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University of Lethbridge researchers studying plant life recovery following Kenow wildfire

Researchers at the University of Lethbridge are monitoring how plants recover following the Kenow wildfire in 2017 that scorched nearly 35,000 hectares, including 19,000 in Waterton Lakes National Park. Researchers at the University of Lethbridge are monitoring how plants recover following the Kenow wildfire in 2017 that scorched nearly 35,000 hectares, including 19,000 in Waterton Lakes National Park.
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LETHBRIDGE -

Researchers at the University of Lethbridge are monitoring how plants recover following the Kenow wildfire in 2017 that scorched nearly 35,000 hectares, including 19,000 in Waterton Lakes National Park.

"We know we have increasing fires on the landscape recently, so plant communities are going to have to deal with that," said Jenny McCune, a biology professor at the University of Lethbridge.

McCune says within the charred remains was the beginning of new life.

"On average, like 40 per cent of the plants that were there in the mid-1990s were still there when we went there in the burned plots," she said.

McCune and her students spent the second and third growing season examining the burned and unburned plots of land, which were surveyed in the mid-1990s to compare plant species present in the national park.

"The fire was really intense almost anywhere," she said.

"The trees were killed, mostly, and there was a lot of burning down into the soil, too, so we didn't know how many plants could survive in the seed bank or underground."

All burned plots had a massive shift in the composition of plants since the fire, with most species being wiped out.

But McCune says the more interesting things came out of the unburned plots.

"The places that didn't burn, you might think, 'Oh, this is exactly the same as when I came here as a kid 20 years ago,' but they actually aren't," she said.

As a result, McCune has seen an increase in what she calls "disturbance-loving plants" throughout the whole park.

"We're also seeing this kind of shift to plants that like the shade and are a bit towards more woody-things for plants in unburned areas," she said.

There are a number of potential factors causing the change, including hotter temperatures and the increase in visitors to Waterton Lakes.

"We could see what is the trajectory of how these plant communities are changing and how is that influenced by where they are in the park," McCune said.

"If they're closer to a trail, if further from a trail, what vegetation type they're in and what elevation they're at."

This summer, McCune and her students will return to Waterton Lakes to see what has changed since the 1990s survey and the Kenow wildfire.

"When we go back, do we see even more of the original plant species that were there coming back? Or do we see different ones coming in that are responding to the change?"

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