Fire is an essential natural disturbance within the Crown of the Continent. Past efforts to exclude fire have altered the natural regimes of the landscape. As forests age, they become more uniform and less diverse. Fire creates a rich mosaic of ages and species of trees and plants. This diversity of habitat allows a greater number of wildlife species to find the food and shelter needed to survive.
Encroachment of trees into grasslands is often seen in areas where fire is not allowed to burn. For example, Douglas fir trees are encroaching on the grasslands of the eastern foothills in Waterton Lakes National Park, converting natural prairies to forest. Historically, these areas would have burned every few years which helped in maintaining the prairie. However, much of this ecosystem has not seen fire in 60-70 years. This has consequences for the many species that rely on these prairies for food. Other forests in the Crown are developing more uniform stands of similar aged trees, which not only reduces species diversity but increases susceptibility to forest pests and pathogens.
Within Glacier National Park, one goal of the park’s Wildland Fire Program is to maintain fire as an integral process in managing ecosystems. The challenge for fire managers is to find a balance between maximizing the benefits of fire while minimizing risks to life, property, and health.