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Study shows Bow Valley land-use planning must consider regional development, recreation

“We really wanted to show that every decision that is being made, especially given how little secure habitat remains for grizzlies in the valley, has reverberating impacts in the whole valley,” said Hilary Young, Y2Y’s Alberta program director.

CANMORE – Grizzly bears, which are a threatened species in Alberta, are facing increasing pressure with growing development and recreation in the Bow Valley.

A new cumulative effects modelling study shows growing development and recreation will likely continue to change grizzly bear movement patterns and increase the risk of potentially dangerous bear encounters.

In the paper, which was released on June 15, three different future scenarios were modelled against business-as-usual, including limited urban expansion and development, no informal trails and restricted recreation.

Officials with Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative, who teamed up with environmental consultants ALCES Landscape and Land Use on the study, say all scenarios dramatically reduced human-wildlife conflict risk anywhere from 23 to 41 per cent.

“We really wanted to show that every decision that is being made, especially given how little secure habitat remains for grizzlies in the valley, has reverberating impacts in the whole valley,” said Hilary Young, Y2Y’s Alberta program director.

“We won’t get a second chance at keeping the Bow Valley connected. With pressures already impacting wildlife like bears and wolves, every new decision about how we use the land must consider cumulative effects.”

The paper, titled Grizzly Bear Movement and Conflict Risk in the Bow Valley: A Cumulative Effects Model, looked at how human development and recreation affects grizzly bear travels through the human-dominated landscape and the risk of bear-human conflict.

Results from the modelling indicate human development and recreation have significantly altered grizzly bear movement paths since the 1970s, pushing those routes upslope onto less desirable terrain – and the trend is likely to continue.

In addition, the Trans-Canada Highway, with the exception of wildlife crossing structures, directs likely grizzly bear paths onto less desirable terrain by keeping bears on one side of the highway or the other for long stretches of the valley.

Lastly, the cumulative effects modelling concluded the risk of conflict between people and grizzly bears has increased over recent decades and is likely to continue to do so, especially around Canmore as development and recreation increase.

Fragmentation of habitat by development footprint is only part of the story of how humans impact grizzly bears in the valley, which is one of the four most important east-west wildlife connectors in the entire 3,400-kilometre long Y2Y region.

There’s also a lot of recreation along formal and informal trails in the valley, especially around the periphery of communities like Banff and Canmore where people live, mountain bike, hike, trail run, and walk dogs.

“These are the same areas identified as being important for grizzly bear connectivity,” said Young.

Overlap of high recreational activity and connectivity for grizzly bears was prevalent around the Canmore Nordic Centre and other areas to the south of Canmore, and at recreational areas around Banff such as Mount Norquay and Tunnel Mountain

The paper indicated this overlap creates risk for both humans and bears, as demonstrated by incidents and frequent bear sightings in popular recreational areas.

“The south-east Bow Valley really lights up, some of which includes the Nordic Centre,” said Young.

This year has seen at least eight grizzly bears in the valley bottom around Canmore due to the lingering snowpack and late arrival of spring and four reports to provincial wildlife managers of grizzly bears bluff-charging people.

Traps were sprung on the north side of Canmore to try to catch a young grizzly making its rounds through residential neighbourhoods and two more were set at the Canmore Nordic Centre.

The traps were set up at the Nordic Centre after two people were bluff-charged on June 11 and 12 and ahead of the 2022 Canada Cup Canmore mountain bike races June 16-19 attended by about 190 athletes and volunteers and spectators.

“Conflict is one of the most significant causes of mortality for grizzly bears in Alberta and sometimes it’s not conflict, it’s just the potential for conflict, which could be playing out right now in the valley depending on what happens with these bears,” said Young.

“People are recreating exactly where the bears are …and that is a big part of what happened with bear 148.”

Bear 148, a famous bear who spent 90 per cent of her time in Banff National Park, started venturing outside the park towards Canmore. She was relocated several hundred kilometres away to near Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park following a series of close encounters in 2017.

