Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada


Waterton Lakes National Park (49°00'-49°12'N, 113°40'-114°10'W) is a World Heritage Site in Canada.

Geographical location

Situated in the extreme south-west of the Province of Alberta, along the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide and at the western margin of the Canadian Great Plains region. Bounded to the south by Glacier National Park, Montana, USA, to the west by the provincial boundary of British Columbia, and to the north and east by Crowsnest Forest Reserve. Located in the Municipal Districts of Pincher Creek and Cardston. The park may be accessed by road, with nearby airports at Lethbridge (128 kilometers (km) northeast) and Calgary (254 km north), Alberta. 49°00'-49°12'N, 113°40'-114°10'W.

Date and history of establishment

caption Waterton Lakes. (Source: University of Lethbridge)

Originally set aside as a forest park in 1895, and subsequently reclassified as a forest reserve, dominion park and national park. Today, Parks Canada administers the area by virtue of the National Parks Act. Combined with Glacier National Park, Montana on 30 June 1932 to form the first International Peace Park in the world.

As early as 1911, John George "Kootenai" Brown and Henry "Death on the Trail" Reynolds noted the desirability of joining Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks to form a natural ecological wildlife reserve. In 1931, the Rotary Clubs of Alberta and Montana passed a resolution to 'establish the two parks as a permanent International Peace Park', subsequently realized in the spring of 1932 through the passage of legislation by the Governments of Canada and the United States. The international park reflects the peace and goodwill between Canada, the United States, and the Blackfoot Confederacy.

In 1979, Waterton Lakes National Park was designated a biosphere reserve as part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme. Waterton was the first Canadian national park to receive this designation, the core zone covering the entire national park area. It has recently been recommended that Waterton Lakes and Glacier biosphere reserves, along with the Coram Experimental Forest be redesignated as the Rocky Mountain International Biosphere Reserve.

Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park were jointly inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1995.


The park spans 52,525 hectares (ha), and is contiguous to Glacier National Park (405,089 ha), Montana.

Land tenure

All lands within the boundaries of the park are Crown land and are managed under the auspices of Parks Canada.


The altitude of the park ranges from 1,280 meters (m) to 2,939 m.

Physical features

Located along the eastern margin of the Rocky Mountains, Waterton Lakes National Park includes prairie, lakes and mountains lying to the east of the Continental Divide. Local relief is dominated by the 2,500 m peaks of the Border and Clark Ranges, which are generally less rugged than their Glacier National Park counterparts. The park is centered around a long, narrow 'glacier trough' lake which straddles the 49th Parallel, effectively joining the two parks.

The most immediately obvious feature of the park is the sudden transition from prairie to mountain landscape; a contrast which is emphasized by the virtual absence of intervening foothills. The result is a landscape of small tracts of prairie from which the mountains rise abruptly. The dominant landforms of the park are of glacial origin; typical of both mountain and continental glaciation. The mountain valleys and rock basins were shaped by glacial erosion, while the rolling grasslands are a result of glacial deposition. The park contains no active glaciers but does contain permanent snow fields plus erosional and deposition features typical of both Cordilleran and Continental glacial action.

The joint Waterton-Glacier properties contain a stratigraphic record spanning more than 1,250 million years of sedimentary and tectonic evolution. The bedrock comprises a layered series of Precambrian sedimentary formations overlying much younger Cretaceous sediments. This came about as a result of a major thrust fault (the Lewis Overthrust) which caused considerable horizontal displacement of Precambrian formations, forcing them towards and over the much softer Cretaceous formations of the Great Plains region. These Precambrian formations contain some of the oldest rocks exposed in the Rocky Mountains and a number of very early fossil assemblages, including the fossil stromatolites formed from colonies of blue-green algae. Soils belonging to the Chernozemic order are associated with the grassland portion of the park, and represent the only sizable example of this soil order currently protected within the Canadian Parks system.

The Waterton-Glacier Park complex is situated at the junction of three of the continent's major drainage systems. Headwater streams flow west into the Columbia drainage, east into the Missouri, and north into the Saskatchewan (Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay, respectively). Two rivers, the Waterton and Belly, as well as a number of smaller drainages are shared by the two parks.


