Wild Neigh­bours

Al­berta’s spec­tac­u­lar Bow Val­ley and en­vi­rons of­fer valu­able lessons in how hu­mans and wildlife can co-ex­ist. Will we learn them be­fore it is too late?

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Fraser Los Pho­tos by John E. Mar­riott

Al­berta’s spec­tac­u­lar Bow Val­ley and en­vi­rons of­fer valu­able lessons in how hu­mans and wildlife can co-ex­ist. Will we learn them be­fore it is too late?

PLUS: How to re­spect wildlife — and pro­tect your­self in the wild

ISTOP MY CAR ON A WINDSWEPT SHOUL­DER OF THE busy four-lane Trans-canada High­way a few kilo­me­tres west of where Al­berta’s Bow and Kananaskis rivers con­verge. I’m not far from High­way 40 to Kananaskis Coun­try, and the exit to High­way 1A, the Bow Val­ley Trail. As a pa­rade of cars and trans­port trucks speed by, I feel the ground shud­der and shake. I park far off by the ditch and climb a sun-drenched hill. Look­ing east, there are rolling foothills that stretch to Cal­gary an hour away; to the west, near and into the dis­tance, there’s a seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble wall of moun­tains, car­peted green with spruce and pine, in­ter­rupted by jagged cliffs where trees can­not grow.

Every­thing gets pinched through nar­row gaps be­tween these tow­er­ing peaks — the con­verg­ing high­ways, the towns and vil­lages they con­nect, and the busy cross-coun­try rail­way that trans­ports goods to and from far-flung com­mu­ni­ties and ports on the coast. Wildlife habi­tat is wedged in here as well, strung along the gen­tler slopes, as an­i­mals try to fol­low their an­cient path­ways along the rivers.

The an­i­mals here, as ev­ery­where, are con­stantly on the move, search­ing for food and mates and places to rear their young. That’s why the Al­berta govern­ment is con­sid­er­ing a wildlife over­pass right where I’m stand­ing — an area dubbed Bow Val­ley Gap by lo­cal con­ser­va­tion­ists — roughly 20 kilo­me­tres out­side the Banff Na­tional Park gates. Pro­po­nents say the over­pass would re­duce the num­ber of wildlife-ve­hi­cle col­li­sions here and would give roam­ing elk, wolves, griz­zly bears and other an­i­mals safe pas­sage across a high­way that av­er­ages roughly 22,000 ve­hi­cles a day.

About 20,000 peo­ple live in the Bow Val­ley, mostly in the Banff town­site and nearby Can­more, and roughly four mil­lion tourists, na­ture lovers, hik­ers, skiers and back­coun­try adventure seek­ers visit every year. “We’ve got two of the big­gest pro­tected ar­eas in Al­berta — Banff and

Kananaskis — and a city of more than a mil­lion peo­ple an hour away,” says Jay Honey­man, a hu­man-wildlife con­flict bi­ol­o­gist for Al­berta En­vi­ron­ment and Parks. “It’s a very, very busy place — some say it’s pie-in-the-sky to think that wildlife would want to live here, but so far, they have.”

There’s more than a cen­tury be­hind ef­forts to con­serve wildlife in these ecosys­tems — in­clud­ing in neigh­bour­ing na­tional parks Koote­nay, Yoho and Jasper — and it’s been honed by ex­ten­sive sci­en­tific re­search fo­cused on that man­date. In some ways, the Bow Val­ley is like a long-term ex­per­i­ment at the ecosys­tem scale that will prove whether or not we can keep wildlife healthy and thriv­ing amid all this hu­man ac­tiv­ity.

“As an­i­mals adapt, we adapt too and try to find that bal­ance,” says Honey­man, whose job is to proac­tively pre­vent dan­ger­ous wildlife en­coun­ters through­out the re­gion. “In the Bow Val­ley, we’ve shown that these things are achiev­able.” But he’s quick to add the chal­lenges are not go­ing away — if any­thing, they’re more acute than ever.

Suc­cess­ful co-ex­is­tence with wildlife, he says, re­quires a range of plan­ning ef­forts — from high­way fenc­ing and wildlife cross­ing struc­tures, to bear-proof garbage bins and ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams that help raise aware­ness and min­i­mize neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tions be­tween wildlife and peo­ple.

