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Waterton Biosphere Reserve, Canada

Waterton Biosphere Reserve is situated in the extreme southwest of the Province of Alberta and encompasses some of the most spectacular and ecologically diverse landscapes in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and prairie grasslands. Glacier Biosphere Reserve is located in Montana, USA, immediately to the south or the area. The two biosphere reserves encompass the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1932), designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and are at the heart of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, an area internationally acclaimed as one of the largest remaining intact ecosystems in North America. The area is largely rural in character, with no major urban centres.

Designation date: 1979


Regional network:  EuroMab

Ecosystem-based network: Global Change in Mountain Regions (GLOCHAMORE) and Global and Climate Change in Mountain Sites (GLOCHAMOST)




    Surface : 767,450 ha

    • Core area(s): 50,500 ha
    • Buffer zone(s): 120,360 ha
    • Transition zone(s): 596,590 ha 

    Location: 49°2'N - 112°57'W

    Administrative Authorities

    William Richard Dolan
    Waterton Biosphere Reserve
    PO Box 7
    Pincher Creek, Alberta, T0K 1W0 CANADA

    Tel.: +1(403)653-2415


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    Ecological Characteristics

    Alberta’s Rocky Mountain, Parkland and Grassland Natural Regions can all be found within Waterton Biosphere Reserve. The steep environmental gradients from the Continental Divide (2910 m) to the prairies (960 m), climatic influences of two opposing air mass systems (the Pacific Maritime and the Arctic Continental), and variable aspect provided by mountainous terrain, have created a rich mosaic of habitats with their associated flora and fauna. Several rare or threatened plant and animal species are found in Waterton Biosphere Reserve with more than 1000 vascular plant species, 182 bryophytes and 218 lichen species, 60 species of mammals, over 260 species of birds, 24 species of fish, and 10 reptiles and amphibians being recorded within the ecologically diverse core area.  

    All three subregions of the Rocky Mountain Natural Region are represented in Waterton Biosphere Reserve.  The Alpine Subregion is found at elevations above 2250 m - treeless tundra with hardy, low growing plants. Below the alpine is the Subalpine Subregion (1680-2250 m) with distinctive kruppelholz trees (crooked wood) growing in the harsh environment at upper elevations, giving way to open forest with whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and subalpine larch (Larix lyallii), and finally in the lower subalpine, a moist, cool Englemann spruce (Picea engelmannii)-subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) forest. The Montane Subregion (1280 to 1680 m) is located below the subalpine forest, a mix of dry grasslands and relatively open mixed stands of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) and coniferous species – typically Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), limber pine (Pinus flexilis) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta).  

    Along the base of the mountains lies a narrow band of the Foothills Parkland Subregion with rough fescue (Festuca campestris) meadows intermingled with trembling aspen groves with a rich understory of shrubs and forbs. Further eastward the parkland transitions to the prairie grassland of the Foothills Fescue Subregion dominated by rough fescue, Parry’s oat grass (Danthonia parryi ), June grass (Koeleria macrantha) and wheat grasses (Agropyron spp.) with abundant forbs throughout and shrub communities found on north-facing slopes and in moist sites. On the eastern side of the biosphere, within the transition area, landscapes include non-native pastures and irrigated and non-irrigated cultivated agricultural lands interspersed with riparian corridors, wetlands, and blocks of native grassland.  

    The native grasslands, rich riparian areas, forested slopes, and in some cases agricultural crops provide habitat for healthy populations of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), elk (Cervus canadensis), and moose (Alces alces). Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus), and wolverine (Gulo gulo) can be found at higher elevations.  Waterton Biosphere Reserve is home to several other large carnivores including wolves (Canis lupus), cougars (Felis concolor), black bears (Ursus americanus), and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos).  A variety of small mammals and birds are found throughout the biosphere reserve and in the fall the marsh and lake areas of the biosphere reserve are used extensively by migrating ducks, swans, and geese. 


    Socio-Economic Characteristics

    Waterton Biosphere Reserve has a population of 17,697 (2014 census) split almost evenly between rural (41%) and urban (59%) residences. Three towns, Cardston, Pincher Creek, and Magrath range from 2376 to 3619 people in size with several smaller villages and hamlets (from 10 to 287 people) scattered across the biosphere reserve. In the rural areas, the majority of people live at agricultural residences, with the remainder residing on acreages and small non-agricultural holdings.  Another 5000 to 8000 people live in the area on a seasonal basis. The main economic drivers for the region are agriculture, tourism and recreation, the energy industry and the accompanying service industries. Cattle ranching is the primary agricultural focus in the buffer zone with the emphasis shifting to include forage and grain crops in the transition area.  About 9% of the cropland in Waterton Biosphere Reserve is irrigated; in fact, the St. Mary Project started at Kimball in 1898 was the first irrigation project in Canada.  

    Tourism is growing in the region with Waterton Lakes National Parks drawing 477,000 visitors in 2015/16.  Continued growth of the tourism and recreation sector is anticipated with the expansion of the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and creation of Castle Provincial Park. Oil and gas, hydroelectric, and wind energy are all produced in Waterton Biosphere Reserve. Over the last two decades the wind energy industry has expanded with the first commercial windfarm in Canada being built in Waterton Biosphere Reserve in 1993.


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    Last updated: October 2018