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024 Bow Valley Wildlife Corridors vs Developers

This episode takes an in-depth look at the developments currently threatening to close off the last wildlife corridors moving through the Bow River Valley at Canmore. These developments include the Three Sisters and Smith Creek Developments, as well as the proposed development and gondola at Silvertip.

Story 1 – Development Chokes off Wildlife Corridors

Well, it’s here – the moment that most Canmore locals have been dreading for decades – the day where we finally have to decide whether we want the Bow River Valley to have functional wildlife corridors or not.

I first moved into Canmore in 1987 when there were only around 3,500 people that called this former coal mining town home. In 1988, Canmore hosted the Cross-country ski and Biathlon events for the Calgary Winter Olympic Games and suddenly, a billion people were introduced to this pristine mountain town.

Since that time, the growth has been increasing exponentially. In 2016, the Canmore’s official population was just shy of 14,000. Today, the town and province are faced with the task of deciding the future of three megadevelopments within the townsite.

When these developments are completed, the population will swell to 34,000 in just a few years. Even more importantly though, these developments threaten to choke off the last few viable wildlife movement corridors in the Bow River Valley.

This valley is significant on a continental level as part of the web of connecting corridors allowing wildlife to move through the entire Yellowstone to Yukon corridor. Towns like Canmore have the potential to pinch off these corridors, forcing wildlife onto steeper and steeper terrain and reducing the opportunities to safely move through the area. With developments currently planned for BOTH sides of the valley at the moment, protecting corridors becomes even more essential.

Wildlife corridors only work if the animals using them feel safe and confident while they are traversing them. The longer the corridor, the wider it needs to be. Current guidelines specify a corridor of at least 450 m (1,500 feet) wide on a slope that does not exceed 25 degrees. Steep slopes make it more difficult for animals to travel and reduces the effectiveness of any corridor.

However, hard and fast rules don’t work in reality. Think about walking out of a shopping centre at midnight and having to walk to your car. If your car is in the middle of a well-lit parking lot with no obstacles blocking your view, you’ll likely feel very confident.

However, if your car is at the end of a long narrow alley obstructed by dumpsters, than you will likely have a very different feeling when it comes to walking towards your car.

Wildlife corridors connect patches of habitat. The longer the corridor, the wider it needs to be. The corridor in Canmore is some 8km long. Previous studies recommended that a corridor that long should be at least 800 m wide.

We also have to remember that we don’t live on an island. Corridors are not just a pathway for animals to move, but routes through which vital genetic diversity also moves. When we talk about wildlife, connectivity is critical and animal movement simply doesn’t happen if the corridor is too narrow, too busy or too steep.

If we look at the history of grizzly bears over the past 150 years, they originally ranged from Mexico to the Yukon and Alaska, and eastward across much of Canada and the Northwest Territories.

As more and more people settled the landscape, corridors got pinched off and disconnected populations became islands. In every case, those island populations eventually disappeared with one exception – Yellowstone. Today the map of grizzly bear populations also has a narrow peninsula and it runs right through the Bow River Valley.

By not protecting the free movement of animals like grizzly bears, we risk helping to close another pinch point which could see many of the southern populations of grizzlies struggle to remain viable.

This corridor is the very last to be negotiated through the Bow Valley. To the east and west, wildlife corridors are already protected within a variety of national and provincial parks. Much of the western portions of the valley already have established corridors. What remains to be defined are the eastern portions of the corridor through the Three Sisters and Smith Creek developments.

Let’s look at the challenges that wildlife must already negotiate as they approach this valley from the west. If you’re grizzly 148 following the lower slopes of Mount Rundle and looking to head towards the Wind Valley or Skogan Pass, your first obstacle will be the labyrinth of trails that make up Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park. Depending on how busy the trails are, you may find yourself pushed up the slopes of Mount Rundle to bypass mountain bikers rapidly wending the twists and turns of the trail system.

Riding these trails requires vigilance as bears also take advantage of these movement corridors. Mountain bikes move fast and quiet and there is always the risk of a close encounter.

