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    Categories: Environment

Council wants wildlife highway

TRACKS SPOTTED – Retired Alberta Fish and Wildlife ungulate specialist Bill Wishart examines deer tracks along the ungulate underpass under 215 St. near Big Lake. The underpass is part of an extensive wildlife corridor in the region. Wishart was skeptical that St. Albert could create a similar corridor along the Sturgeon

Wildlife experts say it would be tough, if not outright impossible, to create an effective wildlife corridor through St. Albert.

City council voted this week to have staff research what it would take to create a wildlife corridor along the Sturgeon River that would protect people and animals as the latter move through the city.

Coun. Bob Russell said he made the motion in the wake of the March shooting of a mother moose in downtown St. Albert.

“Our concerns are both for wildlife and the public,” he said in an interview, noting that wildlife have moved through St. Albert using the Sturgeon for many years.

Russell said this initiative should include signage to identify natural areas in the city and educate people on what to do if they spot wildlife, especially moose (e.g. keep your pets leashed). The City of Edmonton has already done extensive research on the topic that St. Albert could use.

Mayor Nolan Crouse applauded the move in council, saying that it was much better than a one-off reaction to what was a very emotional incident.

“This is a governance look at a moose incident.”

Biologists skeptical

Anecdotal evidence (e.g. tracks, sightings) suggest that deer, moose, coyotes and other animals regularly use the Sturgeon as a wildlife corridor, said city environmental manager Leah Kongsrude. No one has studied how often it’s used, though, or where and how often human-wildlife conflicts occur in it.

Charles Richmond of the Sierra Club’s Edmonton chapter has worked extensively with Edmonton-area developers to create protected wildlife corridors around Edmonton and Big Lake, and was skeptical that the city could create an effective one along the Sturgeon.

“Going through St. Albert, it’s an absolute dam,” he said, given that many parts of the river valley are just narrow strips of grass.

At this point, the city would likely have to put up fences along the river if it was serious about keeping animals from wandering out of this corridor, Richmond continued.

“They should have been planning for this a long time ago.”

Richmond pointed to the Hawks Ridge development on the south side of Big Lake along 215 Street as an example of an effective wildlife corridor. It’s a band of thick forest that’s at least 75 metres wide running through the entire neighbourhood, and includes a $4 million moose underpass – thought to be the only such structure in Alberta outside its national parks.

Moose and deer typically clash with people in the spring when adult ungulates chase their kids off to new territories and during the fall mating season, said Bill Wishart, a retired Alberta Fish and Wildlife biologist and ungulate specialist. Signs to raise awareness and tree plantings could help reduce human-wildlife conflict in this region, but you’d need at least 50 metres of thick forest to make an ideal corridor for ungulates.

“With St. Albert, there’s nothing wide enough there,” he said.

“You’d have to move a lot of properties to make a corridor that’s suitable for large mammals.”

Ray Gibbon Drive has some elements of a wildlife corridor already, Kongsrude said. There are several well-concealed tunnels under it for reptiles and small mammals, for example, and the north bank under the bridge was made flat and planted with native grasses to attract ungulates – although most appear to be crossing the road up top instead.

While Ray Gibbon also has wildlife-warning signs, Kongsrude noted that those were placed only after five years of study to determine where animals were most likely to cross.

“You don’t want to put wildlife signs up everywhere. You want to put it up where there’s an issue.”

Kongsrude recommended hiring a consultant to figure out what species were at risk along the Sturgeon and the location of conflict points. Council would then consider what steps to take, which could include signs or mammal underpasses.

Council did not ask administration to report back by a specific date.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.