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Exploring the wild frontier of Jumbo Valley, B.C. Add to ...

Grizzlies are long-living, far-ranging animals with sparse densities, which means that changes to their reproduction and movement patterns often take a long time to manifest, but have profound influence. Smoking as a teenager, Proctor suggests, is a good metaphor for incremental incursions into their habitat. You feel no immediate ill effects, which makes it is easy to ignore the fact you are sowing the seeds of cancer.

"To understand grizzly bears, you have to think big, both spatially and temporally," Proctor explains. "The proponent and the government have repeatedly promised that they'll monitor bear populations, and if the resort causes problems, they'll fix or mitigate them. Well, we have a problem right now: depressed populations across the whole Purcell range. It should be a huge red flag. Fix that first."

Glacier Resort's Costello locks horns with every voice of dissent. He brushes aside Proctor's concerns, saying the government "will respond to such allegations soon enough."

"The truth is there are no resident bears in Jumbo Valley," Costello says. "It is not a corridor of any sort. We've been studying bears there since '71, and I defy anyone to show me a passage over the peaks."

I ask Costello about the earlier studies.

"General observations," he says. "Hiking all through the Purcells with local backcountry enthusiasts identified the areas where grizzlies were likely to be encountered. Jumbo was definitely not one."

This is typical of discussions surrounding Jumbo. Statements issued by the two sides either contradict or, worse yet, bear no relation to one another at all.

So where does the truth lie?

Finding an arm's-length expert to gauge Proctor's and Costello's bear assertions is difficult, for every senior bear biologist on the continent is listed as a co-author on Proctor's recent monograph. At last I contact Stephen Herrero. Now retired, the former University of Calgary professor was long regarded as Canada's foremost bear expert, and has been the public face of bear education for nearly 50 years.

"I don't think you can have a stronger set of credentials than Michael's [Proctor] It is no stretch to say his work has changed the way we understand grizzly bear populations."

And the significance of the anchor population? "Michael has identified a very major connected population," Herrero says, "and the proposed resort falls right in the middle of that, significantly diminishing any chance of long-term health."

THE FIRST NATIONS

In a darkened conference room, inside the Ktunaxa Nation Office on the St. Mary's River, I sit down across from Herman Alpine and Ray Warden, both of whom grew up here in the Rocky Mountain Trench, south of Invermere. Herman begins, his voice deep and slow. The words come in his native tongue first, which he repeats in English after. The pauses are so long, his gaze so steady, that I shuffle in my seat.

The grizzly bear, Herman explains, is one of the Ktunaxa's principal spirits - a nupika - and Qat'muk (Jumbo) represents both the grizzly's spiritual home and the place it goes to heal. Oral tradition explains that, at the Creator's request, this nupika reluctantly made room for first humans (Ktunaxa ancestors) by retreating into the mountains. This act formed a reciprocal obligation between humans and bears, whereby humans must provide respect and moral action, including acting as stewards of the land.

For both this reason and concerns over the protection of wildlife populations, biodiversity and water quality, the Ktunaxa (pronounced too-nah-ha) have steadfastly opposed a major resort in Jumbo since the emergence of the proposal.

Nearly 20 years of negotiations with the provincial government have taken place in the hope that the project could be reconfigured to be compatible with their beliefs and values. Last November, that strategy changed. Herman and Ray were among 47 Ktunaxa who travelled to Victoria and stood for the first time in the B.C. Legislature and presented the Qat'muk Declaration, an unequivocal assertion of their intent for the Jumbo area.

The declaration (available at qatmuk.com) details the reasons for Qat'muk's profound importance, and concludes by stating the Ktunaxa will accept "no construction of buildings or structures with permanent foundations; no permanent occupation of residences" in the area.

Coming just days after Canada's ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - which includes the right to protect religious and cultural sites - the Qat'muk declaration is notable for two reasons.

First, the Ktunaxa are incredibly private about their culture. The desire for privacy, particularly surrounding the sacred, has been one of the nation's defining features through the centuries. "It was finally decided that we had to speak. Too much was at stake," Ray explains. "This place is about who we are as peoples."

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