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Ground broken on new animal overpass in Bow Valley

“We’re really happy, we’re really optimistic and really hopeful to see this known solution to this known problem. … This is a landscape that’s very busy and wildlife need all the help they can get."

LAC DES ARCS – Ground has officially been broken on the long-awaited wildlife overpass on a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway known to be a hotspot for collisions between vehicles and animals.

The steel arch wildlife overpass will be built to the east of Lac Des Arcs and be the first in Alberta not constructed in Banff National Park. The expected completion date will be fall 2023 and aim to drastically reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions and cost an expected $17.5 million.

“We’re really happy, we’re really optimistic and really hopeful to see this known solution to this known problem. … This is a landscape that’s very busy and wildlife need all the help they can get,” said Adam Linnard, the Alberta program manager for Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative.

Discussion for the overpass has been in the works for about a decade, and will help in conservation efforts such as grizzly bear population recovery and add safety by reducing vehicle-wildlife collisions.

Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin said a key moment in pushing the overpass forward was an April 2019 collision with a semi-truck that left seven elk dead. A petition launched by Canmore resident Cinthia Nemoto garnered 20,000 signatures and brought more community attention to the need for an overpass.

While the incident brought more attention, the risk of vehicle-wildlife collisions is a daily risk in the valley.

“Total and complete human-wildlife co-existence is integral here to our way of life in the mountains,” Rosin said.

As part of the 3,200-kilometre east-west wildlife connector that covers the Y2Y region, the Bow Valley is a critical part of connectivity for animal movement.

The area regularly sees deer, elk, bighorn sheep, cougars, black bears, grizzly bears and wolves travel the region.

However, the popularity of the area for visitors also sees about 30,000 cars travel the busy highway daily, Alberta Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney said.

Wesley First Nation Chief Clifford Poucette highlighted that migration paths have long been used by animals and are important for them.

“As the city spreads out and the highway gets busier and busier a lot of animals are killed through no fault of their own,” he said. “These trails are their natural and traditional paths of migration and feeding.”

Chiniki Chief Aaron Young echoed Poucette's comments, and also noted the importance of animals in Indigenous cultures in the Bow Valley and beyond.

“It’s part of our spirituality. It’s not a religion. It’s a spirituality. Every day before we drive off, we take the time to say to our animal friends we respect you and you respect us as well. … Those are simple things we’ve been taught to respect,” Young said.

Alberta Transportation finished a detailed design for the overpass in 2020 and it was included in the capital budget. PME Inc. was selected as the main contractor for the project after bidding began late last year.

In a media release, the NDP candidate for Banff-Kananaskis Sarah Elmeligi highlighted the NDP government had commissioned the design work and that the project would lead to better safety for vehicle-wildlife collisions. However, she noted how since forming government the UCP has slashed the parks budget by $14 million and the annual Kananaskis Conservation Pass has made it more expensive for people to visit the area.

“While we want to ensure that this area of our province stays safe and accessible for all to visit, the UCP have made access to this area more expensive for families during a time they’re already struggling to make ends meet," she said in the release. "What’s more concerning, is the additional charge with the $90 Kananaskis pass implemented by the UCP has not yielded any notable improvements to the area.”

The Dead Man’s Flats underpass was finished in 2004 and funded by the G8 Legacy Project and the Stewart Creek underpass was split between Alberta Transportation and Three Sisters Mountain Village.

Lisa Rosvold, the reeve for the Municipal District of Bighorn, said the underpass at Dead Man’s Flats has significantly reduced collisions while also allowing better connectivity for animals.

“The success of tourism in the Bow Valley and beyond has increased the number of vehicles on the Trans-Canada Highway,” she said. “It goes without saying, as the number of vehicles has increased so too have the rates of vehicle-wildlife collisions.”

The overpass will also include about 12.5 kilometres of wildlife fencing to help direct animals to use it.

Linnard said it varies between animals on how fast they learn to use it as opposed to travelling across the highway. In the case of grizzly bears, he said it can be about five years before they feel comfortable using an overpass, while elk have been known to use an overpass before it’s completed.

He said the next ideal spot for an underpass or overpass is Highway 3 in the municipality of Crowsnest Pass, but also that Canmore is the next likely best spot in the Bow Valley.

“It has the most significance for an unmitigated highway for grizzly bears and other species at risk," said Linnard. "These systems work best as full complete systems and the systems are never really done unless there are no animals getting hit and people getting in accidents, so there are still opportunities in the Bow Valley and Canmore is probably the next place to look here.”

Sawhney said there was nothing currently in the works, but that the province will be talking to stakeholders to get feedback on potential other locations.

A 2012 study by Miistakis Institute and Western Transportation Institute had 10 sites in a 39-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway recommended for fencing and underpasses from the Banff National Park east gate to Highway 40. The province said there are an average of 69 vehicle-wildlife collisions each year along that stretch of highway.

The study called for an overpass at Bow Valley Gap, where the project will be built, due to the high number of wildlife and vehicle collisions.

There are 38 wildlife underpasses and six overpasses in Banff National Park over the span of 82 kilometres from the park’s east gate to Yoho National Park. There is also wildlife fencing on both sides of the highway that has drastically reduced vehicle and wildlife collisions.

“With the construction of this overpass, we will ensure that every person who traverses this highway, whether they be human or animal, will get to their final destination safely because every death along this highway … whether it’s human or animal is felt by our community,” Rosin said.