There’s a long his­tory of such ini­tia­tives in the Bow Val­ley, which is why it’s con­sid­ered a world leader in wildlife man­age­ment. within ban ff’ spark bound­aries along the Trans-canada High­way, there are more than 80 kilo­me­tres of fenc­ing, 38 un­der­passes and six large over­passes sim­i­lar to the one pro­posed at Bow Val­ley Gap. By in­clud­ing these fences and cross­ings as part of its project to twin the high­way, which be­gan in 1996, Parks Canada steered clear of im­pacts that would have been dis­as­trous for wildlife. Based on an on­go­ing pro­gram to mon­i­tor their ef­fec­tive­ness, the struc­tures have been

shown to re­duce wildlife col­li­sions by at least 80 per cent, which is why they’re now be­ing repli­cated world­wide.

With sim­i­lar fore­sight, mu­nic­i­pal plan­ners in Banff and Can­more vowed to clean up their garbage sys­tems, which for years had at­tracted scav­eng­ing wildlife. “Bears used to rum­mage around in town dumps all the time,” says Stephen Her­rero, for­mer pro­fes­sor of an­i­mal be­hav­iour and ecol­ogy, and au­thor of Bear At­tacks: Their Causes and Avoid­ance. That sit­u­a­tion re­sulted in a se­ries of hor­rific at­tacks, one fa­tal, near Banff in 1980. “Ev­ery­body pretty much agreed that garbage and griz­zly bears or garbage and black bears was a dan­ger­ous mix,” says Her­rero, whose re­search ob­serv­ing bears led to the in­no­va­tive bear-proof garbage bin de­sign used in the Bow Val­ley to­day. Both towns have done away with curb­side pickup as well, en­sur­ing no overnight garbage at­trac­tants.

The garbage sys­tems, just like the cross­ing struc­tures, are true suc­cess sto­ries in wildlife man­age­ment, hav­ing vir­tu­ally erased what was once an en­demic prob­lem. “A lot of other ar­eas in­side na­tional parks have the same qual­ity of garbage sys­tems, but those places are ded­i­cated to wildlife con­ser­va­tion,” says Her­rero. “Can­more is prob­a­bly the best for a non-pro­tected area any­where in North Amer­ica.”

The suc­cess is ob­vi­ous. It’s clear that an­i­mals still thrive here. Dense for­est sur­rounds lo­cal neigh­bour­hoods, car­ni­vores stalk their prey on the out­skirts of town, and herds of elk of­ten con­gre­gate on grassy school grounds. But al­though wildlife in and around town may seem unique and pos­i­tive, it can also be dan­ger­ous — es­pe­cially when big mam­mals like griz­zly bears and elk are in­volved.

In many cases, though, it’s hu­man be­hav­iour that is un­pre­dictable and hard to con­trol — both within and out­side town lim­its, and even in pro­tected ar­eas re­served strictly for wildlife. As lo­cal pop­u­la­tions grow and vis­its in­crease, “peo­ple are ev­ery­where, even on lit­tle game trails, and they’re now bik­ing and jog­ging at night as well,” says Me­lanie Percy, a se­nior ecol­o­gist with Al­berta Parks, Kananaskis re­gion. “Wildlife of­ten use these ar­eas at night to avoid hu­mans, but now there’s sud­denly peo­ple there.”

Percy was on the steer­ing com­mit­tee for a two-year hu­man use man­age­ment re­view process in Can­more. They used dozens of re­mote cam­eras to track what was ac­tu­ally go­ing on in those wildlife cor­ri­dors and habi­tat patches. What the cam­eras showed, she says, was ram­pant hu­man use through­out, of­ten in­volv­ing off-leash dogs in ar­eas re­served for wildlife. The two-year re­view con­cluded in 2015 with a se­ries of rec­om­men­da­tions for ad­dress­ing the is­sues, in­clud­ing more vis­i­tor in­for­ma­tion and ed­u­ca­tion, bet­ter trail sig­nage and in­creased en­force­ment of dog rules and other reg­u­la­tions.

The prob­lem, says Percy, is that if peo­ple don’t com­ply with these reg­u­la­tions and re­stric­tions, wildlife will con­tinue to be pushed out and neg­a­tive en­coun­ters will be­come more fre­quent. “We need to get through to the recre­ation­ists and oth­ers who are us­ing the land,” she says. “We need to do it be­fore we lose the op­por­tu­ni­ties for co-ex­is­tence we have left.”

