For decades, Canmore, Alberta, which borders Banff, the nation’s first national park, has strived to live in harmony with the wildlife that roams the Bow Valley. People are drawn to the iconic peaks that surround it. They want to climb them, ski down them, and run or bike in between. Canmore is a place where it’s not uncommon to take pepper spray with you on a hike from your doorstep or find a herd of elk blocking traffic. The small mountain town is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada, growing 14.3% over the past four years. That’s faster than the national and provincial averages, according to 2021 census data released in February.
The data singles out other popular tourist destinations, such as Squamish, British Columbia and Wasaga Beach and Collingwood, Ontario, which have seen significant growth largely due to their proximity to the outdoors. But in Canmore, the problem goes beyond the number of inhabitants. Visits from outdoor enthusiasts have also increased, raising the question: can more people co-exist with the wildlife here, and if so, how?
Humans are drawn to the Bow Valley for some of the same reasons as wildlife: while the corridor is surrounded by towering Rocky Mountains, the valley floor is warm and flat, making travel easy.
The community is home to a critical wildlife corridor of rare quality. Grizzly bears, black bears, elk, cougars and wolves all depend on it to stay connected to different parts of the Bow Valley and beyond. It is one of the four most important east-west corridors in the 3,200 km “Yellowstone to the Yukon” region, a series of interconnected habitats stretching from northern Canada to the midwestern United States. Animal species depend on these corridors for their survival.
Canmore also needs growth if it is to succeed as a community beyond a resort destination with a high cost of living, Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert explained, but it’s a delicate balance. There is a need for affordable housing, and development must be done in an environmentally responsible way. “There’s only a limited amount of developable land in Canmore…and that comes with an effective limitation on how many people can actually live here,” Krausert said.
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When human populations increase in the same space as wildlife, the risks are twofold, explained Sarah Elmeligi, National Parks Program Coordinator for the Canadian Society for Nature and Parks (CPAWS) Southern Alberta: there is the physical footprint of development that results in habitat loss; but also the impact of increased leisure.
“No matter where [people] put your head at night,” Elmeligi explained. “The total volume of people recreating on the trails is very high and this is impacting wildlife movement and habitat use.
Human presence can have a cumulative negative impact on animals and their habitats over time, said Hilary Young, Alberta program director for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “It’s really one of those death-by-a-thousand-cut type issues.”
During the pandemic, people flocked to the trails. Kananaskis Country, a provincial park under Alberta jurisdiction that borders Canmore, hit a record 5.3 million visitors in 2020. In 2021, visits hit just over five million. The nearby Banff National Park receives about 4 million visitors a year.
“COVID has brought the most visitors to our trails and to our outdoor facilities that I have ever seen,” said Krausert, the mayor. “The biggest increase in numbers has been in visitors, which far dwarfs any population growth,” he said, adding that the number of residents is not a surprise and is in line with city planning. .
More people on trails can displace wildlife from these habitats or foraging areas and increase the chances of human-wildlife conflict, especially between bears and humans.
Living near people and human settlements habituates bears to humans and can result in the death or displacement of animals like grizzly bears.
The species has been listed as “threatened” in Alberta since 2010, when the population was between 700 and 800 bears. Thanks to the efforts of the province’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, that number has grown to 973.
“This valley is the most developed valley in the world where grizzly bears still exist,” said Karsten Heuer, a wildlife biologist with a longstanding interest in wildlife movements in the Bow Valley. “It tells me that we are at, if not already past, the threshold where we can continue to live out this dream and the commonly stated goal for Canmore to co-exist with its wildlife populations.”
“Canmore is considered a benchmark for work on human-wildlife coexistence,” said Gareth Thomson, executive director of the Bow Valley Biosphere Institute. “It’s really important that we maintain that gold standard over time and even as the population grows, because I think that’s what keeps that light shining.”
A roundtable made up of the towns of Banff and Canmore, Banff National Park and the Government of Alberta was created in 2017 in response to the death of Bear 148, a grizzly bear who was translocated and eventually legally killed by a hunter in British Columbia. The group continues to meet on the issue of human and wildlife coexistence in the Bow Valley. Guidelines for dealing with these issues emerged from this roundtable and serves as a guide for mitigating human-wildlife conflict in the city.
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The city’s ongoing efforts like bear-proof trash cans, temporary trail closures, and the removal of fruit trees (several black bears were relocated last fall after wandering the city in search of food ), were hailed by the experts.
The Alberta government’s goal is to minimize the potential for human-wildlife conflict, Environment and Parks said by email. They see the impact human use can have on wildlife corridors and work to mitigate damage through trail closures based on wildlife activity, alternate routes and meter usage trails and cameras to inform decisions. They continue to work with other groups and agencies to minimize human disturbance and wildlife conflict.
Young, Elmeligi and Heuer point to other potentials tactics to help de-stress the wildlife population, such as managing illegal trails, wildlife interaction education, and timed trail closures, including nighttime trail closures, to give animals time to work undisturbed by human use.
The amount of high-quality habitat between Banff and Canmore has declined by more than 35% since pre-development, according to a study currently under review. Cities and trails drive carnivore behavior, resource selection, and travel connectivity, written by researchers from Parks Canada, the Government of Alberta, and the Universities of Montana and British Columbia. Connectivity of the corridor allowing the movement of animals reduced by 80% for wolves and grizzlies.
This type of habitat fragmentation, Heuer explained, cuts animals off from their usual travel routes. They can no longer connect feeding, denning and sleeping areas and are relegated to smaller and smaller habitats. When this pattern repeats itself repeatedly, it’s part of the process by which extinctions occur — first locally, then regionally, and finally globally — over time.
When corridors are maintained, animals also avoid genetic isolation. Without genetic diversity, species can become less resilient over time, impacting their likelihood of survival.
Last year, residents protested and the city council pulled down a controversial development by Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Ltd. which could have disrupted wildlife corridors and nearly doubled Canmore’s population. It was not the first time that development on the land, nestled under the towering Three Sisters Mountains, has been rejected, with development plans dating back to 1989. The developer is now suing the town of Canmore and its former council.
For the mayor, the real challenge now is to ensure that visitors are informed about what they can and cannot do in environmentally sensitive areas. To avoid wildlife movement blockages, he insisted on keeping people out of wildlife corridors, walking dogs on leashes in designated areas and educating visitors on the importance of wildlife attractants. wildlife and not disturb the environment in a harmful way.
As for Canmore’s future as a wildlife corridor, Heuer remains hopeful. “If there’s one place that could do it, it would be here,” he said. “I want to be able to live my life and grow my family in a place where we’ve made it and then it can become a model for other places around the world.”
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