The region's Cordilleran climate is rigorous and is generally characterized by short, cool summers and comparatively mild, snowy winters. The climate is influenced by two opposing systems, the Arctic Continental and the Pacific Maritime. The latter is the more dominant, producing warm "Chinooks" in the winter months. A Pacific storm]track associated with this Maritime system brings heavy precipitation to the area and moderates temperatures, while a rain shadow effect combines with frequent high winds to produce a drier, more extreme climate on the eastern side of the Divide. Mean annual precipitation is about 920 millimeters (mm), while mean monthly temperatures are -9.4°C in January and 17.2°C in July.


caption Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) found in the subalpine forest ecoregion of Waterton Lakes National Park. (Source: University of Washington)

The Waterton-Glacier area is at the center of what has been described as a major floristic discontinuity which occurs at about 50° N latitude and which divides the southern ranges of the Rocky Mountains from the more northerly ranges. The prevalence of a maritime climate, or results in many species occurring which are closely related to the flora of the far west.

The distinct biotic character of the park sets it apart from other mountain national parks and makes it unique in Canada. It represents a relatively small but species-rich locale situated at the intersection of several important floristic regions. Here the characteristic floral and ecological elements of the Cordillera overlap with a small section of prairie flora derived from the dry plains to the east, resulting in an abrupt prairie-cordillera transition. A number of vegetation types have been identified for this area which are undescribed elsewhere; these include extensive fir-whitebark forests, large areas of limber pine scrub, and 'intermediate' alpine meadow associations.

Five large ecoregions are found within Waterton-Glacier National Parks; these are alpine tundra, subalpine forest, montane forest, aspen parkland, and fescue grassland. The alpine tundra ecoregion is found above 2,100 m on the west slope and 1,800 m on the east. Arctic-alpine tundra vegetation covers much of the terrain, typical species including dryas tundra Dryas octopetala, and dwarf alpine poppy Papaver pygmaeum (V). The subalpine forest ecoregion is the single-most vegetation cover in the park. A strong boreal element is typical of this ecoregion, characterized by such species as dwarf birch Betula glandulosa (I) and fireweed Epilobium angustifolium. The montane ecoregion (Canadian zone) occurs at low to mid elevations, but is largely restricted to the dry foothills and major river valleys of the eastern slopes. Typical species are Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii and lodgepole pine Pinus contorta (R). Much of the key ungulate winter range is found in this ecoregion, as is the bulk of human activity. The aspen parkland ecoregion serves as a transition belt between the prairie grasslands and the coniferous forest zone, with dominant tree species being trembling aspen Populus tremuloides and balsam poplar Populus balsamifera. Commonly known as 'bunchgrass prairie', the fescue grasslands ecoregion is typified by the festuca/danthonia grass association (Festuca scabrella and Danthonia parryi). Waterton contains a 3,300 ha of this prairie which is the only example of this particular plant association within the Parks Canada system.

Twenty-three different habitat types have been recognized for the park, with some 870 species of vascular plants, 182 bryophytes and 218 lichens. Many of these species are at the edge of their geographic ranges. About 113 vascular plant species or 10% of the provincial total are listed as rare within the Province of Alberta. Thirty-four species are unknown to the Province outside of the park, while six species are classified as rare in Canada. These include Stellaria americana, Townsendia condensata (V), Gayophytum racemosum (E), Papaver pigmaeum (V), Douglasia montana, and Aquilegia jonesii (R). Other noteworthy species are Taxus brevifolia and Potentilla villosa.


The park is noted for an abundance of wildlife and a wide diversity of habitats. Investigations carried out since 1938 have listed 61 species of mammals, 241 species of birds, and 20 species of fish; reptiles and amphibians have not been extensively studied. Carnivores include grey wolf Canis lupus (V), coyote C. latrans, cougar Felis concolor, American black bear U. americanus and mink Mustela vison. There is also a self-sustaining population of more than 200 grizzly bear Ursus arctos in the Waterton-Glacier complex. The grasslands are important winter range for ungulates, and the seasonal migrations of species such as elk Cervus elaphus represents an outstanding wildlife spectacle. Other ungulates include mule deer Odocoileus hemionus, white-tailed deer O. virginianus, moose Alces, bison, mountain goat Oreamnos americanus and bighorn sheep Ovis canadensis, the last two being indigenous to the region. Rodents include beaver Castor canadensis and muskrat Ondatra zibethica.

caption Gray Wolf (Canis lupus). (Source: University of Alberta)

