Glacier National Park Wildlife

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Glacier National Park's diversity of habitat types creates opportunities for a wide range of animals. Everything from the large and majestic elk of the prairies on the east side of the park, to the small and seldom seen northern bog lemming in the coniferous forests of the wet west side of the park. Many people when they think of Glacier think of bears. Glacier provides the core of one of the largest remaining grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states. Recent research provides interesting insight to this threatened population. More frequently seen than the grizzly however are the snow-white mountain goats that thrive on the steepest of slopes along the Continental Divide. Whether it's a Golden-mantled ground squirrel in the alpine meadows at Logan Pass or a little brown bat on it's nightly foray for insects around one of the few street lights in the park, a trip to Glacier rewards visitors with a wealth of wildlife sightings and the knowledge that they are helping to preserve one of the planets most amazing ecosystems.
 
Mammals
Glacier National Park is home to 62 species of mammals, ranging from the tiny pygmy shrew, about the weight of a dime, to majestic species such as the grizzly bear, gray wolf, elk, lynx, wolverine, cougar, mountain goat and bighorn sheep. What's unique about the list is its completeness. Only the woodland caribou and bison are missing . This is due to two things. One, the park was designated early, in 1910, giving wildlife unprecedented protection. The second reason is space. Not only is the park large -- over a million acres -- but the surrounding national forests, wilderness areas and Canadian protected lands ensure that wide-ranging animals such as grizzlies and wolverines have plenty of room to roam.

The lynx and grizzly are threatened species, while the gray wolf is endangered. Fishers and wolverines are rare in Glacier Park. Northern bog lemmings live only in a few wet fen/bogs in the park. But they are all present in a spectacular mix that is unique in the continental U. S.
Glacier Wildlife - Canada lynx
T. Ulrich
Canada lynx
 
Grizzlies always attract human attention. Pioneering studies of DNA in hair and scat have given scientists new tools for estimating their numbers in the park. The latest estimates hover just above 300 bears, but refinements are constantly improving the accuracy of the estimate. Grizzlies are large and potentially dangerous animals. Despite their size and strength they feed mostly on plants. Grasses, cow parsnip, glacier lilies, and huckleberries make up the bulk of their diets. At well-defined times of the year they binge on ladybird beetles, army cutworm moths and whitebark pine nuts. Winter-killed carrion supplements their spring diet with much-needed protein. The chronology of when these foods are available is a learned behavior that is passed from the sow to her cubs. Where the bears eat also seems to be a learned behavior. On the east side of Glacier Park some grizzlies spend all summer in the lowland meadows and aspen groves, returning to the high country only to hibernate. Others spend springtime in the valleys, dining on the succulent early growth, but then return to the high country for the rest of the growing season. Studies have shown that feeding habits are not a one-way energy exchange. Grizzlies use their long claws and powerful shoulder muscles to dig for glacier lilies in early summer. The digging releases nitrogen to the soil and glacier lilies in subsequent years are larger and more abundant in grizzly digs. Huckleberry seeds are spread in bear droppings, complete with the perfect fertilizer for germination.
 
Complexities of the forest food web are also illustrated on a very small scale by the red-backed vole in Glacier Park's west-side old growth forests. The voles eat mostly fungus, so they flourish in the dark undergrowth-free ancient forests of the McDonald Valley. By eating fungus they also spread fungal spores in their travels. The mycorrhizal (rootlets) of fungus permeate the soils in ancient forests, about 2 tons of it per acre, and allow the roots of conifer trees to gather nutrients. No fungus, no forest. No voles, no fungus. No fungus, no voles. The lesson is clear. When even a seemingly obscure species is lost, major upsets to the ecosystem can result. When a species is removed from the system, or a new one introduced, we may spend many years watching the unintended consequences.
 
Birds
More than 260 species of birds are found in the varied habitats of Glacier National Park. That is a large number of species for an area so far north. Variable climatic conditions created by the Continental Divide yields a patchwork of aquatic, riparian and terrestrial habitats ideally suited for birds.

Glacier Park is perhaps the best place to see harlequin ducks in the lower 48 states. These "clown ducks", painted in a gray-orange-black-white costume, seem to frolic as they swim and dive in the turbulent water of McDonald Creek. They walk the bottom in search of mollusks and aquatic insects. Their peculiar barking call can often be heard above the roar of rapids when feeding and they emit a squeaking sound during courtship rituals.

Dippers (water ouzels) prefer the same habitat and often may be spotted on a rock midstream "dipping"-- vigorously bobbing up and down. Their long wading legs have feet with no webs so locomotion upstream is provided by thrusting their stubby wings and tail and "flying" underwater.
T. Ulrich
Canada lynx
They have clear, retractable nictitating membranes over their eyes and special flaps to close their nostrils. The Dipper's oil glands are ten times as large as most other water birds, and the oil gives them a distinctive rotten fish smell. The oily outer shell of feathers, combined with a thick layer of under-down, gives them the ability to dive under ice during midwinter.
 
