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027 Bison babies, conservation wins and new transportation options for the mountains

This week I celebrate the first wild bison born in Banff in the past 140 years. I also look at some big wins for local conservationists vs developers and finally, there’s some great news in terms of regional transportation in the mountain parks.

 

Story 1 – First Bison Born in Banff

When I started this podcast, I had no idea how it would be both draining and exciting. I had no idea of the immense amount of work each episode would take and the hours of research that would be needed. I didn’t realize the full extent of ecological challenges being placed on the landscape, and I didn’t plan for the range of emotions that I would experience while planning, writing and producing each episode.

Well, today, I’m able to share several good news stories that makes all the work worth it. While we are constantly being bombarded with bad news, it’s always exciting when the hard work of thousands of people has a tangible impact on decisions taking place in the places we love. So let’s take a look at the great announcements filling the newswires this week.

First on the list has to do with the cutest thing on earth – baby animals. Spring is the time of new life in the mountains. Over the next month we’ll begin to see mule and white-tail deer fawns, elk calves, and those oh so cute black and grizzly bear cubs. So what makes this year so special?

How about the first bison calf in 140 years to be born in Banff National Park? Now if that’s not cool enough, not only is it the first bison in more than a century, but it was born on Earth Day, April 22, 2017.

Back in episode 19, I announced the arrival of the first bison to be released in Banff and in episode 21, I shared the official launch event hosted in Banff to celebrate the reintroduction. As a naturalist and biologist, it was one of the most exciting events in the history of Banff National Park. Bison were a part of this landscape for some ten thousand years, moving into the mountains as the glaciers moved out. For the areas first nations, buffalo were more than just an iconic animal, they were connected to every aspect of their lives and culture.

No other animal was as important to the natives of the plains and eastern slopes as the buffalo. The disappearance of wild bison also marked an end to many cultural and social connections that our local first nations had to the buffalo and to the landscape.

When talk of reintroduction moved toward action, First Nations across the mountain west, on both sides of the U.S. border, supported the initiative. For some, it was the first time they had sat down with traditional enemies in almost as long as the bison have been absent.

While many native cultures warred with each other, there was one thing that connected them to each other – bison! In a time where governments are trying to reconcile for a century of poor decisions in terms of residential schools and patriarchal policies, this simple event seems to have timeless significance.

In early February, 16 buffalo from Wood Buffalo National Park were airlifted into a remote area of the Panther Valley in Banff National Park. Included within the group were 10 pregnant females and 6 young bulls.

Since they were all pregnant upon arriving in Banff, this little guy is only the first of many new arrivals. By the time you listen to this, there will likely be several more calves frolicking with the mountain park’s first native born bison.

Every step along the route is one step closer to what we all hope will  be a viable wild population establishing a permanent foothold in the mountain national parks. The plan is to keep the bison on a small, paddock until they’ve raised at least two sets of calves. The goal is to help them bond to their new home and through raising their young, park managers hope that they’ll develop a strong connection to their new home.

In June of 2018, the plan is to release them into a much larger 1200 square kilometre landscape along the Cascade and Red Deer River valleys. This reintroduction has taken years of negotiation, planning and consultation with stakeholders to come to fruition. We can only hope that it is just the first step in a renewed permanent mountain population.

Story 2 – Icefields Trail Stalled

In last week’s episode, I talked about Parks Canada and some of the controversial decisions they’ve been making over the past few years. Over the last few weeks, they have been taken out to the wood shed over their lack of transparency and for ignoring both public opinion as well as their own science when approving new developments.

Currently, Parks Canada has been planning a paved bike path running all the way from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields, and eventually all the way to Lake Louise and possibly Banff. This 86.4 million dollar trail has been hugely unpopular by conservationists, researchers, and as was revealed recently, Parks Canada’s own scientists. Freedom of Information crusader, Ken Rubin peeled back the curtain of secrecy and has been revealing the long trail of public documents and emails that led up to the decision to build this trail.

In internal emails, Park biologists expressed serious concerns about the trail, its impact on ecological integrity, the likelihood that it would spur additional development requests, and its high likelihood of negative wildlife encounters. In addition a newly released report by an intergovernmental panel looking at tourism in Canada’s national parks, also commented on the apparent lack of transparency in upper level decision making and questioned the origin of this particular proposal.

One of the most telling signs was the fact that Parks Canada actually posted a tender for engineering firms to begin the design of the actual trail. This is especially troubling since the trail is not even through the public consultation phase and has not been given any official go-ahead from the powers that be.

According to Parks, the tender was submitted so that they could be “well positioned to deliver the project if, and only if, the decision is taken to move forward”.

Well it seems that the overwhelmingly negative response to this tender has finally caused Parks Canada to pay attention. This week, the tender was withdrawn. According to a story in the Fitzhugh Newspaper, Minister McKenna’s press secretary, Marie-Pascale Des Rosiers said: “This was determined to be premature given that the agency is currently focused on the consultation process and the environmental assessment for the proposed project”.

This tender was just more evidence that Parks Canada seemed to have the cart before the horse and that it was secretly making development decisions long before the public consultations and environmental impact assessments were completed. Hopefully, this setback will help reset the standards at Parks Canada back to the focus on Ecological Integrity promised by Minister McKenna in Banff this spring.