Those kinds of chal­lenges are dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate in Can­more. Al­though sur­rounded by park land, it’s not ac­tu­ally within park bound­aries, un­like Banff, which means there’s no man­date or re­quire­ment to look out for the in­ter­ests of wildlife. Every­thing that’s been done so far, or will be done in the fu­ture, is due to the good in­ten­tions and hard work of lo­cal ci­ti­zens and of­fi­cials who rec­og­nize how valu­able it is to live with wildlife.

“There’s a lot of col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort that goes into mak­ing this work,” says Jay Honey­man. “But we’re at the point now where we need to do more.” One of the big­gest chal­lenges, he says, is the con­stant change in Can­more, which has seen enor­mous growth over the last 30 years. “An­i­mals are go­ing places they used to go and find­ing a con­do­minium com­plex or a school­yard,” he says. “They’re just con­stantly hav­ing to adapt.” And adapt­ing can be dif­fi­cult when wildlife is man­aged in dif­fer­ent ways de­pend­ing on the ju­ris­dic­tion — there may be one set of rules in a park, but a com­pletely dif­fer­ent set of rules in a neigh­bour­ing mu­nic­i­pal­ity.


“That’s very con­fus­ing to a car­ni­vore,” says Honey­man. Our goal should be to man­age by the whole land­scape, he ar­gues, be­cause that’s how an­i­mals move. A griz­zly bear, for ex­am­ple, will cover enough ground to en­counter many com­mu­ni­ties and dif­fer­ent scales of tol­er­ance. “In one area, peo­ple take pic­tures and want to ob­serve,” he says, while other ar­eas are hunt­ing zones. “That’s what griz­zly bears deal with. It’s com­pletely un­pre­dictable.”

In July 2017, that con­tra­dic­tion played out in the na­tional me­dia, when a fe­male griz­zly bear in the Bow Val­ley, known as Bear 148, bluff-charged a few jog­gers and hik­ers in a pop­u­lar re­cre­ation area on the south side of Can­more, where she and other bears were feast­ing on buf­falo berries. The six-year-old col­lared bear was trapped and re­lo­cated to a re­mote area in north­west Al­berta, Kakwa Wild­land Park. By the end of Septem­ber, she had roamed into B.C., and was shot (legally) by a hunter.

The events were a wa­ter­shed for lo­cal con­ser­va­tion­ists, wildlife man­agers and mu­nic­i­pal plan­ners, many of whom viewed it as a pos­si­ble sign of things to come — un­less new steps were taken to min­i­mize fac­tors lead­ing to neg­a­tive wildlife in­ter­ac­tions. By Novem­ber, lo­cal of­fi­cials from Banff and Can­more had con­vened a group of stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing First Na­tions, wildlife bi­ol­o­gists and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Parks Canada and the Al­berta Govern­ment, to be part of the Bow Val­ley Hu­man/wildlife Co­ex­is­tence Round­table — their col­lec­tive vi­sion to create a more in­te­grated ap­proach to wildlife man­age­ment in the Bow Val­ley.

The group faces for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges as they wres­tle with im­pacts from ac­cel­er­at­ing de­vel­op­ment, such as the ex­pan­sion of Can­more’s Three Sis­ters Moun­tain Vil­lage re­sort, which could add thou­sands of new res­i­dents in the south­east end of town. Many bi­ol­o­gists and con­ser­va­tion­ists in the area ar­gue it’s sim­ply too much, too fast. Their main con­cern is fo­cused on one of the cen­tral tenets of con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­ogy: the im­por­tance of wildlife cor­ri­dors and con­nec­tiv­ity.

An­i­mals need qual­ity habi­tat to sur­vive, but they also need to move be­tween habi­tat patches and in­ter­act with other pop­u­la­tions. Griz­zly bears are per­haps the clear­est ex­am­ple of this need for long-range move­ment. Parks just aren’t big enough for them, since in­di­vid­u­als cover vast ter­ri­to­ries — griz­zly bear pop­u­la­tions would not last if con­fined within small, iso­lated land­scapes, since the de­creased ge­netic diver­sity would leave them sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease and other en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors. That’s es­sen­tially why griz­zly bears have been ex­tir­pated from much of their his­tor­i­cal range through­out in­land North Amer­ica (ex­cept within in­tact habi­tat and pro­tected ar­eas along the Rocky Moun­tains and fur­ther north). It’s also why Al­berta’s draft

re­cov­ery plan iden­ti­fied con­nec­tiv­ity as a ma­jor com­po­nent in con­serv­ing the threat­ened species in the prov­ince.

