BANFF – Twenty-five years ago, Canmore wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer embarked on an epic 3,400-kilometre journey from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to Watson Lake in the Yukon, following the path of wide-ranging species like wolves and grizzly bears.
Taking a break from his job at Parks Canada, Heuer plotted the wildest route he could, hiking, skiing and paddling between 1998 and 2000 to find out how realistic Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative’s grand vision of a connected continental corridor was on the ground.
In the end, he found there was almost continuous wilderness that could support wildlife along the spine of the Rockies, although there were hotspots of concern such as in the Bow Valley around Canmore where development was booming.
“When I got to Yukon it had been 188 days of actual travel, and 85 per cent of those days I had witnessed fresh signs, tracks, rub trees, digs or the grizzly bears themselves, a wilderness dependent icon, and for me that was extremely hopeful,” he said.
“It made me realize we need to move beyond thinking of individual national parks as these postage stamp-sized areas of protection and that we can do whatever we want outside their boundaries. We have to think about them as connected reserve networks for species to survive into the long-term.”
For Heuer, the hope he felt 25 years ago took a hard hit earlier this month when the Town of Canmore lost its fight in Alberta’s Court of Appeal over the Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek developments, which have the potential to almost double Canmore’s population over the next 20 years.
The developments by Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Ltd. will now continue through the Town of Canmore’s planning process, but company officials say development won’t break ground until 2025 at the earliest.
Over his 30 years in Canmore, Heuer said he has already witnessed the slow degradation of the wildlife corridor on the north side of the Bow Valley with the development of Eagle Terrace and Silvertip “to the point that it’s not really used anymore.”
“What we are looking at with the Three Sisters property is infringement on the last wildlife corridor that's left to link Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country,” he said.
“It’s a nice low elevation corridor. We know wolves use it. We know grizzly bears use it. This is what’s at stake here … we’re essentially strip mining the last wildlife corridor for real estate.”
A peer-reviewed study published last year in Movement Ecology looked at how large carnivores like grizzly bears and wolves are responding to increasing human use and development in the Bow Valley, concluding animals avoid towns and developed areas when lots of people are around.
The team of researchers involved in the study, which also included Parks Canada and Alberta Parks, analyzed GPS collar data from 34 grizzly bears and 33 wolves from 2002-2020 and highlighted the cumulative effects of development on carnivore movement behaviour, habitat use, and connectivity.
Mark Hebblewhite, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Montana and co-author of the study, said the Three Sisters developments will continue to erode ecological integrity of the Bow Valley, threatening the security of populations and habitats of species like wolves and grizzlies.
“Our study showed that future development scenarios including the ASPs for Three Sisters reduced wolf and grizzly bear habitat and connectivity around the Town of Canmore even more than already degraded,” he said.
“At present, we have just 21-25 per cent of historic habitat connectivity, and only 14 per cent of high quality habitat for both species. Future development of Three Sisters will degrade these already degraded habitats even more by another five per cent; that is down to only nine per cent of historical.”
Hebblewhite also pointed to the landmark two-year $2 million Banff-Bow Valley Study of the late 1990s, which found pressures from growth and development outside the park’s boundaries, including around Canmore, were compounding the environmental stress within Banff.
He said while the appeal court sided with an outdated 30-year-old Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) decision, he believes the next steps will be to ask the federal government to consider the impacts of this huge development proposal on the ecological integrity and species at risk of Banff National Park.
“The very future of Canada’s oldest national park is at stake,” said Hebblewhite.
Hilary Young, Y2Y’s director of communities and conservation, said the science paper clearly indicated that increases in human activity and development are threatening wildlife populations in the Bow Valley, noting wildlife corridors need to be prioritized more than ever based on the study’s findings.
“It’s a question of habitat loss in terms of introducing these developments and it's also introducing all of these folks right into an area where wildlife will be moving because there's really nowhere else left for them to move through the valley at this stage,” she said.
“If we’re introducing over 10,000 people to areas right beside or even on top of a wildlife corridor, we’re moving in the wrong direction and we’re not improving the situation.”
The designation of wildlife corridors was a requirement resulting from the 1992 NRCB decision and falls under the jurisdiction of the province of Alberta.
The wildlife corridor adjacent to Smith Creek was approved by the province in 2020, which serves to connect the previously approved 1998 Along Valley Corridor to the G8 wildlife underpass. It extends from the Stewart Creek neighbourhood to the Wind Valley at Dead Man’s Flats. The Stewart Creek Across Valley Corridor was approved by the province in 1998, but is proposed to shift eastward to align with the Stewart Creek steep creek hazard area.