Once 148 bypasses the Nordic Centre, she hits her next roadblock – the Rundle Forebay. This linear canal completely blocks all movement east-west through the valley. 148’s only option is to head towards Spray Lakes and eventually the wildlife bridge at the head of the valley.

Originally, as part of the G8 legacy, the wildlife crossing was supposed to be much lower on the forebay but, as is often the case, the cost of bridging this wider section was considered too great. Instead, the current bridge sits less than a few metres from the bridge designed for hikers and mountain bikers.

Once clear of the forebay, she passes Quarry Lake and the dog park with its huge numbers of off-leash dogs – many of which illegally venture beyond the boundaries of the off-leash area.

Next up is the Peaks of Grassi subdivision. As a former resident of the Peaks, bears like 148 are constantly having to negotiate the many homes in this development.

Finally, after passing that final house, 148 will enter the currently approved corridor. This should have been her final challenge on her journey towards Skogan Pass and the Wind Valley. Unfortunately, as we mentioned on episode 22, the wildlife corridor is crowded with extensive human use and high numbers of illegally off-leash dogs.

Any agreements on corridors has to include increased enforcement of human use within designated corridors. These areas are already off-limits to human use but a lack of enforcement has led to more people than animals using the corridors – and unfortunately, many of those people have off leash dogs.

There is also little in the way of signage to warn people that they are entering areas that are closed for wildlife usage. Any program to protect these corridors must start with extensive signage making it impossible to ‘accidentally’ find yourself in a closed area.

Banff National Park has followed this route and it is very difficult to wander into a closed area without seeing a very clear sign indicating that entry is forbidden.

Now back to bear 148…After running the gauntlet of people and dogs, she approaches the east end of the valley and her final hurdle. Bringing us to the current debate in terms of Three Sisters and Smith Creek. This is where she’ll either be forced upslope to avoid even more development…or not. This is where she, along with wolves, cougars, wolverine, lynx, and bobcats will either make it through the valley…or not.

Every obstacle to movement increases the likelihood of animals deciding that it is simply not worth the endless challenges to pass through. This is the point that we’ll have closed the last corridor off and rendered the last 20 years of negotiations towards keeping the area viable moot.

So let’s take a closer look at the current proposals.

The most pressing issue in terms of timeliness is the pending approval of Quantum Place Development’s Stewart and Smith Creek proposals. There’s only a very short time to make your voice heard on this issue. As I record this on April 10, 2016, there are less than 10 days to let your provincial and local politicians know that you stand for wildlife and that development must not come at the expense of working corridors.

If you want to get a really great look at how development and wildlife corridors intersect, check out a video that I’ve linked to in the show notes. It’s dated from 2013 and is hosted on the Yellowstone to Yukon website. It’s narrated by Karsten Heuer who’s one of the best-known conservationists in the valley. Most recently, he was in charge of the bison re-introduction program in Banff National Park. You can view the video below:

Because wildlife corridors have been a contentious issue in this valley for decades, there is a wealth of scientific research detailing the historic use of the valley by wildlife. Three Sisters would like you to think that wildlife use in the proposed corridor would be unaffected by their development and that their corridor would be equally effective to other proposals.

By looking at the historic use of the valley by grizzly bears and wolves, it is clear that the preference of these animals is for flat, low elevation habitat. By overlaying grizzly and wolf movements from the 1990s and early 2000s on an aerial image of the valley, it’s instantly evident that prior to development, wildlife definitely preferred areas that have since been made unavailable due to increased housing development.

Historic studies show a great deal of use the currently unfinished golf course. While it was not built at the time, it shows a bias towards low elevation, flat portions of the valley. Currently, it is listed as a conservation easement, but truly should be part of the wildlife corridor.

The proposed Smith Creek corridor shows almost no historic use by wolves or bears. In fact, all of the historic use was in areas that are now scheduled to be developed as part of the Smith Creek site 7 development.

What does that mean for wildlife using the proposed corridor? Up you go. This Smith Creek corridor has lots of steep terrains that simply doesn’t work as a corridor. In a 2010 report on wildlife movement through the valley, it was found that cougars spend 95% of their time on slopes less than 30°, wolves on slopes less than 21.3°, lynx 23.4° and deer 3.7°.

