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For conservationists, the proposed Bighorn Wildland park will shelter species from extinction and Albertans from climate change. But in the conservative back country, some fear it will threaten their livelihoods – and as an election nears, the region is becoming a political fault line

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Forest in a public land-use zone near Rocky Mountain House, Alta., a region where Alberta's NDP government plans to set aside a region about the size of Rhode Island as new provincial parkland.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Trapper Neil Godlonton turns a small jar of dark paste in his hand as he contemplates the future of a contentious slice of wilderness on the edge of Canada’s Rocky Mountains.

It’s a Monday morning at Tackle and Trails outfitters, and Mr. Godlonton is stocking up on wolf bait. He has worked a trap line close to nearby Nordegg, Alta., for more than 30 years. It’s a marginal trade – a single pelt fetches $300, on a good day – but one he fears is nonetheless in jeopardy of being stamped out, should a proposed provincial park in the surrounding boreal forest comes to fruition.

Nobody wants “another Banff and Jasper,” he says, referring to the national parks to the south and north, respectively. “Tourism is great,” he adds, “but Albertans need a place to go.”

Battle lines are being drawn in Alberta’s back country over the NDP government’s plan to set aside an area roughly the size of Rhode Island as provincial parkland.

The clash over conservation comes amid a widening revolt against environmental regulation in the oil-rich province, and provides an early glimpse at contours that will shape this spring’s Alberta general election, widely expected to be fought on economic and climate issues.

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Premier Rachel Notley’s government, facing an angry electorate and a deficit projected at $8.8-billion, has pitched the proposed Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park as a means of diversifying the battered provincial economy through tourism.

Conservation groups say it’s a chance to create a needed haven for vulnerable and threatened species in an otherwise loosely regulated back country laced with logging roads, forestry clear-cuts and trails carved by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

They also see such wilderness parks as a bulwark against climate change. Bighorn, wedged between Banff and Jasper national parks, would help stitch together key habitat in a vast corridor that extends as far south as Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and to the Yukon in Canada’s Far North. It is the largest of four current proposals for new or expanded Alberta provincial parks.

The region is home to numerous sensitive species, including grizzly bear, wolverine and bull trout, as well as the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, which supplies drinking water to Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city hundreds of kilometres to the east.

“What can be more precious?” said John Weaver, who has spent years studying the region as a senior conservation scientist with WCS Canada. “It’s really a good place to invest in terms of resiliency," he said.

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The main drag in downtown Rocky Mountain House, population 7,000.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Few see it that way in Rocky Mountain House, a conservative stronghold where talk of climate science can elicit eye rolls and the Bighorn proposal has met with stiff resistance, some of it egged on by local United Conservative Party MLA Jason Nixon.

Growing tensions led the provincial government on Saturday to scrap four upcoming information sessions out of concern for public safety. Environment Minister Shannon Phillips cited “inflamed rhetoric” and misinformation surrounding the proposal as well as unspecified allegations of bullying and abuse aimed at the park’s supporters. In a statement, the province said it would host call-in information sessions instead. It also extended consultations until Feb. 15.

Mr. Nixon has asserted, without evidence, that the plan is a foreign-funded plot to wall off the back country to Albertans who call the region home. At a recent open house in the community, Mr. Nixon complained that his constituents had not been adequately consulted and questioned why the Bighorn was hived off from a broader regional planning process that has been under way for years. He would not say whether a future UCP government would support the new park.

“If we get to the end of this, and we think that it’s been jammed through without proper consultation, then we will look at whether or not we need to go back and do the regional access plan right or fix it,” he said in a brief interview.

What many in this town of 7,000 people fear most is heightened restrictions on ATVs, hunting, trapping and fishing. All are major pastimes and tourist draws in a wider region with few economic prospects beyond lumber and oil. In interviews, residents said the proposal has spawned more questions than answers. Several scoffed at provincial assurances that land-use changes would be negligible, pointing to restrictions that curbed motorized recreation following the creation of another provincial park farther south, in 2017. The province has said final regulations and management plans for the Bighorn are still being crafted.

“There’s nothing getting shut off,” said Tackle and Trails owner Jordan Scott. “It’s just getting regulated, putting rules on stuff that didn’t have rules before, right? And nobody likes change.”

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Jordan Scott, owner of Tackle and Trails, works on a bow at his store in Rocky Mountain House. Fishing, hunting and ATV riding are major tourist draws in a region with few economic prospects beyond lumber and oil.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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A sign in the public land-use zone warns against using recreational vehicles.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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A logging truck rolls through Rocky Mountain House. Conservation groups say the new park will be a needed shelter for vulnerable species in country criss-crossed by logging activity and ATV trails.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Scientists say a large swath of Alberta’s back country is already in flux – partly owing to the rise in planet-warming greenhouse gases that result from burning fossil fuels.

Global temperatures are forecast to climb anywhere from two to four degrees over the next 50 to 100 years. Data compiled by University of Calgary researchers show the Rockies have experienced some of the sharpest warming trends in Alberta over the past half-century.

In a paper published last year, Dr. Quazi Hassan and Dr. Khan Rubayet Rahaman analyzed detailed temperature data between 1961 and 2010. They found that more than two-thirds of Alberta experienced local warming trends, ranging from one-quarter of a degree to more than 1 degree .

In the mountains, warming trends were significantly higher, from three-quarters of a degree to more than 1 degree – a trend they attributed in part to rapid urbanization in tourist towns such as Banff.