Within two months of being shipped out of Canmore, bear 148 was shot dead by a hunter near McBride, B.C., just weeks before the trophy hunt was banned. Her death and community outrage that surrounded it led to formation of the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence task force in 2018.

The cumulative effects modelling work fits with the human-wildlife coexistence roundtable report’s recommendations about needing to think big and increase inter-jurisdictional communication as well as the need to fill research gaps.

Most recently, the roundtable’s working group has extended an invitation to the MD of Bighorn to take part, asked for the terms of reference to be updated and for an update on progress on the report’s recommendations for a roundtable meeting sometime in fall.

Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert said he sees the human-wildlife coexistence roundtable as being one way to discuss the issues identified in the cumulative effects modelling work by Y2Y and ALCES.

He said he plans to meet Gareth Thomson, executive director of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, and Robert Simieritsch of Alberta Environment and Parks in the coming weeks around recreational use in the environmental wildlife corridors.

Mayor Krausert said the cumulative effects modelling was interesting work, noting there is potential with the various actions to bring about change and build on positive work already underway.

“The question is to what extent we pull the levers for the various scenarios in order to bring about a better outcome than if nothing was done,” he said. “In the hopes that we can continue to have umbrella species here, and living in coexistence with human use, what can we do to strengthen that?”

Mayor Krausert said ideas around removal of pirate trails, for example, involve multiple levels of government, in particular the provincial government for enforcement.

“A lot of the areas are within provincial jurisdiction, and quite frankly, outside the resource capacity of the municipality,” he said. “I see something like the human-wildlife coexistence roundtable as being a vehicle for that discussion.”

In terms of planning decisions, controversial proposals for large-scale commercial and recreational development on Three Sisters lands are currently tied up in legal and court challenges.

“I think that Canmore has been good in that regard, but of course, there’s a lot of question marks around that right now given that there’s litigation in progress,” said Mayor Krausert.

According to the cumulative effects paper, coexistence of grizzly bears and humans in the valley will be supported by efforts to limit both development and recreational activity in areas that are important for wildlife connectivity.

The scenario analysis identified several strategies having potential such as limiting recreational activity to a fixed set of formal trails; limiting development within and close to high connectivity areas; and limiting the amount of trail use.

“Regardless of the strategy pursued, they all require trade-offs in terms of economic development and lifestyle,” states the paper.

Specifically, the model on limiting urban expansion reduced conflict risk by 35 per cent, the scenario where all non-designated trails reduced conflict risk by 41 per cent and a 50 per cent reduction in nature-based recreation dropped risk by 23 per cent.

Young was quick to point out that these are not management proposals, rather hypothetical scenarios based on common approaches to human-wildlife conflict issues meant to illustrate the effectiveness of different general strategies if decision-makers pursued them.

“All three of those scenarios did result in reduced risk, but for us, the numbers are a little less important than the fact that these different measures can have an impact,” she said.

The Silvertip gondola proposal up Mount Lady Macdonald as well as a plan for a passenger train between Calgary and Banff were not included in the cumulative effects modelling.

Young said a number of projects were not part of the model because they may have come in after work began.

“The intention in doing this work is really about looking at the big picture and thinking about how these different decisions are going to have a large impact on the little that’s left here,” she said.

“I won’t speak directly to Three Sisters or Silvertip in this context, but I think it really does show that we have to make really conscious efforts and to think about the big picture when we’re deciding whether or not these different proposals move forward.”

The cumulative effects modelling comes on the heels of research published in April 2022 by a team of scientists and researchers, including Parks Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks.

That work found connectivity for wolves and bears in the valley has already declined by 85 per cent from a historical baseline, and that current development proposals around Canmore would bump that number to 88 per cent.

Y2Y also applied to the Banff-Canmore Community Foundation to look at best practices in other mountain towns for coexisting with wildlife.

“We’re putting together a report right now that’s going to look at lots of other jurisdictions throughout the world,” she said. “We’ll look to understand the costs and benefits of those approaches and aim to be able to present that to decision-makers in about a year.”