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An Exciting Season of Prescribed Fires

Prescribed fire at the Saskatchewan Crossing in 2009

Prescribed fire at the Saskatchewan Crossing in 2009On this Earth Day, it felt right to write about one of the most fundamental natural processes that plays out over the surface of the earth: fire.

Forest fires have been part of the natural history of the Canadian Rockies since the return of plants and forests at the end of the last big glaciation. That’s about 13,000 years of wildfire in the landscape. Despite this, people and fire have an uncomfortable relationship. Fires are as natural as sunrise and sunset, and they create some tremendous patches of habitat, favoured by everything from birds to bears to bison. But they can take a real toll on communities, and they produce a lot of smoke, so the usual response to fires is to fight them and put them out, even in national parks.

One of the best tools for bringing fires back into a landscape is prescribed fire, where people (in this case, the Parks Canada fire team) decide when and where they want to have a fire. They can light fires when the weather window is favourable, and do nature’s bidding with a guiding hand.

Prescribed fires planned for Yoho, 2023.

In 2023, Yoho National Park is in the fire spotlight. In my over 30 years of living in the Rockies, Yoho is the park that’s experienced the least fire, so it’s time. This year, Parks Canada has announced an ambitious plan to light three large prescribed fires in Yoho. They are in out of the way valleys in the western end of the park, but if the park gets the right conditions, it could make for an interesting spring and fall (the park doesn’t do prescribed burning in the summer).

Five Years of Bison in Banff

Large herd of bison in Banff, 2021

This week marks the 5th anniversary of the return of bison to Banff National Park. On a chilly February 1st in 2017, 16 bison were airlifted into the park’s backcountry, and released into a holding corral in the Panther River Valley.

Since then, it’s been a pretty amazing buffalo journey. Parks Canada’s Bison Blog has done a great job of chronicling the last five years. Here’s my favourite highlights, with all photos courtesy of Parks Canada:

Spring, 2017: ten bison calves are born, the first wild bison to be born in what is now Banff Park since at least the 1870s.

Bison and calves, summer, 2018


Late July, 2018: the bison herd – now 31 animals strong – is released from their paddock into the wilds of the park. There are now free roaming bison in Banff. Hurray!

Bison crossing a creek in Banff's backcountry.


Late summer, 2018: once out of their paddock, the bison herd goes to the last place anyone expected: the high alpine! They spend most of August and September behaving like real Rocky Mountain lovers, hanging out along treeline ridges. These bison are clearly full of surprises already.

Bison on an alpine ridge in Banff in August, 2018


November, 2019: automated wildlife cameras show bison and wolves interacting, with a young bull following some wolves! It’s hard to see the time stamp in these photos, but the wolves and the bison are just a few minutes apart. Eventually, wolves and grizzly bears will learn to hunt bison, and once some of the bison are old enough to die a natural death, many animals will be able to scavenge from their carcasses. On a smaller scale, the fur that bison moult every spring will line the nests of songbirds, and at least 6 species of dung beetles will thrive in bison droppings! It’s an absolute dream scenario for an ecologist.wildlife camera footage of wolves and bison


Summer, 2021: with the addition of more new calves in the last three years, the herd is now made up of 66 bison. Here’s about half the current crew in a high meadow.

Large herd of bison in Banff, 2021

The bison reintroduction project has been a great success. One of the few challenges has been the instinct of young male bison to go on long road trips. In the last five years, two bulls had to be euthanized after travelling beyond the Banff’s boundaries, but, thankfully, the rest of the herd likes to stay put. The result is a thriving population. I can’t wait to see what the next five years will bring!

The Phoenix Rises: Four Years After the Fire in Waterton

Joel Hagen in a patch of thimbleberries, Waterton Lakes National Park


We’re in the midst of another historic wildfire season in Canada’s west. But in all the news about evacuations, towns under threat, and area burned (over 700,000 hectares in B.C. so far), you don’t hear much about what happens after the fires have gone out.

The Prince of Wales Hotel on the morning of September 12, 2017, with the Kenow Fire burning behind it. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada and Fortis Alberta.

Last month, I was in Waterton Lakes National Park for the third time since the big Kenow Fire of 2017. I’ve written about the aftermath of the fire before, in 2018 and 2020, but with each year there are dramatic changes, so this summer I wanted to focus on berries.

