Conservationists push for new wildlife overpass

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Conservationists are pushing the provincial government to set aside about $7 million for construction of a wildlife overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway at Bow Valley Gap east of Lac Des Arcs.

The Province of Alberta is putting out a request for proposal for the design of the overpass, but government officials say no funding has been allocated for construction at this point.

Stephen Legault, program director for Canmore-based Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative, said now is the time to urge the Alberta government to invest in green infrastructure in the 2018 budget.

“We’d like to see at least $7 million allocated to the construction of an overpass, as well as money for fencing the highway,” said Legault, noting fencing seven kilometres between Lac Des Arcs and Highway 1X turnoff would cost extra.

“We believe this is a great opportunity for the province to highlight its commitment to wildlife conservation and public safety. An overpass would reduce collisions and improve wildlife connectivity.”

The Trans-Canada Highway has been identified as a barrier to wildlife movement and a source of mortality for wildlife in the region. It’s not just ungulates getting hit, but also grizzlies and black bears, coyotes and wolves.

In 2012, a highway mitigation plan was developed for a 39-kilometre stretch of highway between Canmore and Highway 40, where there are only two underpasses with wildlife fencing over a three-km stretch near Dead Man’s Flats.

At that time, the study estimated there to be about 60 collisions with deer, moose, sheep and elk per year, which added up to almost $750,000 in costs to mitigate collisions, such as cleanup and insurance costs.

With development proposals in the valley from Three Sisters Mountain Village and Silvertip, and ongoing concerns about wildlife movement with increasing human use, Legault said this overpass is needed.

“We have to make sure critters can continue to get across the road and keep the Bow Valley as part of the key connectivity zone in the broader region,” he said.

“We feel we’re at a pretty critical pinch point.”

A recently-released study shows grizzly bears need a range of crossing structures to get across highways, but females consistently require large open span underpasses or overpasses.

Researchers Tony Clevenger and Adam Ford examined 17 years of highway crossing structure data in Banff National Park, and then studied the travel patterns of grizzly bears between 1997 and 2014.

Their findings, published online in Wildlife Society Bulletin, clearly indicated a mother bear with cubs opted to use an overpass instead of an underpass in almost every instance. Bears not travelling in these family groups used both underpasses and overpasses.

“The combination of overpasses, underpasses and fencing is really the magic solution,” said Legault.

Legault said Y2Y encourages the province to show environmental leadership and demonstrated innovation by earmarking dollars for an overpass at Bow Valley Gap, located about 15 km east of Canmore.

“We think this is a flagship opportunity for the province,” he said.

Cam Westhead, Banff-Cochrane MLA, said the first step is getting a design for the overpass finalized before allocating budget dollars, but did note the 2017 budget set aside $20 million over four years for wildlife protection projects.

“I always think we need to take one step at a time,” he said. “When we’re looking at a consultant, those planning things need to come before we can start making budget allocations for the structure itself.”

Westhead said safety of motorists is one of the government’s biggest priorities when considering transportation infrastructure spending.

“Looking at wildlife and vehicle collisions is something we understand is definitely an issue in the Bow Valley,” he said.

Protecting wildlife is another priority, said Westhead, noting an overpass would dovetail with work being done by the wildlife co-existence round table, which formed after the death of female grizzly bear 148 last summer.

“We’re talking about connectivity and making sure animals can move freely throughout the valley,” he said, adding the Bow Valley is a pinch point for wildlife movement.

“If we can give animals more options, it can help them to get where they need to be on the landscape.”

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