In the old growth forests of the McDonald Creek area, swifts often appear at dusk to feed on hatching insects. They bathe while skimming calm water and splash themselves with their tails; they even mate in flight.
 
Black swifts and Vaux's swifts eat many insects, but are known more for their nesting habits. Vaux's swifts are colony nesters that use huge hollowed snags in the old growth forest for their roosts and nests. They emerge by the hundreds like bats from a cave at feeding times. Black swifts also nest in colonies -- often in precarious places. They prefer the safety of nests constructed on rock walls behind waterfalls. Both types of swifts have the ability to go into a state of semi-hibernation when food is scarce. Their high metabolism would cause them to starve within a day or two without eating.
 
At the other end of the altitude spectrum in the alpine tundra, timberline sparrows, rosy finches and white-tailed ptarmigans spend their summers breeding and raising young. Ptarmigans remain there through the winter, molting white to match the snow. They walk on the deep alpine snows with feathered feet, "snowshoes" which increase the surface area of their feet by four times.
 
During summer, at high elevations near treeline, Clark's nutcrackers thump their wings audibly and squawk loudly. Nutcrackers have developed a unique relationship with whitebark pines which grow in sunny openings near timberline. The birds gather seeds from the pine cones and carry them in their cheek pouches. They bury the seeds a few inches deep in sunny openings. A single nutcracker may place seeds at several hundred locations each summer for future food stores. They find and eat about 70 percent of the seeds they have cached, apparently by remembering each spot. The remaining seeds are placed at the perfect depth to grow new trees. Unfortunately, blister rust, an introduced disease from Asia, has decimated whitebark communities over the last 60 years. This has substantially reduced nutcracker populations and upset the historic seasonal harvesting cycles of grizzlies and other users of the pine nuts. Research on the relationship between nutcrackers and the whitebark pine and restoration of whitebark pine communities are high priorities for park resource managers. However, it is unclear when, or even if, communities will ever be restored to what they have been in the past.
 
Fish
The historic assemblage of fish species in Glacier National Park is restricted in number due to the relatively recent withdrawal of continental glaciers from the region. The human urge to tinker with natural systems is no better illustrated than in the park fishery, which has been radically changed by human manipulations. Lake trout (also called mackinaw), historically found only in park waters draining to Hudson Bay, now occur in most of of the large lakes west of the Continental Divide. However, there is no evidence that non-native lake trout were directly stocked in park waters. They apparently became established in several of the park's west side lakes through migration from the lower Flathead River system where they were introduced during the early 1900's.
 
Several other species were directly introduced into park waters including rainbow trout, brook trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, kokanee, lake whitefish and grayling. Bull trout (Federally listed as a "threatened" species), westslope cutthroat trout, largescale suckers, northern pikeminnow, redside shiners, peamouth, and several species of sculpins are native to the park's west side. Several high, pristine fishless lakes in the park have been stocked with non-native sportfish species. The idea was to provide increased opportunities for recreational angling. During earlier periods there was little appreciation for the integrity and complexity of aquatic systems that evolved over thousands of years. Fish stocking in the region began shortly after the turn of the century and continued until 1971.
 
Introduced fish bring new diseases, alter the composition of plankton communities, interrupt food web dynamics, and prey on native fish. Research has shown that changes in zooplankton communities generally occurs when fish are introduced into previously fishless waters. Non-native Lake trout pose a grave threat to native bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout and other native species in several park lakes. There are still a few pristine lakes and streams in the park that remain strongholds for genetically untainted native fish species.
 
Amphibians
Glacier National Park contains over 1,500 miles of streams and rivers and about 700 lakes, ponds, marshes, bogs, and other wetland habitats. Due to the comparatively recent withdrawal of glaciers from the region, the park's amphibian fauna is relatively impoverished; only six species occur here.

Nonetheless, amphibians found in the park exhibit some highly specialized adaptations. The tailed frog, named for the male's inside-out reproductive opening (cloaca), is unusual. Many scientists consider them the most primitive frog in North America. It is the only frog that fertilizes the female's eggs internally. The sperm is carried by the female from the fall breeding season till the following spring. This frog has nine vertebrae instead of the usual seven and contains vestigial "tail-wagging" muscles (no longer functional). The tailed frog's nearest relative lives in New Zealand suggesting an origin dating back to when the continents were connected (Pangea).
Glacier Wildlife - long toed salamander
D. Shea
Long-toed salamander
Adults do not have ear membranes and they are non-vocal. Tailed frogs exist as tadpoles for 3-4 years before they metamorphose into adults. The tadpoles have giant suckers for mouths and short powerful "tails". These peculiar characteristics seem to make no sense until one realizes that these frogs inhabit cold turbulent mountain streams. In this environment internal fertilization is necessary for reproductive success, mating calls and most other sounds would be masked by the roar of nearby rapids and falls, and tadpoles would be washed away without their sucker-mouths to latch onto rocks. Tailed frogs are, therefore, perfectly adapted to the cold high elevation streams of Glacier Park. Boreal toads also occur throughout the park and may be found at elevations up to 8,000 feet. The tadpoles are toxic and adults have potent glands behind their eyes and on their hind legs. This makes them better able to coexist with fish than many amphibian species which are often easy prey for a hungry trout.
 