Biologists and researchers who study the region say rising temperatures stand to trigger a host of changes affecting land and water in the province.

Between Jasper and Banff, the Athabasca Glacier is already in retreat. Summers are growing hotter and drier. Warmer winters are likely to reduce snowpack as more precipitation falls as rain. That has major implications for everything from agriculture to aquatic habitat for native fish.

“There’s good evidence now, particularly within the past 30 years, these changes have intensified,” said Mr. Weaver at WCS Canada. “And they’re coming faster than what scientists projected.”

Much of what comprises the Rockies’ eastern slopes, a sprawling area that cuts along the province’s western flank and includes the proposed new parkland, is under acute pressure.

Consider the bull trout – Alberta’s provincial fish, and just one of the native species scientists say is in trouble. Lorne Fitch, a retired provincial fisheries biologist who has studied native trout for five decades, calls it a “sentinel” species whose abundance and distribution serve as an indicator of how well we have managed the landscape.

His prognosis is dire: “Every native trout species in the eastern slopes is either endangered or threatened,” he says.

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A bull trout.GUIDO RAHR III/The Associated Press

Bull trout have been pushed to the brink of extirpation in some watersheds through a well-documented combination of overfishing, habitat loss and competition from introduced species.

Now, climate change is erecting new barriers to recovery.

The predatory fish have evolved over thousands of years and are adapted to a cold, nearly sub-Arctic alpine ecosystem. Adults spawn in the fall when glacial melt has eased and rivers are cold and free of silt. The eggs incubate all winter – about 200 days – and hatch in the spring, when rivers are still clear and bugs are plentiful.

Rising temperatures threaten to throw this delicate sequence out of whack, says Michael Sullivan, a fisheries scientist with Alberta Parks and Environment.

Warmer water increases competition from introduced species and generally makes it harder for the fish to breed. Yet as spring arrives sooner, bull trout are spawning earlier in the fall, in warmer water with more silt. That increases the risk that fungus will grow on eggs.

“The fish have adapted to a certain season,” he says. “And climate change is changing that probably faster than they can evolve.”

The Bighorn is seen partly as a coping strategy, offering topographic diversity as the distribution of plants and animals shifts in response to warmer and sometimes drier conditions.

It was singled out by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) as one of several regions that can help Canada meet conservation targets under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The international pact commits Canada to protect at least 17 per cent of land and inland waters by 2020, up from 10.6 per cent currently – a level that puts Canada last among G7 countries, according to CPAWS.

Alberta’s New Democrats are keen to spur fresh spending in a region and province starved for investment. Ms. Phillips, the Environment Minister, pointed to another provincial park to the south as a model that could be repeated.

In an interview, she said tourism and recreation in Kananaskis, created in 1978 by then-Progressive Conservative premier Peter Lougheed, now accounts for $141-million of Alberta’s GDP annually. Still, the Minister was vague on how and when the $40-million earmarked for the Bighorn proposal would be spent, only that some of it would help beef up enforcement of controls on ATV use and unregulated camping in the region.

“That is a universally held opinion that it is a bit of a wild west out there,” she said. Access would still be governed through public land-use zones, and existing trails would stay intact, she said. “This is a step up,” she added.

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An oil pump jack in the proposed west country public land-use zone.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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Drill rigs sit in storage. Scientists say a large swath of the Alberta back country is changing, due in part to greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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A sign promoting responsible land use, bearing the logos of energy giants Husky Energy and Shell.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Locals in Rocky Mountain House acknowledge that enforcement is needed, but they insist the region is otherwise well-managed under existing land-use policies by a network of volunteer organizations.

Margriet Berkhout is among the skeptics. An avid skier, hiker and climber, she also is a long-standing member of a volunteer search-and-rescue team. The group has a good relationship with the local RCMP detachment and the fire department. The proposed park isn’t all bad, she says. But she worries it will require establishing a more professional operation, should visitor numbers increase much from current levels. “You’d basically kick a volunteer group out,” she said.

“If eventually the visitor numbers really go up, our volunteer group will be challenged for sure. But right now it’s manageable."

Clearwater County reeve Jim Duncan doubts Bighorn will attract visitors in droves. It’s too isolated. “This is never going to be like Kananaskis," he said at the local town office. “It’s not the same. You’ve got a million people in Calgary living next door to Kananaskis.”

With public and industry consultations nearing an end, there is speculation that the province will make a speedy decision on the park’s fate before the election; Ms. Phillips would not say either way.

Still, pressure is mounting for the government to act. Last week, a group of 37 retired government biologists and wildlife officers urged the province to enshrine protections in law. “It can’t be a free-for-all any more,” they wrote in an open letter. “We have tested the limits, and many indicators, especially fish and wildlife populations, have signalled to us we’ve exceeded ecological thresholds.”

At Tackle and Trails, owner Mr. Scott knows such pressures intimately. He’s an avid trapper and angler. Above the cash register in his store, snapshots of customers grinning widely with their catch hint at a long history of man-made interventions in the natural world. There are brown trout introduced from Scotland and Germany, as well as brook trout, the mountain fish of the Appalachians and Eastern Canada.

Both species now compete with dwindling bull trout, which are subject to a strict zero-catch limit in the few watersheds in which they’re still found in large numbers, including the nearby Ram River.

“There’s not very many of them in Alberta – good bull trout fishing," Mr. Scott says. "And that’s why it gets hit very hard.”

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Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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