Waterton is located on the margin of two major avian migratory routes; the Central and Pacific flyways overlap here, and the marsh and lake areas of the park are used extensively as staging areas. Both the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus and peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus pass through the area. Fish fauna includes lake whitefish Coregonus commersoni, cutthroat trout Salmo clarki, rainbow trout S. gairdnerii, lake trout Salvelinus namaycush, bull trout Salvelinus confluentus and Arctic grayling Thymallus signifer. The pygmy whitefish Proscopium coulteri is known only from Waterton Lakes, while the presence of deepwater sculpin Myoxocephalus quadricornis is unique in Alberta. The presence of the caddisfly Homophylax baldur is unusual as it is found only in the national park and the State of Utah. The opossum shrimp Mysis relicta is a 'relic species' to the area. Three basic insect communities have been identified, including Nearctic fauna, elements of West Coast fauna, and representatives of the Great Basin Biogeographical Province.

Cultural heritage

Remoteness of the area plus the presence of a strong Blackfoot confederacy effectively prevented exploration of the area by Europeans until the nineteenth century. Peter Fidler, a Hudson Bay Company surveyor was perhaps the first European to approach the area, and made the first recorded observation of Chief Mountain in early January of 1793. The 19th century was witness to a number of expeditions, including those by the American naturalist Dr. Elliot Coues and by George Mercer Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. Settlement began in the Waterton Lakes area in the 1880's with the advent of cattle ranching. Concern for the protection of the natural resources of the area resulted in the creation of Waterton Lakes Forest Park in 1895.

Waterton Lakes National Park has been identified as one of the most significant areas for archaeological study in the province. To date, a total of 212 archaeological sites have been found, with twelve dating to at least 8000 years B.C. Other important cultural features include modern Native American ceremonial sites and ethnographic uses; early homesteads, timber, mining and oil operations; historic park administrative structures; and a network of historic hotels built in the early 1900s, unifying Waterton and Glacier. The massif of Chief mountain, less than 8 km from the international border as it passes through Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, is both a cultural landmark and a symbol of the Blackfoot people.

Local human population

A small townsite (87 permanent residents) exists within the boundaries of Waterton Lakes National Park. The park is bordered to the north and west by Crown lands of the Flathead and Crowsnest Provincial Forests. Privately-owned ranchlands, grazing leases, and the Blood Indian Tribe Reservation lies to the north and east of the park. The biosphere reserve includes some of this peripheral land, including private holdings, as part of the zone of cooperation.

Visitors and visitor facilities

There is a well developed system of roads and trails (183 km), numerous campsites and group tenting areas, and the park maintains historic records, museum and photographic collections. Activities include swimming and boating, golfing, horseback riding, cycling, fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. A number of interpretive display centers are located throughout the park. The town of Waterton provides nearly all the facilities of a modern town, including hotel and motel accommodation. A total of 380,000 visitors were recorded in 1993, and the park is open year round.

Scientific research and facilities

Many noted biologists and naturalists have visited the Waterton Lakes National Park area, the earliest of these being Captain Thomas Blakiston (Pallisder Expedition 1857-59) and Elnot Coves (1874). In the years 1895 and 1922-23, collections were made and field work carried out by the National Museum of Canada. The tempo of scientific investigation increased rapidly after 1938, with emphasis on specialized fields such as limnology, wildlife management, ecology, pedology and archeology. Most of these studies were initiated by the park and carried out under contract by agencies such as the Canadian Wildlife Service. These projects were largely management oriented and designed to cause as little manipulation or impairment of the park as possible. Establishment as a biosphere reserve provided further impetus to research activities, and biologists currently work on international wildlife studies aimed at restoring, protecting and enhancing endangered or threatened populations. A biosphere reserve technical committee reviews proposals indicating research inside and outside the park and makes recommendations to a management committee of local people and park staff. Although no research facilities currently exist, limited accommodation for researchers is available, and a small reference library is maintained. Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks are moving toward similar geographical mapping systems, and air and water monitoring programs.

Conservation value

The park contains a large number of plant species considered rare in Alberta and at the limits of their geographical range. Further, the Waterton-Glacier area offers a de facto international sanctuary and a corridor for wildlife interaction, migration, and a genetic exchange between the two countries. The park also contains the highest density of archaeological sites of any small valley system in the northern Rocky mountains.

The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is one of the outstanding natural areas of the world. Located astride the Continental Divide, the two parks encompass mountain landscapes within a tri-oceanic watershed divide. The Lewis Overthrust is well displayed in the two parks which also contain examples of Precambrian rock formations and six species of stromatolites (fossil algae). The property constitutes the biogeographical center of an extensive mountain chain extending from the Brooks Range in Alaska southward through Canada and the United States, and is situated on the western margin of the Great Plains of North America.