Chris Ollenberger, director of strategy and development for TSMVPL, said the wildlife corridor is the largest in the Bow Valley, noting it covers about 273 hectares with an average width of the Along Valley corridor at 789 metres.
He said he believes the corridor will be highly functional and doesn’t think the development plans are a threat to wildlife connectivity.
“The current state that’s out there right now is probably its most problematic stage, and that’s mainly due to human use that’s occurring within the wildlife corridor system today … it’s essentially unmitigated human use,” he said.
“We have tens of thousands of pictures and so does the province of lots of people enjoying trails, cycling, unleashed dogs, things like that, and that’s really the true impediment currently to the wildlife system’s success.
“We've invested a lot of land, more land than anybody else in the Bow Valley on these corridors, so we want to see them succeed just as much as anybody.”
The Bow Valley, linking Banff with Kananaskis Country, is one of the four most important east-west connectors in the entire 3,400-km Y2Y region and one of only two such valleys in Alberta.
The valley is low, flat, warm, and dry, creating high quality habitat and movement corridors for animals. The Bow River and highly productive lands adjacent to it provide resources for a wide range of wildlife.
Y2Y’s Young is fearful that the corridor won’t work as well for wildlife as TSMVPL claims, noting Y2Y believes it does not meet criteria to ensure wildlife movement, the science is weak and it’s too steep and too narrow to function effectively.
“They are claiming that it’s one of the wider corridors in the valley and that’s because the way the width is being assessed is not taking into consideration steep slopes,” she said.
“The measurements that the province and TSMV are using do not consider the fact that wildlife are really unlikely to move on slopes that are much steeper than 20-25 degrees.
“They’re saying it’s rather wide, but in fact, if you consider the science of how animals move on slopes, it’s not very wide at all.”
Heuer agreed, noting limiting the movements of species like grizzly bears and wolves is the beginning of a dangerous path.
“It’s just like humans not being able to access their own house and all the rooms in their house for their own needs. It’s like not having a hallway anymore to link your bathroom with your bedroom with your kitchen with your living room,” he said.
“For wildlife, it’s more your denning area becomes cut off from your fall feeding area, which is cut off from your spring feeding area. They cannot stay stationary and make things work over a typical year. Wildlife needs to be able to move.
“If we reduce those movements, they end up on smaller and smaller islands and then we’ve seen the world over those islands eventually wink out and that’s how you lose animals and that’s how extinction happens.”
As part of the plan for wildlife and human-use management, the primary mitigations outlined within the Smith Creek and Three Sisters Village area structure plans are education, attractant management, creation of space for recreation and a wildlife fence.
A wildlife exclusion fence will be built along the perimeter of the development. Previously, the Town of Canmore was to maintain the wildlife fence, but Ollenberger said they are in the final discussion stages for the province to take over fence ownership.
He said installing a fence is to separate human space from animal space instead of having random trails throughout the corridor system.
“Heck, we’ve even pulled out people’s barbecues, coolers full of meat that have been stashed in camps … what we’re trying to do is make sure that we delineate the space that wildlife can use and delineate the space that humans can use,” he said.
Ollenberger said that that doesn’t mean an end to recreation within the wildlife corridor system.
But he noted there will be designated trails and work with Canmore and Area Mountain Biking Association (CAMBA) and the province of Alberta on those trail designations continues.
“The fence is a barrier, but it’ll lead to better wildlife movements,” he said.
Ollenberger said TSMV has also agreed with the province to undertake habitat improvements within the corridor, such as tree thinning to create meadows to open up sight lines preferred by some wildlife such as elk.
“We’re looking forward to working with the province on the next step on the mitigation measures and wildlife corridors,” he said.
Young, however, is concerned a fence of this scale is untested, and regardless, the corridor will need to be diligently managed to keep people and wildlife from coming into conflict.
“It really is a giant experiment in the sense we haven’t previously had an example of a fence adjacent to an important corridor like this that is effectively trying to keep people out,” she said.
“Even if there is a lot of enforcement, we are still concerned about folks finding a way into the corridor. Of course, we see off-leash dogs everywhere now and it’s hard to imagine this is going to be different.”
Heuer calls the mitigation measures “just a load of hooey.”
“You can’t put residences for 10,000 more people on the slopes and benches of what functions as the last wildlife corridor linking Banff and K-Country and pretend that it’s a good plan and it’s going to be fine for wildlife, I’m sorry,” he said.