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Wildlife corridor mitigations, concerns raised at Three Sisters, Canmore hearings

The polarizing and contentious wildlife corridor that was necessary for the Smith Creek area structure plan came under the microscope at the Land and Property Rights Tribunal.

CANMORE – The polarizing and contentious wildlife corridor that was necessary for the Smith Creek area structure plan came under the microscope at the Land and Property Rights Tribunal.

The tribunal, which began its hearing on Smith Creek on Feb. 22, heard from both Three Sisters Mountain Village Property Limited (TSMVPL) and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), which received limited intervenor status for the hearings.

The bulk of the March 2 testimony came from Kyle Knopff, a wildlife biologist with Golder Associates, who has been involved with the project since 2010 and was the author of the wildlife corridor that was approved.

Knopff took the tribunal through the process of attaining provincial approval, the data that reached the report’s conclusion and the types of wildlife who frequently travel the area.

“Because the Smith Creek wildlife corridor was approved by AEP (Alberta Environment and Parks), my conclusion with respect to that aspect of the condition that wildlife movement corridor is in as undeveloped state as possible is satisfactory to Alberta Forestry, Lands and Wildlife, I think that part of the approval is met,” he said.

As part of the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) decision in 1992, a functional wildlife corridor was needed to allow for development to occur.

The first application was denied in 2018 because the width of the proposed corridor at the east end of Smith Creek was “not satisfactory” and further issues needed to be addressed.

The province gave its approval to the wildlife corridor in February 2020, surprising local conservationists, wildlife scientists and the Town.

A Feb. 26, 2020, letter from AEP showed a wildlife corridor would be “considered satisfactory” if it allowed wildlife access to seasonal habitats, reduced negative human-wildlife interactions, delineated boundaries of the valley’s corridors and allowed for dispersal of young from natal areas to find new homes.

Under the NRCB decision, it was decided a primary wildlife corridor couldn’t be narrower than 350 metres. Knopff presented that the along valley corridor south of the Trans-Canada Highway is 635m wide, while the Pigeon Mountain corridor is 363m wide.

He added the Pigeon Mountain corridor is outside of TSMV-owned property and outside the jurisdiction of the NRCB decision. The corridors, he said, are part of a broader network to connect to the G8 Legacy underpass.

“Although it’s narrower, as I mentioned, it was constrained by previous development unrelated to the NRCB decision on Three Sisters property but is important on making those regional connections.”

In her testimony Monday (March 7), Hilary Young, the Alberta program director for Y2Y, emphasized that the wildlife corridors are required to be in as undeveloped state as possible.

In a 2017 map, it showed multiple gaps below the required 350-metre requirement flat land in the wildlife corridor, but that left some open to a 25-degree or greater slope. The issue, she said, is animals will regularly travel on flat land as opposed to sloped to expel less energy.

The map presented areas with multiple pinch points and bottlenecks for animals travelling the corridor.

However, Chris Ollenberger, the managing principle of QuantumPlace Developments and director, strategy and development for TSMVPL, added that the map presented doesn’t show the slope line in the 2020 wildlife corridor approved by the province

“Ultimately, AEP determined their own line. It isn’t this one. … They did accept a lot of data they had internally and additionally we supplied that showed there is movement along the discontinuous slopes,” he said.

He added pirate trails – illegal trails – are the “number one problem with effective use of wildlife in the corridor”.

Y2Y, who received limited intervenor status for the hearings, brought forward concerns that the NRCB decision and AEP approved corridor, the corridor design considerations, the suite and needs of species and the regional context don’t align with one another.

The LPRT allowed limited intervenor status for Y2Y that gave them the chance to make submissions on the approved wildlife corridor and its consistency with the NRCB approval.

Kathleen Elhatton-Lake, a lawyer with Shores Jardine LLP representing TSMVPL, showed how Golder’s concluding report stated it “dramatically improves the Stewart Creek Across Valley Corridor” and that “the amendments and extensions to the Along Valley corridor proposed by TSMV will complete the wildlife corridor network on the south side of Canmore. … With appropriate management of human use, proposed corridors are predicted to maintain wildlife movement over the very long term.”

Knopff noted the NRCB decision wanted functional wildlife corridors that would allow animals to move, but also permit development.

“An important part of determining the importance of wildlife corridors is understanding what they’re for. We looked at the NRCB to obtain some guidance. … We needed to take it a little bit further to understand what they meant blockage and what they met by functional wildlife corridor.”

“For us, an effective wildlife corridor was one that a whole range of movement in wildlife from one habitat patch to another,” he said.

Knopff also argued that conflict between wildlife and humans is “a far greater issue of concern in the Bow Valley than wildlife movement. … allowing animals to move across the Bow Valley, but making sure that they can do so safely is also really important.”

He highlighted neither the province or NRCB decision required wildlife fencing, but Golder recommended its use.

“Fencing is a mitigation we identified in our environmental impact statement for the Smith Creek ASP and the reason that it has been identified is two-fold,” he said, identifying it not only keeping animals away from developed areas but people away from animals.

Young’s testimony stated that the fencing is untested and there isn’t a similar type for the mitigation.

“This is untested. … There are no comparable to point to outside of the Bow Valley for this type of mitigation. It’s an untested experiment. We feel pretty strongly that because of the ecological value of this valley, which has been well established – even the NRCB decision acknowledges that – this fence shouldn’t be needed in order to make this development work.”

The bulk of the data focused on wolves, grizzly bears, elk and cougars, but also looked at a “full set of species in the Bow Valley,” Knopff said.

His testimony showed data went as far back as 1988, but in clarifying questions by Shaun Fluker – the legal representation for Y2Y – and questions from the tribunal showed some lack of information from the province from 2016 onwards. However, he stated TSMV had cameras tracking wildlife data throughout the period.

Young called the data presented as “dated”, highlighted the information on grizzly bears was limited and was only from 2008.

The Bow Valley is a critical chain in the travel of several specifies of animals that stretches from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon.

An interagency study released in 2021 – Towns and Trails Drive Carnivore Connectivity using a Step Selection Approach – showed since historic and pre-development times wolves had decreased by 25 per cent and grizzly bears by 21 per cent.

The study also estimated an additional six per cent of wildlife connectivity would decrease with the potential of expansion by the two TSMV ASPs.

The study used GPS data from 150,000 locations from 2000 to 2020 in a 17,500-square-kilometre area that involved 34 collared grizzly bears and 33 collared wolves.

As part of the 1992 NRCB decision, a condition for the project to move ahead was to allow for wildlife to move in corridors “in as undeveloped a state as possible” and a “continuity of corridors through adjacent lands”.

The discussion for the wildlife corridor has been ongoing for as long as the potential development of the lands.

As a necessity for any development approval, the process to attain the provincial OK for the corridor was drawn out until the province approved it in 2020.

Described as a saga in a 2005 research paper by the Canadian Institute of Resources Law, the paper was only 13 years into the discussion that would need another 15 years until the province approved the corridor.

**CLARIFICATION: The initial story stated Shaun Fluker conducted a cross-examination, but it was clarifying questions. Hilary Young was also quoted as saying "geological value" where it was "ecological value". The Outlook apologizes for the error.