BOW VALLEY – A multi-million dollar wildlife overpass on the deadly Trans-Canada Highway east of Lac des Arcs is a step closer to reality.
The government of Alberta allocated $20 million over four years for wildlife protection in the 2019 budget, which includes a wildlife overpass and associated fencing on a stretch of highway near the Highway 1X interchange.
Last year, Alberta Transportation hired a consultant to do the design and cost benefit analysis of the structure, and Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin this week said the long-talked about highway mitigation is dealt with in the 2019 provincial budget.
“$20 million has been budgeted to construct wildlife fencing and overpasses across the province, with the corridor between Calgary and Banff ranked as a top priority,” she said in a statement.
Darren Davidson, Alberta Transportation’s southern regional director, said the project is listed in the 2019 provincial highway construction program, noting the cost of the overpass and associated fencing is likely more in the $14 million range instead of the original projection of $7 million.
“The engineering consultant has been working on it for a while now, but it’s on the program now so it’s more official,” he said.
“We’re trying to get preliminary design completed and then detailed design, so we’re ready to go whenever possible,” he added.
“We have consultation that needs to occur and environmental approvals and so the timelines are kind of open-ended right now.”
Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative is pleased to hear this area is a priority, noting its letter-writing campaign saw 830 letters sent to the provincial government calling for an overpass east of Lac des Arcs and a network of highway mitigation through Canmore.
“There’s so much support for highway mitigation, particularly between Calgary and Banff,” said Hilary Young, Y2Y’s senior Alberta program manager.
“People have recognized the benefits for people and for wildlife, so it seems like a win-win.”
The Bow Valley is one of the most important regional wildlife corridors in Alberta and it’s also a busy corridor for people, with an average of about 24,000 vehicles buzzing by on the highway every day.
Deer, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, cougars, lynx, wolves, black and grizzly bears use the high quality habitat along the Bow River valley bottom to move between the protected areas of Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country.
A growing body of scientific research from around the world shows crossing structures and associated highway fencing saves the lives of wildlife and people.
Young said the Trans-Canada is an east-west fracture zone through this area in the greater Y2Y corridor, creating a genetic barrier for wildlife populations.
“They either don’t move across because there’s 25,000 to 30,000 cars going by a day – more in the summer – or often times they will move across and be killed on this road,” she said.
“For grizzly bears and for wolverines and for wolves, it’s important to make sure that it’s mitigated and to reconnect both sides.”
The municipalities of Banff and Canmore sent letters earlier this year to the provincial government calling for an overpass and associated highway mitigation.
Wildlife crossing structures and fencing are also cost-effective. The area between Banff east gate and Highway 40 averages 50 wildlife-vehicle collisions each year, collectively costing Albertans roughly $720,000 annually, according to Y2Y.
One-quarter of these collisions occur in the area that will be mitigated by the Bow Valley Gap overpass and fencing. With an expected lifespan of 75 years, the overpass will pay for itself over time.
Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA) has also put pressure on the govenment to build the overpass.
“We’re hopeful that the internationally-recognized success of Banff’s crossings and fencing will encourage the province to start construction as quickly as possible," said Darren Reeder, BLLHA's executive director.
"With close to 25,000 vehicles per day traveling the Trans-Canada, we’re encouraged to see the government taking action to make our roads safer for people and wildlife."
Meanwhile, Y2Y also hopes future work includes a network of mitigation from Highway 40 to the east gate of Banff National Park, including through Canmore where elk are routinely hit and killed on the highway, posing a risk to human safety as well.
Young said that could include reduced speed limit, wildlife exclusion fencing, and expansion of existing culverts under the highway, or new underpasses.
“We at Y2Y aren’t experts on what exactly additional mitigations are needed,” she said.
“There’s a number of different ways that likely the Ministry of Transportation would need to analyze to see which system works best where.”
A 2012 study by Miistakis Institute and Western Transportation Institute identified 10 sites along a 39-kilometre stretch of highway from the east gate of Banff to Highway 40, with recommendations including fencing and associated underpasses.
In neighbouring Banff National Park, there are now 38 wildlife underpasses and six overpasses along an 82-kilometre stretch of highway from the park’s east entrance to the border of Yoho National Park.
Highway fencing there has reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by more than 80 per cent and, for elk and deer alone, by more than 96 per cent.