Not everyone opposes the trail. As is always the case, organizations that want to bring more and more people into the parks with little regard to the long-term impact will always support developments like these. Recently, a group calling themselves the “icefields Trail North Support Coalition” launched a website at www.IcefieldsTrail.ca to try to build support for the trail project.

While it sounds like an innocuous organization, the money behind the site development friendly groups like the Association for Mountain Parks and Protection, Banff Lake Louise Tourism, and the Banff Lake Louise Hotel Association.

All of these organizations stand to personally benefit from this trail being built and while they pretend to offer a sober response to concerns regarding the impact of the trail, they essentially ignore all the science and their fact checker is rather short of , well , facts.

Story 3 – Big wins in Canmore’s Wildlife Corridor Battle

This has been a week of very good news in Canmore particularly in terms of the struggle to designate the last critical wildlife corridor on the south side of the Bow River valley. On April 26th, Alberta Environment and Parks announced that they will not be making a decision on the Three Sisters Mountain Village and Smith Creek Wildlife Corridors for at least another four to eight weeks. It seems the very strong public opposition towards the corridors as proposed by Three Sisters is having a strong impact. It’s more important now that we keep the pressure on. We need to ensure your grandchildren will be able to see black and grizzly bears, wolves, cougars and elk moving through the Bow River Valley.

The very next day, Three Sisters withdrew from consideration, its area structure plan for its Smith Creek Development until the provincial government renders it’s decision on the corridors.

They did move forward with their submission for first reading of the Stewart Creek Village Centre area structure plan. But in a third blow to the developer, on May 2nd Canmore Town Council unanimously rejected Three Sisters asp for its village Centre development.

Mayor John Borrowman indicated that he has struggled with his decision for months. As he stated:

“I’ve thought about this issue most every day,” he said. “I lay awake at night thinking about this … There’s a substantial change of use proposed for the golf course area … and I’m not of the opinion that such a dramatic change is beneficial to the community at this time.”

Councilor Sean Krausert could not see an amendment that would satisfy his concerns without a complete rewrite. He also did not agree with the increased development on the old golf course lands.

Councilor Ed Russell said he’d just heard this too many times. The third party review of Three Sisters Environmental assessment also had alarm bells going off for him.

IN the end, the motion to move forward with first reading was defeated 7-0.

This was a very big move for the town council to say NO to big business trying to bully their way into our wildlife corridors. Those corridors are continentally significant for animals to be able to move between areas of critical habitat. They also allow for migrations of animals between populations making sure that fresh genetic material is also flowing throughout the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor.

This could not have been accomplished without every person that attended public hearings, information sessions and Council Meetings. This has been a grass roots campaign and it will need us all to keep the pressure on until the last corridor is finally approved.

Also this week, two renowned biologists that have been conducting research in the valley for a combined total of 30 years, sent an open letter to Alberta Environment and Parks urging the government not to rush into a decision but rather to wait until the best science could guide their actions.

Adam Ford of the University of British Columbia and Mark Hebblewhite of the University of Montana know this landscape better than most. In addition to their long history of researching in the valley, they can claim almost 7,000 citations of their peer-reviewed work. There are few scientists that can bring more clarity to the issue of wildlife corridors in the Rockies.

In their letter they state:

“Surprisingly, there is no formal mechanism in place to bring the best available science to bear on regional planning in the Bow Valley”.

In our opinion, this ad hoc approach needs to change quickly: the pace of development proposals and many of the questions these plans trigger by stakeholders, is proceeding faster than the speed at which science can provide answers. This discordance between evidence and decision is putting both wildlife and the local economy at risk. To address these issues, we strongly recommend that the Government of Alberta:

  1. conduct a cumulative effects assessment in the Bow Valley
  2. postpone development approvals in the Bow Valley until such an assessment is complete; and,
  3. bring world-class science and policy tools to bear on issues of land-use planning and wildlife connectivity as part of the Bow Valley cumulative effects assessment.

Our rationale for these recommendations arises from issues we have observed with:

  1. the pace of science versus the pace of development;
  2. process, precedent, and uncertainty in environmental assessments;
  3. an understanding that where habitat is located, not just the amount of habitat, matters and
  4. the need for greater optimism of science in decision making.”

The pace of development has been rapidly outpacing the ability of science to keep up with it. The letter continues:

“As one example of the discordance between science and development, in 2014 we began working on an analysis to assess how development in the Three Sisters Mountain Village (TSMV) area of the Bow Valley could affect wildlife movement in the region…Since the start of this research, there have been at least two additional proposed developments in the region (expansion of Dead Man’s Flats and the expansion of the Silvertip Resort). There has not been enough time to complete our research in the narrow window between the release of development plans to the public and the closing period for public comment on development plans. Moreover, each of these projects has potential to reduce the viability of wildlife populations and increase human-wildlife conflict in the Bow Valley. The cumulative impact of these projects, cast over the next 100 years, along with other unforeseen development plans potentially coming on board, means that we have no idea how close we are to a collapse in ecosystem function”.

