We live in one of the last towns on Earth that co-exists with grizzlies and other large wildlife species — it's kind of a big deal.
Canmore's mountainsides provide a key link in the network of protected areas within the greater 3,000-km Yellowstone to Yukon region of the Rockies, one of the last intact mountain ecosystems in the world.
Navigating the valley, though, is a complex challenge for animals like grizzlies, wolves, elk and others whose range includes the area between protected habitat in Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park, and beyond. Wildlife face a number of pressures as they try to survive here, most of which are related to an ever-growing human footprint: the Trans-Canada Highway, the railway line, residential areas and industrial developments. They now span the full width of the valley bottom and on to the lower slopes on both sides of the valley.
With little room left to move, animals are forced to the edge, higher up the mountain slopes, in an attempt to avoid this man-made obstacle course and reach safer ground in the parks on both ends of Canmore.
By designating, maintaining and respecting the importance of functional wildlife corridors that allow animals safe passage, we help to ensure that wide-ranging animal populations remain connected, healthy and genetically diverse.
Leading by example
Since major development began in the 1990s, local and regional conservation initiatives — and the depth of scientific knowledge that has surfaced through the work — have put Canmore on the world stage as an environmental leader. There's now decades of data, analyses and knowledge that can be applied to discussions about wildlife corridors and how to make sure they will be effective.
Knowing we live in one of the last places on the planet with the full range of large mammal species that have thrived here for hundreds of years, conservationists are asking: How do we avoid the breaking point when animals no longer use the Bow Valley as a connector? How much pressure can they withstand before we have major impacts on their populations?
It's impossible to know for sure so conservationists and wildlife scientists, both locally and around the world, are urging Canmore to err on the side of caution. Mountain towns in similar situations are watching to see if Canmore can figure this out, if we can get it right.
The primary function of a wildlife corridor is to facilitate safe movement for wildlife as they travel between habitat patches (areas where they feed, breed, and rest). There are both wildlife corridors that extend along the length of the Bow Valley (Along Valley Corridors) and wildlife corridors that cross the Bow Valley (Across Valley Corridors) [See: BCEAG].
Habitat patches are areas of wild land linked together by wildlife corridors. They are generally a large area and meet a wider spectrum of requirements (i.e. feeding, breeding, thermal regulation, security, resting) for wildlife in the Bow Valley. At minimum, today's best science shows that regional habitat patches should be greater than 10 square kilometres and local habitat patches should be greater than 4.5 square kilometres to be effective. See the map and read more about the specifics of Canmore's habitat patches, which include the Canmore Nordic Centre, Harvie Heights, and Bow Flats, on Pages 23 and 24 of the BCEAG Guidelines.
Slope refers to the steepness of the landscape — mountainsides in Canmore's case — and is a common assessment variable used in wildlife research studies. Most wildlife (grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, bobcat, elk and deer) have been found to avoid slopes steeper than 25 degrees. Similar to people, there's a particularly clear preference by animals to avoid steep slopes on north-facing aspects.
This refers to the amount of forest or cover that animals prefer in order to feel comfortable. According to the most current science, at least 40 per cent of the land in a wildlife corridor should provide cover for the animals in order for them to make good use of the area.
The bigger picture
The concept of a wildlife corridor, which is well-known to many of today's residents in Canmore, was not really understood 20 years ago when the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), a Canmore-based organization now internationally recognized as a leader in wildlife corridor connectivity and conservation around the world, first took root in the valley.
Since that time, our home in the Rockies has been identified as one of the last intact mountain ecosystems on Earth that continues to share the space with all of the wildlife species that have been here for millennia.
Because grizzly bears in particular require a vast amount of territory, in principle, if the grizzly populations are thriving the rest of the animal populations will be as well. For this reason, many scientists today use the health of grizzly bear populations as their guide in measuring the health of the whole ecosystem.
“Over the last 20 years, collectively we have been able to double the protected areas, mitigated hundreds of miles of busy highways, and helped grizzly bears expand their ranges for the first time in over a hundred years,” Karsten Heuer, who was president of Y2Y from 2013 to 2015, said in an interview with Highline Magazine.
