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Wild Waters and Wildlife

This past week, my home town, Canmore, flooded. It flooded like it has never flooded before and it was one of the most tragic things I have ever witnessed. Words cannot express how I felt to see my community submerged in water, to watch insanely high waters rip apart our roads, our trails, and some of our homes. There is no doubt that our town and its residents have been irreversibly changed by this event.

The Trans Canada Highway, several hours before peak flood levels.

But what about our wilderness?

As I was standing on the Trans Canada Highway watching Cougar Creek rush forth with unstoppable energy and power, I reminded myself that Cougar Creek is a creek that flash floods. And even though that is incredibly sad for our human community, it is something that has been happening for thousands of years. It’s something that the ecosystem around us has adapted to and evolved with.

So if we can pretend for a minute that there were no human settlements in the path of this destructive water, what would have happened to the ecosystem and how would animals deal with that? Are the impacts from the intense flash flooding we’ve seen good or bad for the ecosystem?

So I did a little digging.

Floods are a natural part of the Rocky Mountain and Alberta Eastern Slopes ecosystems. Floods can distribute large amounts of water and suspended river sediment over vast areas. We may look at this redistributed dirt as something needing to cleaned up, but it can actually help replenish valuable topsoil. Not only that, but that dirt can be very high in nutritional components that aren’t already in the topsoil. So that sediment deposit actually feeds the flood plain.

Flood waters of the Bow River help to redistribute sediment and nutrients away from the river bank.

Flood waters of the Bow River help to redistribute sediment and nutrients away from the river bank.

In the case of flash floods like in Cougar Creek, the ecosystem gets a good scour and clean by flooding. The flood waters rush down the mountain side and take with it a lot debris (as we all saw) – these waters are ‘cleaning’ the forest and getting it ready to start from scratch. Our forests in Southern Alberta have adapted to this level of high intensity disturbance and many organisms actually rely on it for part of their life cycle.

In the moment

So what were the animals in our wilderness doing while I was standing on the Highway watching the flood waters? The same thing as all of us – searching for higher ground, trying to avoid the flow, and waiting for the rain to stop. Even though animals have evolved with these disturbances, that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful for them. As I watched the waterfalls coming down the mountain sides, I imagined that many animals may be trapped between overflowing creeks and drainages. One thing that I noticed during the rain and flooding was the lack of animal sounds – there were no birds chirping, I didn’t see any ungulates, and I didn’t hear any animals in the bush. They were all hiding and waiting… just like we were.

The aftermath

One of the first things I saw when the sun finally came out was the family of crows that lives in the neighbourhood come out and play in the sunshine. Their joy in the sunshine was similar to my own. I watched them soar over my building and play in the air as if to celebrate the end of the flood. I felt exactly the same way. When I went for a walk that morning and afternoon, I heard animals everywhere. It was as if the forest was doing a role call. So as I walked around my town and ran into all my friends and made sure they were ok, the gophers were checking in on their families too, and the birds were calling to each other to do their own roll call.

There was a happiness and calmness in the air – and I don’t think feeling that is unique to people. I think the wildlife experiences that as much as we do.

Flowers blooming in the ditch, straight, strong, and full of water. They were just as sunny as the sun in the sky!

Flowers blooming in the ditch, straight, strong, and full of water. They were just as sunny as the sun in the sky!

As our diggers and excavators worked hard to build up creek banks, robins were rebuilding nests, squirrels were scampering about gathering the food they could find, and many plants started blooming with a new found vigour. The ecosystem is rebuilding too.

Changes in habitat

When a natural disaster of this magnitude strikes, we first focus on repairing the damage that has been done to our own homes and neighbourhoods. Repairing that damage will take months and years in some cases. But what about beyond our town boundaries?

Many things happened in our wilderness that we don’t even know about yet. All of the creeks in the Rocky Mountains flooded, some worse than others. This means that there will be landslides and flood plains everywhere. What does this mean for our wildlife?

In some areas, this will probably mean more food in flood plains. The mosquitoes are going to love this! In turn, birds that eat mosquitoes and spiders will also love this. The landslides will have opened up habitat, which potentially could lead to better grazing for ungulates (deer, elk, goats, and sheep). In a few years, the open habitat from those landslides will provide some great food for bears and moose.

A landslide on 40 Mile Creek hiking trail after flooding last year.

A landslide on 40 Mile Creek hiking trail after flooding last year.

In many areas, this flooding event will make travel through the landscape harder for most animals. Ungulates in particular hate to walk across anything that looks like pick up sticks, so large debris piles can actually inhibit movement for them. Most animals avoid walking through large debris piles because it’s just plain difficult – anyone who has worked in the bush can attest to this. Landslides and flooding may have also made some of the ground unstable and not safe for animals to walk across.

The whole picture

Let’s bring people back into the picture. All of the human activity and infrastructure in a place like the Bow Valley has already impacted wildlife movement patterns and connectivity. Even though the flooding is natural, its impacts are compounded to impacts already existing. Considering wildlife connectivity around our human communities has never been more important.

As we try to figure out how to rebuild and how to get around town with our various broken roads, animal are also trying to rebuild and figure out how to get to their familiar habitat patches too. Just as our highways were washed out, wildlife trails were washed out too. As I stood, staring at the gaping hole in the TransCanada Highway wondering when traffic would be able to get from Calgary to Canmore, a grizzly bear could have been standing at the edge of a familiar trail, looking down on a newly created chasm that used to be a favourite trail, and wondering how to get to her old day-bed site or that sweet feeding patch on the other side of those trees.

A hole in the Trans Canada Highway

A hole in the Trans Canada Highway

And… back to me

It seems funny and selfish to even be thinking about it, but I have been wondering how this flooding will impact my field season and PhD research. At this point, I don’t honestly know. I am sure that many of the trails I planned on sampling have been washed out. I don’t know which ones will be safe to hike. I’ve got many people lined up to volunteer and for that I am grateful. All I can say right now is that once I know more, I’ll post more.

Good luck to everyone as we move forward with rebuilding our homes and communities. Find happiness in little things like blooming flowers, and time spent with family and friends.

Diggers are working around the clock to rebuild our town. They are doing amazing work!

Diggers are working around the clock to rebuild our town. They are doing amazing work!

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