I did three days of hiking with my friends Edwin and Alice, and we passed flourishing patches of Saskatoon berries, thimbleberries and wild blueberries. At one point, I stepped into a patch of thimbleberries that were almost up to my shoulders. In the same spot on September 12, 2017, the day after the fire, there would have been dead trees and blackened soil for as far as the eye could see.

A patch of thimbleberries on the Bertha Lake trail in July, 2021. Photo by Edwin Knox.

How could these berry bushes come back so quickly? To find out, I looked them up in the US Forest Service’s amazing Fire Effects Information System, and the answers jumped out. The entries for the three plants – all with multiple research citations – were peppered with lines like “top-killed plants sprout from rhizomes,” “thimbleberry reaches or exceeds prefire abundance soon after fire,” and “deeply buried rhizomes enable Saskatoon berry to sprout after even the most intense wildfire.” These bushes have come back from roots, not seeds, and with warm black soil, fertilizer from the fire , and lots of sunshine, they are turbocharged to grow.

Saskatoon berries coming ripe in Waterton in July, right in the heart of the Kenow burn.

The upshot is a bumper crop of berries this year, and that’s good news for many mammal and bird species. During my visit, there were already Cedar Waxwings flying around in search of fruit, and I saw a black bear feasting on berries along the Red Rock Parkway.

I worry deeply about people whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by the fires in BC this summer, but in Waterton, the Phoenix is rising, and it will rise in other areas after the burns of 2021 are done.

Banff’s Snow Mammals

Least weasel

I used to collect stamps, and I still geek out sometimes when I’m at the post office. Which is exactly what happened last week when I saw a new set of stamps featuring snow mammals. Yes, snow mammals! These are creatures that turn as white as snow for the winter months.

What could be more apropos here in Canada? According to Canada Post, we are “home to more species of mammals that moult from shades of brown or grey to white than any other country in the world.” And I was happy to see that two of the five animals featured – the snowshoe hare and the short-tailed weasel – are found right here. On our snowshoeing trips, we find the tracks of these two all the time, but almost never see them.  Which is entirely the point, I suppose.

Snowshoe hare in early June on the trail to Eiffel Lake.

Come summer, the weasel and hare moult from white back to brown, to better blend in with the forest colour palette. I’ve spotted a few hares in their summer garb, and got lucky with this photo.

Alas, for weasels, including one that ran right through my legs, and another that had a chipmunk in its mouth, I found myself without a camera, so I don’t have a summer photo in my collection.  However, here’s a shot courtesy of Wikipedia.  This photo, by the way, is a least weasel, one size down from the short-tailed weasel. The Latin name of the least weasel takes the idea of snow mammals to a whole other level. What is it? Mustela nivalis, “weasel of the snow.”

Least weasel in its summer coat, and weighing in at all of 50 grams. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Fires and Flowers – A Love Story

Brown-eyed Susans along the Red Rock Parkway in Waterton Lakes National Park

In late July, I got to return to my old stomping grounds, Waterton Lakes National Park, for my first summer visit in almost 30 years. I got my start there with Parks Canada as a summer naturalist in 1991. I was keen to explore, and to see what the park looked like after the ferocious Kenow Wildfire of 2017.

Brown-eyed Susans along the Red Rock Parkway in Waterton Lakes National Park

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. From the prairies to the high alpine, the wildflowers were off the charts, and as was the case when I visited Waterton in the fall a couple of years ago, I wondered if some of these flowers were fire lovers.

The answer is yes. There were Brown-eyed Susans (Gaillardia aristata) galore, and they thrive after fires, not to mention the aptly-named fireweed, which famously colonized the slopes of Mount St Helens a year after it erupted.

But the best discovery of all was the Mountain Hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis). I went for a hike with my longtime Waterton friends Edwin and Alice, and we waded through thickets of it up above our waists. Edwin said he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen it before.