Conservation management

Despite being established as a forest park in 1895, the area was essentially a forest reserve without special supervision or protection. Timber extraction occurred, and by 1905, more than half the sections of land comprising the forest park had been reserved for petroleum development. The creation of Waterton Lakes Dominion Park in 1911 witnessed a reduction in the area protected (approximately 3,500 ha), but was subsequently enlarged in 1914 to incorporate an area of 109,556 ha. Although the park has been subject to a number of minor reductions in area since that time, it has been free of commercial resource extraction since early this century. Uses such as logging, grazing, and commercial fishing are not permitted, while power boats are permitted on designated lakes. Both Waterton and Glacier National Parks are largely managed as wilderness or natural environment areas.

A management plan was published in 1978, followed by a new version in 1992. The park is zoned to accommodate different land uses. Class I areas are the most unique sites and have the highest degree of protection. Classes II (48.2% of park area) and III (43.6%) are primarily intended for the preservation of wilderness and natural environments, respectively. Classes IV and V are reserved for recreational and visitor service centers.

Within the context of the international peace park, cooperative projects include staff exchanges, joint staff meetings and training sessions, combined interpretive programs, and mutual assistance arrangements.

Management constraints

The park contains a heavily-used resort town. Two provincial and one interstate highway provide access, one of which bisects the eastern end of the park. The Blood Indian Band has a timber reserve of 1,684 ha on the east side of the park, which is not administered as park land. It is acknowledged that the park is too small to be a self-contained ecological unit, and there is some conflict with poaching along boundary areas. Gas wells occur close to Waterton, disrupting wildlife habitat, and there are proposals to build resorts and summer houses just outside the park.


The park is managed by a Superintendent who is assisted by 124 full-time employees including seasonal staff.


CAN$ 2.8 million in 1993 for operation and maintenance and salaries.

IUCN management category

  • II (National Park)
  • Biosphere Reserve
  • Natural World Heritage Site - Criteria i, ii, iii, iv

