The community of Canmore is struggling to understand future development implications of several major proposals that would see the mountain town swell to a population of 34,000 and increase the number of hotel rooms and commercial and residential real estate significantly.
In particular, Three Sisters Mountain Village’s final area structure plan for its Smith Creek lands, submitted to the municipality for approval by council, sets the stage for development to continue further east along the Bow corridor and reduce the amount of space available for wildlife to move in the east-west valley.
However, lands under consideration for Three Sisters Mountain Village have development potential granted in the 1992 Natural Resources Conservation Board decision for a recreational and tourism project on Three Sister’s owned lands (1,036 hectares) that included residential development, golf courses and commercial space.
In the NRCB decision, Three Sisters, as a land owner and development company, was granted a total of 5,457 residential and resort accommodation units and up to 306 hectares of developable area. Today, the company still has 4,104 units and 206.86 hectares that have not been developed yet.
But the NRCB decision also considered that the development would affect wildlife and how different species move across the landscape and, to that end, required the developer to provide wildlife movement corridors to be approved by Alberta Environment and Parks.
The land owner through its development representatives at QuantumPlace has officially made an application to Alberta Environment and Parks for the Smith Creek Wildlife Corridor.
While AEP engages the public on the proposal, it has also asked TSMV to submit its area structure plan for Smith Creek and an area structure plan amendment for the Resort Centre.
Decisions by the province and council on first reading of the bylaws for the ASP and the amendment to the ASP are set to occur in April, but many in the community who care deeply about its future are concerned about the effect the large development would have on wildlife and the community.
Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative hosted a discussion for those in the community who would like to be engaged more on the issue of wildlife and whether the proposed corridor being considered is adequate.
Program director Stephen Legault said while Y2Y works on the big picture of connectivity on a continental scale – from the Yukon in the north to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. – it is important to make good decisions locally for wildlife to reach those broader wildlife movement goals.
“The big picture only works when we work at the local level and the Bow Valley is one of a handful of key locations across the Yellowstone to Yukon region where we must absolutely succeed,” Legault said.
Increased visitation and increased development with the accompanying population living in the Bow Valley is a major concern for residents in the community now, Legault said. He questioned if development proposals being considered currently would disconnect the Bow Valley from that wider continental system of wildlife movement.
“Is the Bow Valley becoming another pinch point through which it becomes significantly difficult for wide ranging animals like grizzly bears to manoeuvre?” he asked.
Hilary Young, Y2Y program coordinator for Alberta, spoke about what makes the Bow Valley unique as an ecosystem. As a gravel bed river valley, she said, the Bow Valley is known to be a nexus of biodiversity.
“From the Bow Valley, it feeds other areas,” she said. “The Bow Valley is also a wide valley with low elevation and is relatively flat and warm. There is a lot of high quality habitat in the Bow Valley.”
The reality, said Young, is that as a valley with high biodiversity it is also a valley with high human activity and humans also like low elevation gravel bed ecosystems – just like grizzly bears do.
Human activity and development in the valley has resulted in multiple threats to connectivity for wildlife, including a railway line, four lane divided highway, a secondary highway, municipal infrastructure like the Rundle forebay for drinking water and additional proposed development would only further challenge wildlife connectivity throughout the region.
Young presented the gathered crowd with Y2Y’s version of what a well designed wildlife corridor would look like on Three Sisters lands and one of the biggest challenges to the design proposed was to the 25 degree slope line.
“We have come up with our version of the slope line that minimizes slopes over 25 degrees in the corridor,” she said. “Studies show animals prefer to move on slopes that are 25 degrees or less.
“It is not a threshold, but more of a metric and a general rule we are using to quantify animal movement in terms of what is preferred by large mammals in the valley.”
Young acknowledged that figuring out the appropriate design for a corridor is difficult, and there is no one size fits all approach. She said Y2Y used four wildlife biologists, including herself, to assess the corridor proposal and provide an alternate analysis using the 2012 updated Bow Corridor Ecosystem Advisory Group’s guidelines for wildlife corridors and habitat patches.
Young put forward the position that the corridor at Smith Creek should be 850 metres wide, because it is part of a series of corridors and protected areas that stretch 10 kilometres from the west to the east of the valley, including the Nordic Centre, the Georgetown wildlife corridor, the Tipple corridor, the Three Sisters along valley corridor, Stewart Creek corridor, Wind Valley, Dead Man’s Flats and Pigeon corridors.
Young, though, said 850 metres is unachievable, and would practically remove all development potential from Three Sisters’ privately owned lands and a 450 metre wide corridor is what Y2Y has been supporting, if it has a reasonable slope line.
“When there is uncertainty in the science we need the precautionary principle and to not take risks with unique ecosystems and connectivity pieces like this,” she said.
Legault said Y2Y has officially requested Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips conduct a cumulative impact study, which she may have the power to do under the NRCB decision.
“We outline for her that before any decision is made on Three Sisters we would like to see a cumulative impact of all development in the Bow Valley considered,” Legault said. “That case has been made to her in writing and what she decides to do with it is her prerogative.
“I would say the best way for us to get it, is to demand it.”
Roger Ramcharita, the province’s regional executive director for the South Saskatchewan Region, is in charge of evaluating the wildlife corridor proposal and receiving feedback from the public on the proposed corridor.
Ramcharita took time on Tuesday to meet personally with members of the public at the Y2Y offices after there were concerns that AEP’s prior engagement process lacked clarity because the developer hosted the event at the request of the province.