Highway mortality is contributing to the decline of Bow Valley Provincial Park’s elk population, causing Sustainable Resource Development officials to call for more wildlife fencing along the Trans-Canada Highway.
However, Alberta Transportation is balking at the idea, stating it ‘isn’t a priority.’
According to SRD biologist Jon Jorgenson, 10 years ago there were 125 elk in Bow Valley Provincial Park, however, today that number is closer to 70.
Examining the stretch of unfenced highway from the Kananaskis River to the rock cut at the west end of Bow Valley Provincial Park, SRD finds there are between six and eight elk killed a year on that small five kilometre section. Between five and 15 deer are also killed each year on that section.
Jorgenson said those numbers are a conservative estimate, as more animals are hit and die a few kilometres off the highway, but aren’t found. Even working with those numbers, losing 10 per cent of the elk population each year to highway mortality is not sustainable. The herd should be increasing in size, as they aren’t hunted and predation takes about another 10 per cent of elk per year. A herd that size would have about 15 to 20 calves a year, so officials see a pattern developing.
“It’s not hard to see the highway is contributing to the slow decline of ungulates in the park,” Jorgenson said.
Wildlife fencing is the best way to reduce highway mortality, Jorgenson said.
“There is no doubt if a stretch could be fenced it would reduce the annual mortality on ungulates and slow and stop the decline of elk populations,” said Jorgenson.
Wildlife fencing costs about $60,000 per kilometre to install, while wildlife crossing structures (underpasses and overpasses) can cost $1 million. Whenever fencing on provincial land has occurred, it has come with the help of outside funding. In 2004, G8 legacy funding fenced a stretch of highway by Dead Man’s Flats, while The Stewart Creek section was fenced with money from Three Sisters Mountain Village and was completed in 1999.
“It’s an expensive proposition,” Jorgenson said.
However, Alberta Transportation, which makes the decision about fencing, said there is no need for wildlife fencing in that area, stating fences and crossing structures can result in ‘unforseen circumstances.’
“We don’t have plans to install more fencing. We don’t see a need for it,” said Alberta Transportation spokesperson Trent Bancarz.
The province considers fencing on a case-by-case basis, as there is no annual program to erect wildlife fencing.
Bancarz said other issues arise with fencing. Predators learn to hunt near crossings and there is the chance the issue is simply moved down the road, he said.
Wildlife crossing structure usage has increased as animals learn they are safe. At the Deadman’s Flat’s wildlife crossing, which was installed in 2004, the numbers have been strong. In 2008, 466 crossings were recorded. That number jumped to 661 in 2009. At the Stewart Creek Crossing, 394 crossings were recorded, and another 405 in 2009. While the bulk of the crossings were attributed to ungulates, other animals such as grizzly bears, coyotes and wolverines have also used the structures.
The roadkill is having other effects as well. A month ago, a cougar was killed crossing the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s unusual for the big cats to scavenge for food, however, not completely unheard of.
In contrast, Banff National Park has received several accolades for its wildlife crossing project, which began in 1982. Currently, there are 24 wildlife underpasses and four overpasses, which have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by more than 80 per cent. Elk and deer collisions have been reduced by more than 96 per cent, and more than 11 species have used the structures.
SRD and Alberta Transportation have discussed the issue, however, there is still no progress. Jorgenson said one crossing structure could be enough, however, creative funding models are required to pay for the project.
“It boils down to cost and priority,” Jorgensen said.