Further reading

  • Alt, D.D. and Hyndman, D.W. (1973). Rocks, Ice, and Water: The Geology of Waterton-Glacier Park. Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, Montana ISBN: 087842041X. (Unseen)
  • Anderson, R.M. (1938). Investigation of wildlife conditions in national parks (Waterton Lakes, Banff, Jasper) in the Province of Alberta. Canadian Wildlife Service Tech. Report CWS-2-38-16 pp. (Unseen)
  • Anderson, R.W. and Donald, D.B. (1976). Limnological Survey of Waterton Lakes National Park. Part 1 (44pp); Part 2 (149pp); Part 3 (124pp); Part 4 (139pp); Part 5 (192pp); Part 6 (63pp). Canadian Wildlife Service, Calgary, Alberta. (Unseen)
  • Argus, G.W. and White, D.J. (1978). The Rare Vascular Plants of Alberta. Botany Division, National Museum of Natural Sciences, Syllogeus Series No. 17, Ottawa, Ontario; 47pp ISBN: B0006DZZUG.
  • Baird, D.M. (1969). Waterton Lakes National Park. Lakes amid the mountains. Geological Survey of Canada Mis. Report 10. Queen's Printer, Ottawa ISBN: B0007IWFOY. (Unseen)
  • Banfield, A.W.F. (1950). The mammals of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. Wildlife Management Bulletin, Series 1. Canadian Wildlife Service, Ottawa, No. 1 ISBN: B0006CCA96. (Unseen)
  • Brady, K., Bull, G. and McDonald, B. (1975). Resources analysis and recommendations for management planning - Waterton Lakes National Park. (Unseen)
  • Breitung, A.J. (1957). Plants of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. Canadian Field Naturalist, Vol. 71, No. 2; pp. 39-71 ISBN: B0007FG4DA. (Unseen)
  • Currier, J.P. (1952). Limnological study of Waterton lakes, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, with special reference to lake trout and common whitefish. Canadian Wildlife Service Report CWS 1028. (Unseen)
  • Environment Canada (1992). Waterton Lakes National Park: management plan. Environment Canada, Canadian Parks service, wetern Region. 104pp.
  • Getty, I. (1970). A history of Waterton Lakes National Park, 1800-1937. MS prepared for the National and Historic Parks Branch, Calgary. (Unseen)
  • Getty, A.L. (1972). The History of Waterton Lakes National Park: 1800-1937. (Revised 1972). Unpubl. Manuscript on Park Files, Waterton Lakes National Park; 346pp. (Unseen)
  • Gladstone, G.L. (1961). A History of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. (Unpubl. Report on file), Waterton Lakes National Park; 39pp., approx. (Unseen)
  • Hamer, D., Herrero, S. and Brady, K. (1985). Studies of the Grizzly Bear. Waterton Lakes National Park. Final Report 1985. Parks Canada Contract WR 149-83. University of Calgary, June 1985; 103pp. (Unseen)
  • Kuchar, P. (1973). Habitat Types of Waterton Lakes National Park. Contract No. WR 54-72, National and Historic Parks Branch, Dept. of Indian and Northern Development, Govt. of Canada; 300pp ISBN: B0007BOFT4. (Unseen)
  • Kuijt, J. (1982). A Flora of Waterton Lakes National Park. University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, Alberta; 684pp ISBN: 0888640765. (Unseen)
  • Lieff, B.C. (1985). Waterton Lakes Biosphere Reserve: Developing a Harmonious Relationship. Parks 10(3);pp. 9-11.
  • Lopoukhine, N. (1970). Forest Types and Related Vegetation of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, 1968. For. Mgmt. Inst. Info. Rpt. FMR-X-28. Nat. For. Survey Report No. 3, Canadian Forest Service, Ottawa; 35pp., maps. (Unseen)
  • Lothian, W.F. (1976). A History of Canada's National Parks (Vol 1). Parks Canada, Ottawa. Pp. 45-48 ISBN: 0662152174.
  • Lunn, C. (compiler) (1979). Readings of J.G. "Kootenay" Brown, Miscellaneous Articles, (Unpubl. Reports on file), Waterton Lakes National Park.
  • Nielson, P.L. (1973). Mammals of Waterton Lakes National Park. Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, Alberta; 176pp. (Unseen)
  • Ogilvie, R.T. (1963). Ecology of the Forests of Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Can. Dept. For., Research Branch Report 2462, (unpubl.); 57pp. (Unseen)
  • Parks Canada, Western Region (1978). Waterton Lakes National Park - Park Management Plan.
  • Reeves, B. (1971). An Archaeological Resource Inventory of Waterton Lakes National Park and Preliminary Archaeological Report for 1971. National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs, Ottawa; 143pp., tables, figures. (Unseen)
  • Seal, K.E., Watt, R.A. and Brady, K.S. (1984). Resource Description and Analysis. Waterton Lakes National Park. Parks Canada, Western Region. Vol. I: 454pp; Vol. II: 108pp. (Unseen)
  • Shaw, R.J. and On, D. (1979). Plants of Waterton-Glacier National Park, Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, Montana ISBN: 0878421149. (Unseen)
  • Sharp, P.L. (1973). Birds of Waterton Lakes National Park, Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, Alberta; 347pp. (Unseen)
  • Soper, J. (1973). The Mammals of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. Canadian Wildlife Service, Report Series No. 23, Edmonton, Alberta, 57pp. (Unseen)
  • Stelfox, J.G. (1978). Seasonal Distribution of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in Canadian National Parks, 1966-1972. Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, Alberta, 149pp. (Unseen)
  • Stringer, P.W. (1969). An ecological study of grasslands at low elevations in Banff, Jasper and Waterton Lakes National Parks. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Edmonton, University of Alta. (Unseen)
  • Strong, W.L., and Leggat, K.R. (1981). Ecoregions of Alberta. Alberta Department of Energy and Natural Resources, Resource Evaluation and Planning Division. Technical Report No. T14, Edmonton, Alberta. 64 pp + map ISBN: B00073CT5O.
  • Trottier, G.C. (1977). Vegetation change in response to protection from grazing in the Fescue Grassland of Waterton Lakes National Park. Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, Alberta; 54pp. (Unseen)
  • Wagner, W.H. Jr. and Wagner, F.S. (1984). new nothospecies of Moonwort (Ophioglossaceae botrychium). May 16, 1983. Can. J. Bot., Vol. 62.
  • World Heritage List Nomination (1993). Documentation on Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Governments of Canada and the United States.
  • World Heritage List Nomination (1994). Nomination of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Governments of Canada and the United States. Amended 1994. 86pp + annexes

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2008). Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/157018


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