Waterton wildflowers will bloom again following wildfire, says former park biologist

Former Parks Canada biologist Peter Achuff takes a look at the aftermath of the wildfire and sees plenty of reasons for optimism.

'Fire has been in this landscape for thousands of years,' says biologist Peter Achuff

Alpine flowers should bloom again next spring in Waterton, after a wildfire last week destroyed 70 per cent of the forest in the national park. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

The Waterton wildfire may have wreaked havoc on the park's flora and fauna, but a former park biologist says don't despair.

Peter Achuff, who worked as a Parks Canada biologist for 15 years, told David Gray on the Calgary Eyeopener that while the wildfire certainly did inflict substantial damage on the park, burning 70 per cent of its forest, it's all part of the natural process.

"Fire has been in this landscape for thousands of years, so this isn't the first time something like this has happened," said Achuff.

The north end of the park, where the fire was most severe, actually experienced something similar in the 1880s — 130 years ago — and bounced back from that, he said.

"The plants have thousands of years of experience with fire, they are adapted to fire, to coming back after fire," Achuff said. "Many of them have underground parts that will re-sprout next spring.

"We'll see the grass coming back next year," he added. "Grass is very well adapted to fire. Things will green up in the spring. Many of the flowering plants will flower again next year."

Recovery time varies for different species

Achuff conceded that in some of the more devastated areas of the park, certain species of plants will need a little longer recovery time.

"Some areas have been severely burned. There's no doubt. It's a very dramatic change," he said. "People will be seeing a very different landscape than they're used to. But many other parts of the area will have been lightly burned or only moderately burned — and those places we can expect to see plants re-sprout again next year.

Former Parks Canada biologist Peter Achuff said that Waterton's forests should be fine following the wildfire that left 70% burned.

"Other plants are dependent on getting back into those burned areas by spreading seed in there. So it's a little slower for them to get back into that area.

"Many of the berry-producing shrubs again can sprout from their underground parts... In subsequent years, we'll see flowering shrubs and the plants that produce magnificent floral displays that Waterton is famous for.

"Those will be back, but it will take a while."

Wildlife will adapt

And while in the short term the wildfire may present challenges for Waterton's wildlife, in the longer term there shouldn't be any problem, Achuff said.

"Many of the food plants that they're dependent on are adapted to fire," he said. "The shrubs may not produce as many berries next year, so the berry crop may be down.That'll effect, obviously, bears and birds and other animals who eat those berries, but the berry crops will be coming back.

"Many bears also feed quite a bit on underground parts of plants, on the roots, and many of those plants respond quite favourably to fire. The fire reduces the competition, [and] gives them a lot more light. As well, the ash will provide a bit of a fertilizer effect, so many of these plants will be growing quite vigorously following the fire."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener