CANMORE – Conservationists are renewing calls for the province of Alberta to buy some of the Three Sisters land to reduce pinch points in an internationally significant wildlife corridor threatened by development.
Hilary Young, director of communities and conservation for the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation initiative, said some of the mechanisms could include designating easements, or giving or selling some land to Canmore or the province.
Beyond the adaptive management plan that Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Limited (TSMVPL) is working on, she said it would be great to add some land to the provincially-approved wildlife corridor, such as pinch points where the width of the corridor is too narrow.
“Perhaps at some point later in this process, there could be an opportunity for easements on those lands, giving those lands back to Canmorites, selling those lands,” she said during a Jan. 15 presentation hosted by the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley.
“I am not sure, but I still have some hope that there’s some way of widening out those pinch points.”
Research shows since the 1990s there has been at least an 80 per cent loss of connectivity in the lands around Canmore. The wildlife corridor through Three Sisters lands is a critical one in the Y2Y link.
“Without intact corridors, movements are restricted, and wildlife can’t find food, reproduce, or adapt to a warming planet and habitat fragmentation,” said Young.
TSMVPL won a lengthy legal battle with the Town of Canmore in Alberta’s highest court to develop the lands, potentially leading to the doubling of Canmore’s population in the next 20 to 30 years.
Canmore town council had rejected the proposed Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek projects, but the Land and Property Rights Tribunal ruled in 2022 that both developments could go ahead.
Last week, Banff-Kananaskis MLA Sarah Elmeligi also renewed calls for the province to respond to requests back in the fall to purchase some of the lands in the project to save the critical wildlife corridor.
She said the campaign by community groups, known as “Save Griz Corridor” generated more than 2,500 emails to her office.
“To my knowledge, no response has been provided,” she said in a Jan. 15 letter to Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver and Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz.
Elmeligi has also called on McIver and Schulz to launch a series of facilitated public and Indigenous consultation sessions about proposed developments on TSMV lands.
She said the concern isn’t about being anti-development, it’s about ensuring that any development is aligned with the needs of the community and that proper planning and infrastructure development occurs.
There are already longstanding concerns in Canmore about the ability of local roads, pathways, the hospital and more to keep up with demand caused by increased visitors to the region, she said.
“The TSMV project will make matters much worse by nearly doubling the population of Canmore,” said Elmeligi, who is also the Alberta NDP Critic for Tourism, Sport and Recreation.
Elmeligi also called on the province to review Section 619 of the Municipal Government Act.
“It severely undermines the ability of Canmore council to make decisions for the community, residents and commercial businesses they have been elected to represent,” she said.
Elmeligi said she continues to hear concerns about the 1992 Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) decision that set the development at Three Sisters in motion in the first place.
Over the last 30 years since that decision, she said there have been considerable scientific advancements in the fields of wildlife connectivity and coexistence, and community consultation defining a shared vision for Canmore.
“Government have also made critical commitments to Indigenous communities to strengthen relationships and see through proper reconciliation,” she wrote.
Chris Ollenberger, the director of strategy and development for TSMVPL, said no one has spoken to TSMVPL about any proposal by anyone to purchase or acquire TSMV’s private lands to prevent or change the development plans.
"So it would not be possible to provide any comment," he said in an email.
In a letter filed by Bow Valley Engage’s lawyer earlier this month, the provincial government was asked to refer the TSMVPL developments to an environmental assessment under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA).
According to the organization, the law under which the 1992 NRCB decision was approved – The Land Surface Conservation Act – no longer exists and argues the NRCB decision wasn’t transferred to the EPEA, which replaced it.
The group says allowing something this big, complex, and publicly concerning to proceed under an assessment done 32 years ago and under legislation that no longer exists is “inappropriate for a government charged with protecting the interests of all Albertans.”
Since then, grizzly bears have been listed as threatened in Alberta, other Canmore neighbourhoods were built and blocked the only other wildlife corridor, and issues surrounding the climate crisis have grown.
“The risks have changed enough to warrant an assessment under EPEA,” said Bow Valley Engage.
In response to Bow Valley Engage, a spokesperson for Minister Schulz said the ministry will review the request closely and assess all the available information to determine if a new environmental impact assessment is required.
Questions about buying some of the land from TSMVPL went unanswered.
Ryan Fournier, Schulz’s press secretary, said the department approved the Three Sisters wildlife corridor in 2020 – a decision that was several years in the making.
“The department’s experts closely considered both scientific and technical reports and input from local residents and others as part of the assessment process,” he wrote in his email.
Ollenberger said TSVM has done numerous environmental assessments with a wide variety of terms of reference over the years, many also reviewed by independent third-parties and submitted to appropriate regulators.
"We are not aware of any of those environmental assessments in their final approved form not accepted by the appropriate regulators," he said.
Ollenberger said this includes a full environmental impact assessment that was reviewed and accepted as a part of the NRCB approval, a process which included full participation by numerous groups offering their views on all aspects of the Three Sisters submissions including the full environmental impact assessment for the consideration of the NRCB.
"We will be submitting our view to the province of BVE’s request shortly for the province’s consideration," he said.