Glacier National Park (US)

Glacier National Park is located in the American state of Montana, south of the Canadian borders of British Columbia and Alberta. The park contains one million acres of varying landscape with a wide range of plant and animal life. It holds two mountain ranges, over 130 discovered and named lakes, and 16,000 square miles of protected unspoiled ecosystem known as the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem.

The history of human presence in the Glacier National Park area is thought to begin about ten thousand years ago. The Native Americans that first resided in the area are the ancestors of the Flathead, Shoshone, Cheyenne, and Salish peoples of today. During the early 18th century, the Blackfeet moved into the area and populated the land that would later be the eastern slopes of the park and the Great Plains. The Blackfeet were able to thrive in the area due to an abundance of bison on the plains and other game animals that occur near the mountains.

Today, many Flathead Native Americans reside south and west of the park on the Flathead Indian Reservation, while many Blackfeet Native Americans reside east of the park on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. When the Lame Bull Treaty established the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in 1855, it included eastern lands of the park extending to the Continental Divide. The areas, especially near Chief Mountain and the region near Two Medicine, were known as the “Backbone of the World” and were considered an important part of the Blackfeet culture, because they were often visited during vision quests. It was not until 1895 that the park acquired the land, when Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet people agreed to sell it for 1.5 million dollars. However, he sold the land with the stipulations that the land must be made open to the public and that his people still be allowed to hunt on it. The sale of this land marked the boundary of the reservation and Glacier National Park.

In 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed within fifty miles of Glacier National Park, and after 1850, other expeditions passed through the areas that are now encompassed by the park. These excursions helped to create the understanding of the park that exists today. The establishment of the park began when George Bird Grinnell hired a note taker named James Willard Schultz to help guide him through an area of the future park during a hunting trip. Grinnell visited the area many more times after this and spent the next twenty years attempting to establish the area as a national park. Grinnell first used the term “Crown of the Continent” in his description of the area and soon became the most prominent supporter in making the park.

Another important step in establishing Glacier National Park occurred in 1891, when the Great Northern Railway built a track that crossed through the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, which is located just south of the park boundary. The Great Northern Railway advertised the beauty of the area where the railroad passed through in order to boost their profits, afterwards lobbying Congress to make the park a forest reserve. This was accomplished in 1897 and although mining was still allowed in the reserve, it was not as lucrative as it was before the new designation. Because of the efforts of the railroad, Grinnell, and Henry L. Stimson, Glacier National Park was officially established in 1910 after a proposed bill passed through Congress and President William Howard Taft signed it. With this new status, the land and mountains that the Blackfeet people were able to use as hunting grounds no longer held public land status. In the Court of Claims, the United States government was able to legally confirm this in 1935, although some Blackfeet still considered the land as hunting grounds, which resulted in nearly un-avoided armed standoffs in the 1980’s.

Glacier National Park is bordered by Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park and Flathead Provincial Forest, located in British Columbia and by Waterton Lakes National Park, located in Alberta, Canada. The park holds 700 small lakes and 12 larger lakes, although only 131 of these lakes have been named. The largest lake in the park, called Lake McDonald, is 9.4 miles long and can be as deep as 464 feet in one area. Other lakes, which are smaller and known as tarns, include Cracker Lake and Avalanche Lake. These lakes are turquoise in color due to the presence of glacial silt. All of the lakes in the park are cold throughout the year, reaching average temperatures of around 50 °F. The cold temperatures support an abundance of plankton, which help keep the waters clear, but the plankton are extremely sensitive to pollutants. If minor amounts of pollutants enter the water, it can negatively affect its clarity. Two hundred waterfalls occur throughout the park, but many of these fluctuate in size depending upon the season.

The mountains in Glacier National Park were formed by glaciers, which can be seen in the many U-shaped glacial cirques, valleys, and finger shaped outflow lakes that occur throughout the park. In the 20th century, many photographs and maps from the 19th century were studied, resulting in the finding that there were 150 glaciers in the park. The study also showed that these glaciers were greatly reduced or had almost completely retreated. The U.S. Geological study, which began in the 1980’s, found that only 37 glaciers remained in 2010. Only 25 of these were found to be active and it is thought that by 2020, all of the glaciers in the park will be completely melted. The full extent of the damage caused by the melting to wildlife is not yet known, but it is thought that wildlife dependent upon the cold waters, and those dependent upon melting runoff, could be greatly affected.

Glacier National Park has many climates due to its location along the Continental Divide. As is typical to alpine climates, the temperatures in the park decrease as the elevation increases, with the highest elevation resting at above seven thousand feet. The climate in the western area of the park is moist and mild, because it is located in the Pacific watershed, and the area can receive between two and three inches of rain per month. In areas with higher altitudes, snow can fall in any season and winters can last for prolonged periods. In some areas of the park, longer winters are common, but the heaviest snowfalls typically occur on the western side of the Continental Divide. At lower elevations, temperatures can reach 90 °F in the summer time, and many areas of the park can experience rapid changes in temperature.

The plant life in Glacier National Park is extremely diverse and is part of an untouched wilderness that holds 1,132 discovered plant species. Most of the species that existed at the time of European exploration are still abundant today. The forest in the park mostly contains coniferous species like Douglas fir and limber pine, although at lower elevations, deciduous trees like aspen and cottonwood are more common. In alpine tundra habitats, located above the forest line, smaller plants and grasses have a difficult time thriving in only three months of warmer weather. There are only thirty plant species in the forest including Beargrass, fireweed, the glacier lily, and the Indian paintbrush.

Like the plant life of Glacier National Park, the animal life in the park is abundant and nearly as intact as when the area was first discovered, although the woodland caribou and the bison have been eradicated in that area and others. The park is home to two threatened mammal species, the Canadian lynx and the grizzly bear, but the total population numbers of these species are not known. Another rare species, the wolverine, is known to live in the park. Other species that reside in Glacier National Park include moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, and the mountain goat, which is the park’s official symbol. There are 260 species of bird in the park, including the falcon, bald eagle, great blue heron, and osprey. There are 23 species of fish, including the bull trout, which is endangered.

Glacier National Park is isolated from major cities, but there are many ways to access the park. The closest airport is located in Kalispell, Montana and Amtrex trains can take visitors to West and East Glacier, as well as Essex. Tours are offered within the park where visitors can be transported by restored 1930’s coaches known as Red jammers. Lake tours are conducted in restored 1920’s boats that can carry as many as eighty visitors. The park offers many activities including fishing, cross-country skiing, camping, and hiking.

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Image Caption: Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park, U.S.A., August 2012. Credit: Mountain walrus/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)