BOW VALLEY – A new peer-reviewed study looks at how large carnivores like grizzly bears and wolves are responding to increasing human use and development in the Bow Valley.
The study, which was published in Movement Ecology in April, examines how towns and trails in the Bow Valley drive carnivore movement behaviour, habitat selection and connectivity.
Researchers say the results highlight the adverse effects of development on habitat use and connectivity for wildlife, with more pronounced effects on habitat required for foraging and resting.
Mark Hebblewhite, a well-known scientist and one of the authors of the paper, said the study shows that bears and wolves are currently avoiding areas and times of day with higher levels of human activity, footprint and overall development.
“We compared how much high quality habitat has already been lost for animal connectivity in the Banff-Bow Valley by comparing movements to pristine conditions before the highways, railways and towns – and overall we have already lost an average of 85 per cent of high quality habitat for connectivity,” said Hebblewhite.
“Any more development expansion will reduce that, and in our projected future scenario, we found indeed, up to three per cent more loss of connectivity. This sounds like not much, but to put it in context, for wolves say, this would be 20 per cent of all the remaining high quality habitat lost for connectivity. We don’t have a lot left to lose.”
The team of scientists and researchers involved in the study, which included Parks Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks, built a model to test loss of movement corridors and high quality habitat for wolves and grizzly bears in the Canadian Rockies.
The researchers simulated animal movements for three scenarios with varying levels of development: pre-development, current, and future. They also used animal movements obtained through GPS collar data collected from 2000 to 2020 from 34 grizzly bears and 33 wolves.
The study covered a 17,450-square-kilometre area within and adjacent to Banff National Park, including the Bow Valley, which is also bisected by a national railway line and Canada’s main highway, and includes the tourist towns of Banff and Canmore.
Like many protected areas around the world, human activity within the study area has increased steadily over the last 20 years. Banff National Park currently sees more than four million visitors a year and Kananaskis Country has had more than five million visitors in 2020 and 2021.
The study concluded that carnivores such as grizzly bears and wolves increased their speed of travel near towns and areas of high trail and road density, presumably to avoid encounters with people.
The researchers say the animals avoided development even more when foraging and resting compared to travelling, and during the day compared to night.
“Wolves exhibited stronger avoidance of anthropogenic development than grizzly bears,” states the 18-page paper.
Current development reduced the amount of high-quality habitat between the two mountain towns of Banff and Canmore by more than 35 per cent, according to the study.
“Habitat degradation constrained movement routes around towns and was most pronounced for foraging and resting behaviour,” states the study.
“Current anthropogenic development reduced connectivity from reference conditions an average of 85 per cent. Habitat quality and connectivity further declined under a future development scenario.”
Hebblewhite, who is an associate professor in the wildlife biology program at the University of Montana, said the findings in this study are important to decision-making around land use planning in the Bow Valley, including development at Three Sisters.
“I’ll put it bluntly… expanding development at the doorstep of Banff National Park surrounding Canmore has the potential to markedly affect ecological integrity in Banff in its detrimental effects on connectivity across all species, not just the two we studied in this paper,” he said.
The future scenario simulated animal movements with expanded development and trail density, including modifications to Canmore’s developed footprint to reflect large-scale residential and business development proposals in the Smith Creek and Three Sisters Village area structure plans.
Development proposals for Three Sisters have been discussed for decades; however, the future of these development plans is now in the hands of the Land and Property Rights Tribunal following a legal dispute between the Town of Canmore and Three Sisters Mountain Village Property Limited.
“These proposals coupled with expanding recreational activities on surrounding trail networks have garnered extensive interest from the community about cumulative effects on carnivore movements and human-wildlife coexistence,” according to the study.
The developed footprint for the Banff townsite, on the other hand, is legally fixed under the Canada National Parks Act and is not expected to increase. However, like many mountain towns, the creation and intensity of use on informal trails have increased near Banff and Canmore.
“This has potential to reduce wildlife connectivity,” states the study.
The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative – an organization that works to connect and protect habitat for wildlife from Yellowstone to the Yukon – says this is the first study to provide a quantitative analysis of connectivity in the valley.
“The loss of 85 per cent of connectivity from reference conditions, to me, is massive. We’ve never seen a number before,” said Hilary Young, Y2Y’s Alberta program director.
“We keep talking about being on the precipice of losing grizzly bears or not knowing where that threshold is, and this gets us a little bit closer to understanding how close we are to losing that connectivity.”
Young said the paper clearly indicates that increases in human activity and development are threatening wildlife populations in the Bow Valley.
Based on the results of the study, she also said wildlife corridors need to be prioritized more than ever when evaluating any development proposals that risk “impacting what little that we have left.”
“The paper is showing that the situation in the Bow Valley is not stabilizing, it’s not getting better, but it’s only getting worse, and without making changes, we will ultimately be failing wildlife here,” she said.
“From my perspective, it’s showing how much we’ve lost, which means the importance of the wilderness that remains is so high.”
Parks Canada, which oversees Banff National Park, announced in late April a $60.6 million investment for a national program for ecological corridors, which aims to support and help other jurisdictions and organizations to develop better ecological connections between protected and conserved areas.
The federal agency will work with other levels of government and a wide range of partners, experts, and stakeholders to develop criteria and map areas where these corridors would have the greatest positive effects for biodiversity conservation in key areas across Canada.
“This shows to me that Parks Canada knows that areas outside national parks have huge impacts and importance on their ecological integrity mandate inside national parks,” said Hebblewhite.
“Our paper helps directly address the mission of that initiative by identifying key habitats and key corridors needed for enhanced protection today.”
The study found that even with an attractive food source of elk congregating and calving near towns, grizzly bears avoided areas 200 to 300 metres from towns while wolves avoided areas 400 to 500 metres from towns.
Avoidance of towns tapered at night and was negligible for wolves in their fast state of movement. “Together, this suggests towns had stronger effects on habitat required for foraging and resting compared to connectivity habitat required for travel,” the study states.
In addition, research showed that grizzly bears and wolves both avoided areas with high trail and road density when in slow states of movement, likely to reduce encounters with people.
The exception to this was during the fall when grizzly bears travelled in areas with a lot of trails.
“Trails at this time of year had low levels of visitation and grizzly bears likely selected for seasonal foods associated with high trail density,” the study concluded, noting seasonal foods like buffaloberries and hedysarum roots are important food sources for grizzly bears in the summer and early fall.
“While grizzly bears selected areas with higher trail density in the fall, their selection for these features likely depends more on the combination of available foods and levels of human activity than on the trails themselves.”
The study concluded that restoration actions, such as removal of human footprint, managing or consolidating recreational activity, and trail closures have potential to improve habitat quality and population-level connectivity.
“Wildlife have responded to restoration actions by increasing their use of corridors and degraded habitat following reductions in human activity, both in our ecosystem and around the world,” the researchers stated.
“For example, early work in our study area demonstrated positive wildlife connectivity consequences of removing recreational footprint in the Cascade wildlife corridor on the north side of the Banff townsite, and positive effects of a temporal road closure on wildlife habitat quality.”
Others involved in the research paper included lead author Jesse Whittington, a Parks Canada ecologist in Banff National Park; John Paczkowski, a wildlife ecologist with Alberta Environment and Parks; Robin Baron, Parks Canada resource conservation officer in Banff National Park; and Adam Ford, Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology and associate professor in the biology department at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna.