck in the various stacking lanes and they expressed major frustration. Many had travelled long distances to see Lake Louise but instead were stuck in Toronto-style traffic. Even if they eventually made it to the lake, along with the thousands of other visitors in their convoy, the experience was not a positive one. As a destination, we can't afford large groups of visitors flocking to sites like Trip Advisor and saying: "don't go to Banff…they've ruined it!". We need to look at hard limits to the number of people that can visit sites like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. As much as we need to appreciate the revenue that each additional car brings, we also need to think of the future. If tourists of today slam the experience, then how many visitors will come tomorrow? This doesn’t even consider the impacts to wildlife and ecological integrity that comes about as a result of high-intensity, volume tourism. Since park fees stay in the park they're collected, it forces the park to rely on those dollars for their operating costs. When parks depend on gate fees, it's hard to imagine they can focus on improving visitor experiences and ecological integrity when doing so requires them to give up large amounts of important operating income. The funding of the park should NOT require the park to compromise its mandate in order to have the cash to keep the lights on. One of the final topics covered by Minister McKenna has to deal with expanding opportunities for new people to experience Canada's Parks. She repeatedly mentions "new Canadians" as a group that, as the future of Canada, need expanded opportunities to explore and learn from our natural landscapes. I totally agree that new Canadians can play a huge role in the future of our parks but we need to facilitate the experiences in a way that will help them understand the ecology, sensitivity, and uniqueness of the parks. When literature is only available in two arbitrary languages, we're not facilitating the experiences of visitors whose first language is not English or French. Canada has huge numbers of tourists arriving from countries like Germany, Japan, India, Taiwan, Korea, and increasingly, China. Many of these visitors don't come from places with intact wilderness or truly WILD life. We read about wildlife habituation and other park management challenges, and often the names in the articles reflect the potential for language barriers. We need to make sure that the literature we provide to visitors is in a language they can understand. If we want visitors to the National Parks to respect and appreciate nature, we have to help them understand just how delicate wilderness really is. That is best done without artificial barriers. All literature should be available at least in English, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, and Arabic. I would also argue that Parks Canada should reach out to diverse communities through outreach as a way to help bring the messages of conservation to these same communities in their native language. Let's make sure our visitors have all the tools they need to have the best, and safest, visit possible. The landscape will thank us for it. And with that, it's time to wrap this episode up. Don't forget that Ward Cameron Enterprises is your source for step-on, hiking, and photography guides in the Canadian Rockies. You can find us online at www.WardCameron.com or visit our Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/WardCameronEnterprises. If you'd like to reach out to me on Twitter, you can hit me up @wardcameron. Don't forget to visit the show notes at www.MountainNaturePodcast.com/ep060 for links to additional information as well as an easy subscribe button so you'll never miss an episode…and with that, the sun's out and it's time to go hiking. I'll talk to you next week.