In a val­ley con­strained by steep moun­tains and busy road­ways, main­tain­ing wildlife move­ment cor­ri­dors can be a con­stant bat­tle. “You need con­nec­tions to ac­tu­ally func­tion,” says wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Karsten Heuer, who has worked on is­sues re­lated to con­nec­tiv­ity in the Bow Val­ley for more than two decades. “A griz­zly bear needs to have move­ment routes to get to that berry patch in the fall, to that den­ning site in the moun­tains in win­ter, and to im­por­tant feed­ing ar­eas in spring when the snow first melts. That’s re­ally what we’re try­ing to ac­com­mo­date here.”

Heuer and other re­searchers have made great strides in de­ter­min­ing what makes an ef­fec­tive wildlife cor­ri­dor — how wide, how far from town, how steep, even the type of veg­e­ta­tion. He says when they be­gan map­ping ac­tual wildlife move­ments, us­ing ra­dio teleme­try mon­i­tor­ing and foot­prints in the snow, it was a huge eye-opener. “The maps spoke for them­selves and the an­i­mals told the story,” ex­plains Heuer. “They showed … cul-de-sacs or dead-ends, places where there was still a thor­ough­fare, and places where an­i­mals were stressed be­cause they were squeezed into one place.”

Al­though wildlife cor­ri­dors have been con­sid­ered as part of de­vel­op­ment pro­pos­als like the Three Sis­ters project, bi­ol­o­gists con­tend the land set aside is not wide enough and too far up the slopes where an­i­mals rarely travel any­way. Be­sides, the ex­perts say, there’s too much de­vel­op­ment too fast, and of­ten not enough time to make ev­i­dence-based de­ci­sions. “There’s good rea­son to use the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple and to take it slow,” says Adam Ford, the Canada re­search chair in wildlife restora­tion ecol­ogy, who fo­cuses on hu­man-wildlife con­flict and co­ex­is­tence, par­tic­u­larly in the Bow Val­ley. “Great science is be­ing done in the Bow Val­ley, but is that science be­ing used in de­ci­sion mak­ing?”

In April 2017, Ford and fel­low ecol­o­gist Mark Heb­ble­white, from the Univer­sity of Mon­tana, penned a let­ter to Al­berta’s Min­is­ter of En­vi­ron­ment and Parks urg­ing the cre­ation of a for­mal mech­a­nism that would en­sure the best avail­able science is used for plan­ning in the val­ley. De­vel­op­ment is “pro­ceed­ing faster than the speed at which science can pro­vide an­swers,” and that sce­nario, they wrote, puts wildlife at risk. The let­ter urged of­fi­cials to post­pone fur­ther de­vel­op­ment ap­provals un­til the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fects could be as­sessed.

That same call for re­straint has been echoed by rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, whose tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory ex­tends along the eastern edge of the Rocky Moun­tains and the foothills lead­ing to Cal­gary. “We’ve been good at set­ting land aside for des­ig­nated pur­poses, but not so good at set­ting land aside just for wildlife,” says Wil­liam Snow, who man­ages con­sul­ta­tion for the Stoney Tribal Ad­min­is­tra­tion and eval­u­ates de­vel­op­ment pro­pos­als through­out Stoney Nakoda ter­ri­tory. One way to change that, he ar­gues, is to bring more tra­di­tional eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge to the plan­ning ta­ble.

In a 2016 study on griz­zly bears, the Stoney Tribal Ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­vided a blue­print for how that could hap­pen. Fo­cus­ing specif­i­cally on Galatea Creek in the Kananaskis Val­ley — a tra­di­tional Stoney hunt­ing and gath­er­ing lo­ca­tion and also known as prime griz­zly bear habi­tat — the study first gleaned lo­cal knowl­edge and per­spec­tives from Stoney El­ders about the re­gion, based on per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and sto­ries passed down over gen­er­a­tions. With that as con­text, the next phase in­volved field ob­ser­va­tions, or “cul­tural mon­i­tor­ing,” through­out the busy recre­ational area, which were in­cor­po­rated into a fi­nal re­port.

Snow says the study aimed to in­crease un­der­stand­ing of how hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties af­fect griz­zly bears in the re­gion and to iden­tify op­por­tu­ni­ties for im­prov­ing con­ser­va­tion and man­age­ment. “We wanted to change man­age­ment prac­tices, and we wrote the re­port with that in mind,” he says. “If we just keep do­ing the same things we’ve al­ways been do­ing, then griz­zly bears are go­ing to keep be­ing frus­trated by peo­ple com­ing into their ar­eas dur­ing their time of the year.”

