A Special Place: B.C.'s Flathead River Valley
Once covered by an ancient sea, Flathead mountains are known for their radiant green and red rocks that make these “the most colourful mountains in Canada,” according to legendary writer and naturalist Andy Russell. As you climb a Flathead mountain, you can see rippled waves from the primordial ocean embedded in slabs of stone. Some Flathead rocks contain fossils of the oldest life form on Earth—stromatolites, or circular algal mats preserved in rocks.
Water in the Flathead is so pure that scientists like Dr. Rick Hauer, from the Flathead Lakes Biological Station in Montana, use it as a benchmark for measuring water quality in rivers around the world. The free-flowing Flathead River supports native populations of threatened bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish and sculpin.
National Geographic magazine calls this region the “Crown of the Continent” ecosystem because water from this transboundary area flows to all three oceans surrounding North America. According to National Geographic, the Crown of the Continent is “one of the most diverse and ecologically intact natural ecosystems in the temperate zones of the world.”
The Flathead is one of North America’s last wild rivers. It flows across the border into the state of Montana, where it forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park.
The Flathead is home to every single animal species that inhabited the area at the time of European contact. It provides critical habitat for a dozen at-risk species, including the primitive tailed frog, Canada’s only stream-dwelling frog. Other at-risk species in the Flathead include Lewis’ woodpecker, Williamson sapsucker, Rocky Mountain bighorned sheep, badgers and bull trout.
The wild Flathead River Valley is a crucial link in the continent’s longest remaining wildlife corridor, part of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Permanently protecting the Flathead will allow wildlife to continue to move north and south through the Rocky Mountains from Glacier National Park in Montana all the way to Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks like Banff.
The Flathead is one of Canada’s top spots for plant biodiversity. It boasts more than 1,000 wildflower species alone and is compared to Africa's Serengeti for its richness of plant species. The Flathead’s location, at one of the narrowest points in the Rocky Mountain chain, make it a mixing zone for plant species from north, south, east and west. Purple camas found in coastal Gary Oak meadows grows cheek by jowl with northern plants like the hardy Arctic gentian. Bear grass blooms profusely in five to seven year cycles, draping hillsides in creamy white blossoms. Big horned sheep and elk devour the tiny blossoms, while mountain goats graze on the stalks. Bears eat the leaf sheaths in spring.
The Flathead, along with the Castle Special Place in Alberta, forms the Canadian Crown of the Continent (CCOC) region. In a 2010 report, B.C. biologist Dr. Richard J. Hebda surveyed the flora of this important ecoregion. He found that the region’s “physical and biological diversity, as well as naturalness and geographic location, make the Canadian Crown of the Continent highly resilient to the impacts of climate change. Conserving and protecting this diversity and naturalness will be increasingly important as climate change progresses."
The issue of climate change is an enormous global challenge, but permanent protection for the Flathead is one simple step that can produce a lasting impact. As Hebda points out, “The diverse relatively intact natural flora of the CCOC reduces the risk for serious ecological and biodiversity impacts in the future.” Allowing Flathead plants and animals the space to adapt their ranges to climate change could mean the difference between their extinction and their survival.