It’s obvious that animals look for slopes that don’t exceed an average incline of 25°. If you look at an aerial photograph of the proposed corridor, and then overlay slopes in excess of 25°, then most of the corridor to the east of Smith Creek becomes completely unusable. It’s simply too steep to be considered viable. There is also a fair amount of steep terrain impinging on the unfinished golf course which forces animals downslope towards the developed areas of the valley.

If we agree that a corridor that is over 8 km long should be at least 800m wide, this would take the Smith Creek corridor almost right down to the Trans Canada Highway.

When the Stewart and Smith Creek developments are completed, it will almost double the population of Canmore, adding another 10,000 residents to the census.

Ironically, the same company that is currently assisting Quantum Place Developments to push through this development is also the same company that reported in 2002 that:

“the original along-valley corridor design was based on a uniform width of 450m and was placed on slopes above the proposed development with little regard for potential pinch points”. They also went on to say

“The design is NOT recommended given our increased knowledge of wildlife movements and proper corridor design”

In this same report, they came up with a compromise. Instead of an 800m corridor, they would settle on 635 meters plus a buffer of the unfinished golf course fairways. Ironically, this is very similar to the proposal that organizations like the Yellowstone to Yukon would like to see happen.

Yellowstone to Yukon has proposed a true 450m corridor that would ensure that the corridor remains below 25°. Experts agree that it should be as wide as 850 to 1000m for a corridor of this length. The 450m corridor currently proposed by Three Sisters does not come close to a workable solution. Corridors also need to follow a fairly straight line because that’s how animals travel. They may take detours and zig zag as they move, but having a straight corridor has been shown to be more effective.

As it is, most of the proposed development already lies within the landscapes that wildlife prefers to be. Y2Y’s proposed line would move the upper boundary of the corridor downslope to make sure there was a 450m corridor that remains in good terrain.

When it comes to the south corridor, this is our last chance. There won’t be any future opportunities to undo the decisions made in the valley today. Decisions we make here also affect wildlife populations both to the south and north – especially if we cut off the ability of key species to move freely.

So what can you do? Visit the show notes for this episode for a list of ways you can directly engage with decision-makers before it is too late. I’ll have links, email addresses and ways that you can make your voice heard at this critical time.

Three sites that are very helpful include:

Most importantly, write a letter to:

Roger Ramcharita, Executive Director, Environment and Parks South Saskatchewan Region. He is the final arbiter of the corridor design through the Three Sisters Development. His email address is: AEP.wildlifecorridor@gov.ab.ca

cc: Cam Westhead, MLA, Banff – Cochrane: banff.cochrane@assembly.ab.ca

cc: Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks: AEP.minister@gov.ab.ca

In your letter, be firm in your desire to see a corridor no less than 450m wide on slopes less than 25 degrees.  This is NOT to be determined by the developer but by an independent assessment.

While an 800-metre width would be better, there should be no area less than 450m and the current proposals allow too much steep terrain to be considered an effective corridor, especially in the area of the undeveloped golf course and the Smith Creek Corridor.

This valley is significant on a continental scale as a key connecting corridor for the entire Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystem. We cannot afford to lose any threads in this interconnected corridor.

Finally, ask for a full cumulative impact assessment that will take into consideration ALL of the proposed developments in the valley including Stewart and Smith Creek, Silvertip and Dead Man’s Flats.

Don’t forget to share this with your social network. Urge your friends to reach out to the decision makers right away. The clock is ticking out.

Next up…gondolas and gambling

Story 2 – Silvertip

Finally, let’s look at the proposed development at Silvertip on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway. This single development would add 3,000 residential units to the community along with a 300,000 square foot conference centre, 1,300 additional hotel rooms, a casino and a gondola ascending to the old teahouse site on Mount Lady Macdonald.

The development would also squeeze off one of the two principal wildlife corridors in the Bow Valley. This valley is already the most highly developed landscape where grizzlies are still able to survive. By adding a gondola that traverses the wildlife corridor within Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park, we risk adding thousands of more visitors to this critical movement corridor.