Town Council seems to be echoing some of these same sentiments. We need good science in order to make equally good decisions. Researchers like Heblewhite and Ford have built a career helping to compile that science.

What’s the next step? Keep the pressure on Three Sisters and Silvertip to work towards altering their plans to better accommodate the movement of wildlife through the Bow Valley. Hopefully,  Roger Ramcharita with Alberta Environment and Parks, the ultimate decision maker for the province, agrees.

With excellent science and public support for wildlife, maybe we can sway the decision away from overdevelopment and towards conservation.

Story 4 – Anglers beware – the rules have changed

If you’re one of the many anglers that love to cast a fly in the Bow River to test your luck against the prevalent trout population, you’ll want to pay attention to this story. Beginning on April 1, the entire stretch of the Bow River from its headwaters at Bow Lake in Banff National Park to the Bassano Reservoir is now catch and release only.

Over the past few years, the pressure on fish populations has led to declining stocks. This has led Alberta Environment and Parks to bring in this change.

The discovery in 2016 of Whirling Disease in the Bow River watershed also played a part in changing the regulations for the Bow River. While Whirling Disease did play a role, these changes were being discussed prior to its discovery. If you’d like to see the changes, check out this link to the section in the Alberta Fishing Guide.

And speaking of Whirling Disease, it has now been confirmed in the entire Oldman River watershed as well. The disease now affects rivers throughout the western boundary of Alberta from Bow Lake south to the Montana Border and Waterton Lakes National Park. Despite this recent report, the Oldman River system will not see any changes to fish regulations at this time.

It’s important to note that there is no danger to humans from Whirling Disease. It only affects fish, but it is very easily spread from one water source to another. If you’d like to learn more about whirling disease, check out episodes 7, 9, 14, and 20. Beginning in Episode 7, I discuss the discovery in Johnson Lake and the other episodes follow the story from its discovery, to its wider spread and towards some of the strategies Parks Canada is planning to use to limit its spread.

Story 5 – Updates on Transportation and Parking for Banff.

There has been a lot happening on the transportation front in and around the mountain parks. With Canada’s 150th birthday this year and free park passes, there is a real worry that the roads may simply be overwhelmed by the huge number of additional vehicles traveling to the mountain parks.

In the past, it has been difficult to get to and from the mountains without a vehicle. There are a number of airport shuttle companies and a few regularly scheduled buses, but not really a proper transit system connecting Calgary with Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. This summer, it looks like a number of players are combining to help solve this problem.

One of the first stories was a new transit service between Calgary, Cochrane, Canmore and Banff. The service will run on weekends and holidays, beginning in mid-June and ending on Labour Day. The buses will be run by the Calgary Regional Partnership and will also allow valley residents to use the buses to travel to Calgary for the day.

The cost of the buses will be $10 each way per person. The program would dedicate 3 buses to do approximately 13 round trips per day. The first bus will arrive in Banff around 8:30 am and the last one would leave Banff approximately 10:30 pm. The buses will pick-up and drop-off at the Crowfoot LRT Station in Calgary. A few morning and evening trips will pick-up and drop-off in Okotoks, Somerset-Bridlewood in South Calgary.

There will also be additional bus service this summer between Banff and Lake Louise, as well as the Lake Minnewanka Loop. Both of these buses are also intended to encourage people to park their cars and reduce some of the strain on the busy road systems. On sunny summer days, the highway interchange at Lake Louise is completely closed as the roads become overwhelmed by the number of cars that want to visit.

The Minnewanka loop bus service will be operated as part of the Roam system and it will be Route 6 on the transit signs within the Townsite of Banff. It will be a free service. Stops include Cascade Ponds, Two-Jack Lake Campgrounds and day-use area, and Lower Bankhead. The bus will be wrapped with an image of a westslope cutthroat trout so It’ll be easy to spot.

The Lake Louise service will run hourly and will offer visitors a convenient way to travel between Banff and Lake Louise. More details are yet to come on this service but I’ll keep you posted as I hear more details.

And finally some great news for traffic in and around Banff Townsite. On April 25th, Karen Sorensen, Mayor of Banff announce a new transportation hub and 900 stall parking area to be developed adjacent to the Banff train station. The project will be a partnership between the town and Liricon Capital Ltd, owned by long time residents Jan and Adam Waterous.

Liricon has a multi-decade lease with CP Rail for the rail lands and their goal is to make a hub for all of the regional transit services to connect with visitors taking advantage of an additional 900 parking stalls. This will also be benefitted should passenger rail service return to Banff at some point in the future.

This has been a long time coming. For the past few years, the roads within the townsite have been overwhelmed by the numbers of private cars driving the park roads. With a great collection lot that connects with all the local transit services, the hope is that we can see more people using the roam buses and fewer trying to drive everywhere in town.

In 2016, more than 50% of the cars crossing the Bow River Bridge were day users in their private vehicles. This lot will provide some options for them to park their cars and have easy access to everything Banff has to offer.

This won’t be ready for this summer, but knowing that pieces are finally falling into place for a regional transportation system that can help to alleviate the need for as many cars on the park roads is a great sign.

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