Boreal toads are disappearing from parts of their Rocky Mountain range, although there is no evidence they are declining in Glacier Park. The large Moose Fire of 2001 added a new wrinkle to the boreal toad story. In the burned area nearly a dozen new toad breeding sites appeared the following year. Some park roads had to be closed for a time because thousands of migrating toadlets were moving across them. Scientists in Glacier Park are currently studying the effects of wildfire and ultraviolet radiation exposure on boreal toads.
 
Other amphibian species found in Glacier National Park are (1) the long-toed salamander with a chartreuse stripe along its back, (2) the Columbia spotted frog, the most commonly seen amphibian, (3) the Pacific treefrog, mainly in the Lake McDonald Valley area, and (4) the boreal chorus frog, a tiny species recently found at a few locations on the east side of the park.
 
Reptiles
Glacier Park's cold winters, short growing seasons and high altitudes are less than ideal for reptiles. These animals are "ectothermic", meaning they gather body heat from their surroundings. There are only three species of reptiles in the park, with a fourth suspected to be present.
 
The common garter snake and western terrestrial garter snake (sometimes called the "wandering" garter snake) are the two most likely to be seen. Both garter snakes have keeled scales, giving them a rough feel when handled. They also share the same defensive strategy of squirting a foul-smelling fluid through their ventral opening when alarmed. They eat mostly earthworms, insects and small amphibians, sometimes locating them with their tongue which gathers chemical clues to the presence of prey. Snakes of all kinds also find prey and evade predators with sophisticated vibration-sensing organs along their undersides.
 
Western painted turtles can be seen basking on logs in and around low elevation lakes on the west side of the park. The term "painted' is appropriate, especially for the western variety. The plastron, or lower shell has bright orange and yellow markings, and the skin is streaked with yellow. Male painted turtles have longer front toenails than the females, apparently to "tickle" the female's head during courtship and stimulate egg production.
 
Only a few sightings of the rubber boa have been made in the park, none documented. They are probably present, but nocturnal feeding habits (they feed mostly on small rodents) make them difficult to locate.
 
Insects, Spiders, Centipedes, Millipedes
It would be nearly impossible to compile a complete list of arthropods (insects, spiders, etc.) for any one area of the world. There are simply too many. Glacier National Park is no exception. Every year scientists discover new species of insects, mites or spiders. Experts say there may be 5 million species worldwide -- most still unidentified. There are many strange and interesting arthropods in the park.

For an education on insect diversity, examine any large rotting log in the west-side ancient forest. Centipedes, millipedes, sowbugs, mites, beetles, spiders -- in some logs, 20,000 species -- go about their work turning a dead tree into soil. Here, life is dedicated to recycling dead matter into nutrients that will nurture new life.

The prairies to the east of the park are hot in the summer. To escape the heat, millions of army cutworm moths migrate to high, cool alpine areas in the mountains of Glacier Park and roost under the loose rocks of talus slopes. Grizzly bears turn these over and feast on the moths for a few weeks during late summer.
Glacier Wildlife - yellowstone checkerspot butterfly
H. Kanzler
Yellowstone checkerspot butterfly
Ladybird beetles also congregate in certain alpine areas and grizzlies, always hungry, also know about this natural gathering. In five areas of the park (at last count), small colonies of 10 to 30 Yellowstone checkerspot butterflies live. They lay their eggs only on black bearberry leaves in sunny, wet spots. The black bearberry is an early-stage successional plant -- it grows just after the pioneer species take root following a fire. The combination of dependency on wildfire and utilization of a specific plant for reproduction makes life precarious for checkerspots. But they are here. Natural systems comprise a complex mix of species, habitats and the nuances of inanimate and environmental factors. The magic of Glacier Park is that we can observe life in a truly wild and intact system.
 
The recent discovery of 80 or more species of organisms living deep below some river floodplains is another interesting story. Twenty feet deep in the gravels of these dry riverbeds, an entire system exists beginning with various species of algae and culminating in large predatory stoneflies at the top of the food chain. This system fertilizes springs and upwellings in adjacent wetlands making them more fertile and enabling hungry grizzlies to eat well early in the spring when they need the food most. This vast system was discovered about ten years ago along the western boundary of Glacier Park. Since then it's been discovered that many rivers and creeks overlay such a system. How many other stories like this await discovery?
 
Content provided courtesy of National Park Service
 
 
Glacier Pictures Did you know?
Did you know that some alpine plants can live to be more than a hundred years old, despite living in harsh weather conditions?
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