The developer would like you to believe that since the gondola will quietly ascend from high above the animals that it will have little impact. However, by looking at Sulphur Mountain Gondola in Banff National park, you can get a much clearer picture of what will likely take place here.

Once the gondola is built, the number of trail users walking the trail is going to increase to numbers vastly larger than today. With a trail that takes you up to a gondola, you can easily descend down at the end of the hike. Sulphur Mountain Trail in Banff is a steady stream of ill-equipped walkers wearing flip-flops and trainers. Most of them don’t have any water, a backpack with extra clothing or even bear spray.

Do we really want to attract this brand of hiker to wander into an active wildlife corridor without the necessary safety equipment or the knowledge of how to stay safe in bear country? Vancouver’s Grouse Grind is a classic example where ill-equipped hikers head onto a challenging trail resulting in rescues, searches and in some cases deaths.

The biggest component of this development is its 300,000 square foot conference centre. To put this into a simple context, it’s the equivalent size of combining both the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary AND the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton! Do we really need a facility of this size in Canmore?

A few weeks ago, the developer, Guy Turcotte hosted a public open house to help locals better understand the development.

During his presentation, he touted historic studies indicating that the wildlife corridors showed ‘little’ impact from the Silvertip development. To support his position, he quoted a study by biologist Paul Pacquette published more than 15 years ago. What he doesn’t realize is that Paul Paquette, just this past summer, described the Bow Valley somewhat differently. In his words:

“It’s a wildlife ghetto. People need to understand, the Bow Valley has two townsites that are growing, two highways, a corridor for high transmission power lines, dams, golf courses, ski hills … They’ve got all that in the valley, so you can imagine the responses for the wolves and wildlife – it’s a ghetto for them and they’re trying to survive in there.”

This is not the voice of a biologist supporting development, or the developers approach to wildlife corridors. If you’re going to invoke the word of a respected scientist, you might want to find out his current opinion.

Turcotte also repeatedly stressed a few critical aspects of the development:

First, he needs the casino and the gondola to provide a steady flow of cash to satisfy billion dollar investors. He also insisted that the entire development has to be built in a single stage in order to put an entire Whistler-style development on the market with little delay, again so he can maximize returns to investors.

There are still some major flaws in his current plans. First, wildland parks prohibit developing facilities such as gondolas. He is hoping to take advantage of a small leasehold excluded from the park boundaries. This is the site of a long-abandoned helicopter teahouse, however the scale of his development would dramatically exceed its outer dimensions. He also needs permits for all of the towers and other structures within the park that would be necessary to support a gondola, and these would also violate the rules of a wildland park.

We also need to take a province-wide look at this. Making an exception is this park creates a precedent that puts all the other 33 Wildland Provincial Parks at risk.

Another casino in Alberta today is nothing exciting – it’s just another casino. The province is crawling with them. He’ll be competing with 24 other casinos in the province. It’s a bit of fluff to tickle the wallets of investors

From a conservation standpoint, the fact that the whole enchilada has to be developed in one step could just be his Achilles heel. If opponents to this development can delay any single aspect, then they can help derail the entire development.

At the presentation, the room was full of people and not one of them seemed to be supporting the project. When you get a moment, take a drive up the Silvertip road. It’s a narrow winding road not nearly built to handle the amount of traffic that would result from this scale of Rocky Mountain terraforming.

I will definitely be putting pressure on Alberta Environment and Parks. If we can stop the gondola, we can help to stem the flow of cash and hopefully make a development like this far less attractive to investors. At the very least, it will dramatically reduce the human use in the existing corridor if there is not the siren song of a gondola calling tourists up the steep slopes of Mount Lady Macdonald.

I hope that I never see the day that Silvertip has to rebrand itself after playing a role in forcing grizzly bears to abandon the valley. As a community, we need to join together to make sure that the valley we choose is one which we want our grandchildren to be proud to call home. It’s time to draw a line and say enough is enough.

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