The re­port con­cluded with six rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing a call for keep­ing peo­ple away from Galatea Creek for a pe­riod in early Au­gust every year — a very im­por­tant time for griz­zly bears, be­cause of berry sea­son. “There’s a rea­son griz­zly bears keep com­ing back to Galatea Creek year after year, and they’re go­ing to keep com­ing back — that’s our cul­tural un­der­stand­ing,” says Snow. “Clos­ing off that area for two weeks a year is not too much to ask. We should be able to share this land­scape with wildlife.”

Snow hopes to do sim­i­lar stud­ies for species and ecosys­tems in the Bow Val­ley and else­where, in­clud­ing a cul­tural study re­lated to the re­cent his­toric bi­son rein­tro­duc­tion in Banff Na­tional Park — an ini­tia­tive the Stoney Nakoda sup­ported along with other Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across western North Amer­ica. “We’re not say­ing we want to take away from the science — we just want to add a tra­di­tional knowl­edge com­po­nent,” says Snow, ar­gu­ing that lo­cal knowl­edge is of­ten a miss­ing piece in plan­ning. “Right in our own back­yard, we’re not em­ploy­ing per­haps the most crit­i­cal part,” he says, re­fer­ring to many gen­er­a­tions of ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge of the ecosys­tem and its wildlife.

The Stoney re­port also called for in­creased wildlife con­nec­tiv­ity and cross­ing struc­tures through­out Kananaskis and the Bow Val­ley — as far as pos­si­ble from other de­vel­op­ments, such as in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties, camp­grounds and trails. That rec­om­men­da­tion, says Snow, was based on the recog­ni­tion, shared by bi­ol­o­gists, that wildlife man­age­ment will only be suc­cess­ful by tak­ing the whole ecosys­tem into ac­count.

Stand­ing on the el­e­vated hill at Bow Val­ley Gap, at the site of the pro­posed over­pass over the Trans-canada High­way, you get a clear view of the im­por­tance of wildlife con­nec­tiv­ity. Not only would an over­pass here re­duce wildlife-ve­hi­cle col­li­sions, it would also en­able move­ment of griz­zly bears and other wildlife mak­ing their way be­tween Kananaskis and Banff Na­tional Park and beyond. “The Bow Val­ley is one of four or five key link­age zones for wildlife along the moun­tains that stretch from about Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park all the way to the Yukon,” says Stephen Le­gault, Al­berta di­rec­tor for Can­more-based Yel­low­stone to Yukon Con­ser­va­tion Ini­tia­tive, a trans­bound­ary or­ga­ni­za­tion. “An in­vest­ment in wildlife con­nec­tiv­ity here has pay­off not just for the Bow Val­ley and Al­berta, but for that en­tire chain of moun­tains.”

Le­gault says the over­pass would be an es­sen­tial part of a long-term plan to keep griz­zly bears and other iconic wildlife thriv­ing in the Bow Val­ley. “We have to look at this in an in­te­grated way,” he says, “You can’t sep­a­rate con­nec­tiv­ity from de­vel­op­ment pres­sures and all other fac­tors. That cer­tainly makes things more com­plex, but this world is com­plex and re­quires com­plex so­lu­tions.”

For wildlife man­agers like Jay Honey­man, that’s the next big chal­lenge — to work col­lab­o­ra­tively across mul­ti­ple ju­ris­dic­tions and de­part­ments to man­age at the full ecosys­tem scale. And that nec­es­sar­ily means man­age­ment de­ci­sions that look 50 or 100 years down the road.

“We’ve been very suc­cess­ful at liv­ing with wildlife so far,” says Honey­man, and that’s why the Bow Val­ley has lessons to share with com­mu­ni­ties around the world. “It’s been de­scribed by some bear bi­ol­o­gists as one of the busiest land­scapes where griz­zly bears con­tinue to ex­ist.” But it’s also true that sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment in the val­ley seems in­evitable for years to come, he adds. How this com­plex co­ex­is­tence is han­dled will dic­tate whether the ex­tra­or­di­nary wildlife that still thrives here will re­main into the fu­ture.

“That’s what we’re try­ing to do with this round­table,” he says. “We’re drilling down a lit­tle deeper to find out where we go from here. The story’s not over; there’s still lots for us to do.”

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