Northwestern Plains Transboundary Region

Location

Southwestern Alberta, Canada; North-Central Montana, USA

Category

Complex Sites

Ecosystems

Foothills parkland; Mixed-grass prairie

Land Tenure

Federal and Tribal

Contact

Cristina Eisenberg

Website

www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/waterton
www.cristinaeisenberg.com
www.btlands.com
www.ftbelknap.org

This Complex Site, comprised of two sister projects in the Northwestern Plains ecoregion, focuses on restoring ecologically and culturally important resources through partnerships with federal land management agencies in Canada and the United States, respectively, and neighboring First Nations / Native American communities. The PI is Dr. Cristina Eisenberg, an indigenous scientist affiliated with Oregon State University, the Society for Ecological Restoration, and the Smithsonian Institute.

Geographic Context

The Northwestern Plains ecoregion is shaped like a boomerang, beginning just north of the U.S./Canada border along the Rocky Mountain foothills, and trending south and curving east just below the international boundary to north-central Montana. The region is characterized by fescue and mixed-grass prairie with moderate rainfall, where wild, free-ranging bison (Bison bison) formerly wintered (Binnema 2001). The soils and landscape features were shaped by glaciation and have fairly uniform characteristics, as do the plant communities typical of the ecoregion.

Although they are situated on opposite sides of the border, the two projects comprising this Complex Site are very strongly connected, with shared ecological characteristics and similar Plains Indian cultures central to each.

Waterton Lakes National Park and Blood Reserve

Photo courtesy Cristina Eisenberg

This project has several components aimed at understanding the effects of prescribed fire and trophic cascades on the local landscape and ecology, and facilitating ecological restoration of native grassland prior to bison reintroduction. Our goal is to restore fescue prairie cover that has become dominated by aspen (Populus tremuloides) to historical conditions, pre-Euro-American settlement, and to improve ecological resiliency and habitat for wintering elk (Cervus elaphus) and free-ranging wild bison, which is being reintroduced to this ecosystem.

This work takes place in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta (WLNP), and on contiguous Kainai First Nation forest land, called the Blood Timber Limit. The Timber Limit is carefully regulated and protected by the tribe and essentially extends the area of protected lands beyond the limits of the National Park. Our objectives are to test the effects of repeated prescribed fire on aspen regeneration and recruitment; measure elk presence and feeding behavior in WLNP; investigate the effects of elk herbivory on post-fire aspen regeneration and recruitment; examine factors that may influence elk feeding decisions, including risk of predation by wolves (Canis lupus), food availability and quality, and plant defense compounds; and investigate impacts of fire severity and prescribed fire vs. wildfire at both landscape and patch scales on native grasses and aspen, including soil health. We have a multi-trophic, multi-factorial, replicated landscape-scale research design, in which we are surveying soils, plants, and animal communities, using field data (traditional silvics, botany, soil science, and wildlife methods) and GPS collar and remotely sensed data.

This project directly improves the resiliency of the landscape, increases ecosystem services to human and non-human communities, and benefits the Kainai First Nation. Outreach consists of many field trips involving community members, participation in community meetings, and speaking at multiple conferences per year. We have four peer-reviewed project publications to date, two published books, two books in preparation, several published book chapters, and several peer-reviewed papers in progress. The project began in 2006, and we have secured funding through 2023. We plan to deepen this work by examining how wildfire interacts with prescribed fire in ecological restoration of a native grassland, taking a close look at soil function, and by incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into every aspect of this project.

Fort Belknap Native Seed and Grassland Restoration Community Conservation Project

photo courtesy of the University of Montana

This project takes place in northern Montana on federal and tribal lands. Our goals are to implement the Bureau of Land Management’s Assessment, Inventory, and Management (AIM) Protocol and Seeds of Success (SOS) Protocol, with tribally designated and BLM-designated focal species. We are using TEK to highlight plants with strong eco-cultural relevance to the Fort Belknap Indian Community, which is home to two Native American tribes, the Aaniiih and Nakoda. Project staff are primarily members of these two tribes, including the Project Manager, Dennis Longknife. This project began in 2019 and is funded through 2024.

As noted, project activities are being guided by BLM protocols, such as AIM and SOS, as well as the Society for Ecological Restoration’s (SER) International Principles and Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration. We are also working in partnership with Native American ecologists, technicians, and students to develop a synthesis of TEK, which is foundational to the project.

Our vision is to help BLM develop resources and knowledge to restore former Land Use lands that are currently crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) and smooth brome (Bromus inermis) monocultures. Conversion of these areas in priority wildlife habitat is a focus for many of the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas field offices. Use of TEK, ecocultural restoration, and SER guidelines will strengthen these projects and help them succeed. This effort will support restoration of habitat for large herbivores, birds, and pollinators using SER standards.

Data being collected includes site attributes, plant identification, herbarium samples, and soil samples. Pollinator surveys will also be incorporated into this project. Outreach includes a Community Conservation Fellows program that gets tribal youth into the field to engage them in natural resources research and management and provide career opportunities for them and other members of the Fort Belknap Indian Community.