Once I got home to Lake Louise, I eagerly looked it up on my go-to website for fire ecology, the US Forest Service FEIS site, and sent the link to Edwin. Here we discovered that “Hollyhock seeds remain viable for at least a few hundred years!!!” (the exclamation marks are mine) In a study cited from Idaho, researchers found over 100 hollyhock seeds per square foot in a mature evergreen forest, buried 5 to 10 cm under the soil surface. And the seeds need fire: “Seeds have a smooth, hard coat and require a heat treatment for germination.”

Joel and friend Alice among the Mountain Hollyhock. Photo by Edwin Knox.


It was wondrous to see such a beautiful plant rising out of the ashes, and showed that fires and flowers can be unexpected lovers.

Mountain Hollyhock in the Waterton burn. Photo by Edwin Knox.

A Month of Amazing Mushrooms

Sculpted Puffball mushroom, Calbovista subsculpta

As August comes to a close, and the rain comes down today, we have to be grateful for the extra precipitation this month, as it has led to one of the best mushroom displays we’ve had for years. The fungi love the moisture, and we’ve seen species that are totally new to us.

Sculpted Puffball, Calbovista subsculpta

It started just over a month ago at Lake O’Hara, with a spherical mushroom that looked like a geodesic dome, and was the size of a baseball! We checked in with the Alberta Mycology Society, and were told that it’s a Sculpted Puffball, Calbovista subsculpta.

That was the beginning of the floodgates opening – this month we’ve seen mushrooms that are purple, orange, green, red, and a hundred shades of brown. They’ve been as big as dinner plates, and as tiny as tapioca pearls.

What follows is a photo album of some of our favourites. If we know what they are, we’ve labelled them, but if we’re in the dark, which we are for most of them, do not let their anonymity distract you from their beauty.

Giant Shingle Tops, Sarcodon imbricatus

A species of slime mold, once considered a kind of fungus, but now classified independently.  They can out-weird even the weirdest mushrooms: slime molds can move!

The Amazing Mystery of the Bicknell’s Geranium

Guides Joel Hagen & Nadine Fletcher in Waterton

October 7, 2018

Part two of our report on last fall’s big fire.

Photo by Edwin Knox

Nadine and I, along with our old friend Edwin, are walking through charred aspen groves on our way to Lakeview Ridge. All around us is a forest of young aspen shoots as high as our knees, sometimes as high as our waists! It’s an exuberant and joyful explosion of life.

Buffaloberry growing back from a taproot that survived the heat of the fire.

We are in the middle of a forest burned in 2017’s intense Kenow Wildfire. About half of Waterton’s vegetated landscape was scorched in the fire, but in the Canadian Rockies, plants are built tough! Lots of species are adapted to come back from these moments of destruction.

The aspen are joined by buffaloberry bushes, sprouting from their deep rootstock. In a year or two, once the bushes start to yield fruit, they will become a key source of food for black bears and grizzlies.

Western showy aster going to seed

And there are fields and fields of western showy aster. It’s got a great Latin name, Eurybia conspicua, and boy, is it ever conspicuous! There are millions of plants and their puffy seed heads are sporting billions of seeds.

Among these familiar sights, however, is a plant that none of us have ever seen. It’s everywhere, growing close to the ground, and we three “park experts” are in the dark.

You can see why this geranium is nicknamed a “crane’s bill.” Photo by Edwin Knox

At dinner, we go to work to figure out the story behind the mystery plant. First we use Job Kuijt’s epic plant guide to Waterton to discover that our mystery plant is called Bicknell’s Geranium, AKA crane’s bill.

Then it’s off to the internet, where we learn that the seeds of the geranium physically explode out of those crane’s bill seedpods in autumn. They can then stay dormant in soil for centuries, and will only germinate after a fire.

In one study, from the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota, seeds in a 270 year-old forest sprouted after a fire. In a greenhouse test, almost all of the seeds germinated after 10 minutes exposure to temperatures of 65-100° C (150 to 210° F).

The leaves of the beautiful Bicknell’s Geranium. Photo by Edwin Knox

This plant loves fire! So why had none of us seen it before? Well, once the other plants and trees start to recover, the Bicknell’s geranium disappears. In some forests, it can cover 25% of the forest floor the year after the fire, but in three to five years… it’s gone.

But it’s not really gone. It leaves behind seeds, and they wait for the next fire, even if it is hundreds of years away.

The forests of Waterton look ravaged, but life will return…