Like plants, animals are affected by environmental influences such as landforms, climate, and availability of food and water. The great diversity found in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park area is mainly due to the overlap of habitats between the mountains and the prairie – and the great junctioning of five floristic provinces.
As human developments continue to fragment wildlife habitat, Waterton-Glacier and other national parks have become more important to wild animals that require space, prey, and human tolerance. Nevertheless, even within the refuge of large parks, many species are so far ranging (birds, bears, wolves and ungulates, to name a few) that the long-term reality is the need for interagency cooperation in ecosystem management planning. The baseline information that the parks offer through monitoring and research comes to play once again.
Review of the earliest records suggests that wildlife composition, at least for mammals and birds, has changed little since the parks were established. Species known to have been extirpated include mountain bison and mountain or woodland caribou. Nonnative species include the ring-necked pheasant, rock dove, starling and house sparrow; however, none of these species is widespread or abundant. Raccoons and blue jays have expanded their ranges into the WGWGIPP area as have the turkey (introduced in different areas of the state/province).
The park provides important year-round habitat for many wildlife species. Grasslands, shrublands and riparian areas provide winter range for deer, elk and moose. Grasslands and forest environments provide spring range for deer, elk and grizzly bears. As spring progresses into summer, deer and elk move to higher elevations following the green-up of vegetation. The higher elevations also provide summer habitat for grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and goats. Low elevation valleys in the fall and spring provide habitat for almost all terrestrial wildlife species.
There are many documented migration routes for raptors (birds of prey) that follow mountain ranges and ridges in Waterton-Glacier. These are significant travel corridors through which, using rising thermals and updrafts from the mountains, thousands of birds make their semi-annual migrations to winter or summer ranges. A vast majority of the birds are golden eagles, with some bald eagles and hawks mixed in. During the autumn of 1996, over 3,000 raptors were counted at one site during September, October and November as they crossed high above the upper McDonald Valley. The parks may be along one of the largest golden eagle migration corridors in North America. This needed air space, a necessity for what some researchers indicate are declining populations of raptor species, is an interesting and no less important “habitat" requirement that must not be compromised by inappropriate human activities, especially within the protected "domain" of a national park. This is an excellent example of a management concern that requires cooperation among varying interest groups and managing agencies.
Good opportunities to see wildlife tend to be seasonal. The key to successful wildlife watching is being at the right place at the right time and having the proper equipment such as binoculars. In fact, one of the best ways to see wildlife is to use binoculars and patiently scan open areas. In the high country, this technique can reward the viewer with sightings of bears, bighorn sheep, marmots, mountain goats, eagles and much more.