Setting the standards for corridors
In light of the rapid population growth associated with expansion in Canmore and the surrounding area, a number of new environmental groups formed to tackle the issues at hand including the Bow Corridor Ecosystem Advisory Group (BCEAG) established in 1995. This group — a partnership between the Government of Alberta, the Town of Canmore, Banff National Park and the Municipal District of Bighorn — published the Wildlife Corridor and Habitat Patch Guidelines for the Bow Valley in 1998. The document identified guidelines for land managers that could be applied as a consistent approach to development applications and provided standards for wildlife corridor and habitat patch design. In 1999 the BCEAG guidelines received a Premier’s Award of Excellence and were reviewed and updated in 2012.
Since the guidelines came into play in 1998, Canmore has used them to determine effective wildlife corridors and habitat patches, including the Canmore Nordic Centre, Silvertip's wildlife corridors, the Bow Flats habitat patch and others (although not the Three Sisters corridor — see below).
The graph below shows the formula developed through BCEAG for determining effective corridor width. For a corridor one kilometre in length, a base width of 350 metres is required. For every additional kilometre of length, an additional 100 metres of width is required in order for animals to effectively use the corridor.
The Three Sisters Wildlife Corridor
There is a large tract of privately owned land slated for development on Three Sisters, known as Three Sisters Mountain Village (TSMV). This 1,800 acre property stretches from the unfinished Three Sisters Golf Course (near the Peaks of Grassi neighbourhood) eastward all the way to Dead Man's Flats on the south-west side of the Trans-Canada Highway.
The Three Sisters corridor is roughly 10 kilometres in length. The effective width of this wildlife corridor and whether or not it will be viable for use by local and regional wildlife is considered one of the most urgent matters facing wildlife and the community in Canmore at the present time.
Because the 1992 NRCB Decision that affects all of the Three Sisters lands predates the guidelines, the BCEAG wildlife corridor design guidelines outlined above have not been applied to Three Sisters lands. Regardless, in order to maintain effectiveness, conservationists recommend that the most current and robust science available today must still be used to determine the design of the Three Sisters corridor. The final dimensions continue to be under review by the province whose role it is to determine corridors on this property.
Many of Canmore's habitat patches and wildlife corridors are already well-defined, but this corridor is yet to be officially determined, and the way it unfolds will have a lasting impact on the movement of wildlife through the Bow Valley.
The challenge ahead
In 2016, this stretch of forested land at Three Sisters was the site of two proposals by TSMV and their developer, Quantum Place that proposed bringing a mix of residential, resort and commercial developments to the area. If the land were fully developed according to plan, the property would provide housing for about 11,000 new residents and visitors in the valley, directly adjacent to the Three Sisters wildlife corridor.
Based on the most current and relevant science available (including this study), Y2Y, known as the local and regional authority on wildlife corridors, has advocated for an ideal corridor at Three Sisters of 850m to 1000m width on slopes of less than 25 degrees.
The map below shows all mountain slopes at or above 25 degrees in coral (as described above, animals will not typically choose to travel on slopes above 25 degrees). The red dotted line shows the approximate location of an elk fence that TSMV proposed to install around the development to keep people out of the wildlife corridor.
Although this would be the ideal width for a viable corridor, according to Y2Y, they have also stated that a 450-metre wide corridor could be a fair concession if the slope line that defines the corridor is consistent with the blue line, the line Y2Y has determined is the 25 degree line. on this map.
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE.
Defining the Slope Line
An important part of the challenge moving forward to define this corridor will be deciding where the 25 degree slope line should begin. As you can see, Y2Y draws the line in blue on the map above, based on their GIS measurements. The environmental contractor hired by the developer (Golder Associates) generally draws their line (in purple) significantly further up slope into the areas marked in coral, which results in more available land to build upon but less land remaining for wildlife.
Because of a decision made by the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) in 1992, the Province of Alberta, not the Town of Canmore, has the ultimate jurisdiction to determine the wildlife corridor on this piece of property.
For years, the community, conservationists, and the developers and owners of Three Sisters have had a hard time seeing eye-to-eye in regards to finding a fair outcome on this slope line and the delineation of the corridor.