Wary carnivores like grizzly bears and wolves are using a critical underpass east of Canmore more than ever before.
In fact, there have been eight recorded wolf crossings through the Stewart Creek underpass since Sept. 24 – the first photographic evidence of wolves using the underpass since it was built almost 20 years ago.
Not only that, wildlife cameras picked up eight grizzly bear crossings in 2017 – the highest number in any one year. Since 2009, there have been only 22 known grizzly bear crossings at that underpass.
Provincial wildlife officials say this illustrates the importance of underpasses for maintaining connectivity in the Bow Valley, by giving wildlife safe passage across the deadly Trans-Canada Highway.
“Although these numbers may seem small and insignificant, this shows how slowly some species like grizzly bears and wolves adapt to using the underpasses,” said John Paczkowski, an ecologist with Alberta Parks.
“I’m so happy to see the underpass is being used by such species.”
Some of the eight wolf crossings recorded at the Stewart Creek underpass are the same wolves, but there are at least three different wolves for sure.
A collared wolf from Banff National Park was the most recent to use the underpass. Known as 1501 and the breeding male of the former Bow Valley pack before its demise last year, he passed through the underpass at about 5:15 p.m. Nov. 3.
Paczkowski said he hopes wolves continue to travel through the underpass from one side of the valley to the other.
He said wolves typically make large forays in early winter, exploring the landscape.
“I hope the underpass becomes part of their social geography and I hope it becomes learned behaviour that they repeat over time and maybe pass down through generations,” he said.
“With underpass and overpass use in Banff, it took years for some of the species to start to use them. It can take a long time.”
Meanwhile, in addition to the 22 crossings by grizzly bears at Stewart Creek since 2009, there have also been 12 grizzly bear crossings at the Wind Valley underpass further to the east over the same time period.
Paczkowski said thousands of other animals use these underpasses each year, noting it is hoped wildlife fencing will be built and more crossings structures added east of Canmore.
“It not only enhances human safety, but also helps with wildlife connectivity into the future,” he said.
The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative has long been pushing the provincial government for more wildlife mitigation measures along the deadly highway from the east gate of Banff National Park to the Kananaskis River.
Officials with Y2Y point to the recent death of a young female wolf, which was struck by a vehicle on the 110 km/h, unfenced highway in that area as recently as Nov. 10.
Stephen Legault, a program director for Y2Y, said the flagship would be construction of an overpass at Bow Valley Gap, which is a stretch of highway scientists have identified as a hotspot for wildlife deaths.
He said there needs to be a comprehensive approach, noting wildlife exclusion fencing, underpasses, overpasses, or flashing lights to deter wildlife, could all form part of the solution to deal with the wildlife death toll.
“All of these things taken in concert could really mitigate the impact our transportation infrastructure has on wildlife,” he said.
“It’s not just good for wildlife, it’s good for people and their safety,” he said, noting it could also save on damage costs associated with vehicle collisions.