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Crossing research at the 49th parallelMRU students analyze eco-systems in the U.S. and Canada

Most of us probably have a pretty good idea of where the Rocky Mountains are, the same can be said for the Foothills, but what do you know about the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem?

Despite its ecological importance, many Albertans have never heard of the Crown Ecosystem.

That was the case for six Mount Royal University students before they took part in the sixth annual Crown of the Continent Roundtable in Missoula, this past September. Travelling with Dorothy Hill, PhD, faculty member in the Department of Biology, the students attended conference sessions, field trips, and learned the importance of the Crown Ecosystem, a portion of the globe that spines from the Rocky Mountains south of Kananaskis to the Blackfoot Valley in Montana. It's the birthplace of three major watersheds: the Missouri, the Saskatchewan, and the Columbia, each emptying into a different ocean basin, and one of the few places in North America where the full complement of mammalian predators still roam.

Crown of the continent map

"Anything damaging that happens in this region will flow downstream and impact every ecosystem along the way," explains student Victoria Cox, a fourth year General Science major with a minor in Biology and one of the students to take part in the roundtable.

During the visit, Cox and her fellow students became increasingly aware of how difficult it is to manage an ecosystem fragmented by political boundaries.

"It's one big ecosystem but there are two countries, two provinces and a state, national, provincial and state parks, and private lands," says Hill.

Ashlee Jacobsen, a fourth year General Science major with a minor in Biology explains that the students began to see that one of the biggest challenges is keeping track of the research that is being conducted in the Crown of the Continent, and who is conducting it.

"If you are a grizzly bear in Alberta you are protected. In British Columbia you can be hunted. The bears are just moving through the ecosystem - they don't know where the border is," Jacobsen says.

The conference discussions sparked an idea that would be aimed at filling the need to identify research gaps in the Crown of the Continent. If the students could compile, analyze and organize research conducted since 2000 by a number of different government agencies, researchers, and not-for-profit organizations, then digitize those findings in an annotated bibliography, organizations across the Crown of the Continent and beyond could benefit. Thus, the students' Community Service Learning project for their community partner, the Crown Managers Partnership, was born.

Crown of the continent map

This daunting task would prove to be challenging but Parks Canada - Waterton Lakes National Park made a generous offer, giving the MRU students access to their library, and research reports that were not found in other databases. This involved a second field trip, this time to Waterton Lakes Park over the Thanksgiving long weekend.

"The level of student engagement in these Community Service Learning projects is amazing. Imagine giving up a long weekend to conduct library research," says Hill, adding that Waterton Parks helped identify what research had been collected and where the gaps were in terms of research that still needs to be completed.

The purpose for the undergrad work is to identify research gaps amongst stakeholders in the region, so that the Crown Managers Partnership can then direct future grad students to conduct research that will help conserve this ecosystem.

"Most research was population type surveys, finding how stable populations were," says Cox. "One topic we found tons of research on was the endangered (Westslope) cutthroat trout and their hybridizing with (introduced) rainbow trout.

"However, little research has been conducted on the plant communities, and Alberta's portion of the Crown Ecosystem hosts the greatest plant biodiversity in the province. In fact, plant diversity was one of the considerations in the Alberta government's recent decision to create a new provincial park in the Castle area, which is part of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem."

Jacobsen says that "charismatic megafauna", high profile species like cutthroat trout and grizzly bears, are well represented in the research, but "what about the species in-between? What about all of the tiny invertebrates that live in the water and affect the entire ecosystem?"

In addition to animal and plant research, the students also looked at reports of the social aspects, land use management and resources. The group even found great amounts of data on coal mining projects and how they are affecting the area.

"This type of research collection doesn't really get the attention that it deserves," says Cox. "We're just trying to get everyone on the same page so we can tackle future (conservation) issues in our region and beyond.

"It was great to see what is being done, what has yet to be done. Part of it is seeing where the data gaps are," adds Jacobson.

Next on the agenda is delivering these findings to their community partners, and letting them decide how they want to continue growing the project. For Hill and her students, the hope is Parks Canada and the Crown Managers Partnership will make the decision to continue this research as a living document.

"This is just a start, the students did a great job, they have over 200 references in their annotated bibliography, but one of their intentions is this living document can be added to over time as more research becomes available," says Hill.

March 4, 2016 - Jonathan Anderson