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Canmore, Alta., is one of Canada’s fastest growing communities. But when human populations increase in the same space as wildlife, the risks are twofold

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The mountain town of Canmore, Alta., has strived to live in harmony with the wildlife that roams the Bow Valley.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

For decades, Canmore, Alta., which borders Banff, the country’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 up them, ski down them and run or bike everything in between. Canmore is a place where it’s not unusual to carry bear spray with you on a hike from your doorstep or to find a herd of elk blocking traffic. The small mountain town is one of Canada’s fastest-growing communities at a rate of 14.3 per cent over the past four years. That’s faster than the national and provincial averages, according to 2021 census data released in February.

The data single out other beloved tourist destinations, such as Squamish, B.C., and Ontario’s Wasaga Beach and Collingwood, that have seen significant growth largely thanks to their proximity to the outdoors. But in Canmore, the issue goes beyond the number of residents. Visits from outdoor enthusiasts have also increased, raising the question: Can larger numbers of people co-exist with the wildlife here and, if so, how?

Humans are attracted to the Bow Valley for some of the same reasons that wild animals are: While the corridor is surrounded by towering Rocky Mountains, the valley bottom is warm and flat, allowing for ease of movement.

The community houses a crucial wildlife corridor of rare quality. Grizzly bears, black bears, elk, cougars and wolves all depend on it to keep them connected with different parts of the Bow Valley and beyond. It’s one of the four most important east-west corridors in the 3,200-kilometre “Yellowstone to Yukon” region, an interconnected series of habitats extending from northern Canada to the midwestern United States. Animal species depend on these corridors for their survival.

Canmore needs growth, too, 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’s a need for affordable housing, and development has to happen in an environmentally responsible way. “There is only a limited amount of developable land in Canmore … and with that comes an effective limitation on the number of people that can actually live here,” Mr. Krausert said.

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When human populations increase in the same space as wildlife the risks are twofold, explained national parks program co-ordinator for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta, Sarah Elmeligi: There’s the physical footprint of development that leads to habitat loss, but also the impact of increased recreation.

“It doesn’t matter where [people] put their heads at night,” Ms. Elmeligi explained. “The total volume of people recreating on trails is very high and it’s having an impact on wildlife movement and habitat use.”

The presence of humans can have a cumulative negative impact on animals and their habitats over time, explained Hilary Young, Alberta program director for Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “It’s really one of those death by a thousand cuts type of problems.”

During the pandemic, people flocked to the trails. Kananaskis Country, provincial park land that lies under Alberta’s jurisdiction and borders Canmore, reached a record breaking 5.3 million visitors in 2020. In 2021, visitation reached just over five million. Neighbouring Banff National Park receives roughly four million visitors a year.

“COVID brought the greatest numbers of visitors to our trails and to our outdoor amenities that I’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Krausert, the mayor. “The greatest increase of numbers has been in visitors; that by far eclipses any population growth,” he said, adding that the number of residents is no surprise and is in line with the town’s planning.

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When human populations increase in the same space as wildlife the risks are twofold: there’s the physical footprint of development that leads to habitat loss; but also the impact of increased recreation.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

More people on trails can displace wildlife from those habitats or feeding areas and increase the chances of human-wildlife conflict, especially between bears and people.

Living in close proximity to people and human settlements habituates bears to human beings, and can lead to the deaths or relocation of animals such as grizzlies.

The species has been listed as “threatened” in Alberta since 2010, when the population was between 700 and 800 bears. Through efforts with the province’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, that number has increased to as many as 973.

“This valley is the most developed valley in the entire world where grizzly bears still exist,” said Karsten Heuer, a wildlife biologist with a longstanding interest in wildlife movement in the Bow Valley. “That tells me that we’re at, if not already over, the threshold for where we can continue to live this dream and commonly stated goal for Canmore to co-exist with its wildlife populations.”

“Canmore is considered to be a gold standard when it comes to its work on human-wildlife co-existence,” said Gareth Thomson, executive director of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley. “It’s really important that we maintain that gold standard as time goes on and even as the population increases, because I think that’s what’s keeping that bright light shining.”

A roundtable consisting of the towns of Banff and Canmore, Banff National Park and the Government of Alberta was established in 2017 in response to the death of Bear 148, a grizzly that was translocated and eventually killed lawfully by a hunter in B.C. The group continues to meet on the issue of human and wildlife co-existence in the Bow Valley. The guidelines for managing these problems came out of this roundtable and serves as the guidebook for human-wildlife conflict mitigation within the town.

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Continuing efforts from the town, like bear-proof garbage bins, temporary trail closings and fruit-tree removal (several black bears were relocated last fall after roaming into town looking for food), have been commended by experts.

The Government of Alberta’s goal is to minimize the potential for human-wildlife conflict, Environment and Parks said over e-mail. They see the impact that human use can have on wildlife corridors and work to mitigate the damage through trail closings based on wildlife activity, alternate routes and the use of trail counters and cameras to inform decisions. They continue to work with other groups and agencies to minimize human disturbance and conflicts with wildlife.

Ms. Young, Ms. Elmeligi and Mr. Heuer point to other potential tactics to help destress the wildlife population, such as management of illegal trails, education on wildlife interaction and timed trail closings, including nighttime trail closings, to give animals undisturbed time to work around human use.

The amount of high-quality habitat between Banff and Canmore has gone down by more than 35 per cent since predevelopment times, according to a study in review, Towns and Trails Drive Carnivore Movement Behaviour, Resource Selection, and Connectivity, authored by researchers from Parks Canada, the Alberta government and the universities of Montana and British Columbia. Corridor connectivity allowing animal movement has been reduced by 80 per cent for wolves and grizzly bears.

This kind of habitat fragmentation, Mr. Heuer explained, cuts animals off from their regular travel routes. They can no longer connect feeding, birthing and bedding areas, and are relegated to smaller and smaller pieces of habitat. When this pattern plays itself out repeatedly, it’s part of the process whereby extinctions happen – first locally, then regionally and eventually globally – over time.

When corridors are maintained, animals also avoid becoming genetically isolated. Without genetic diversity, species can become less resilient over time, affecting their probability of survival.

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A housing development near the Three Sisters mountains on the eastern edge of Canmore in 2017. Last year, residents protested and town council shot down a controversial proposed development from Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Ltd.Colette Derworiz/The Canadian Press

Last year, residents protested and town council shot down a controversial proposed development from Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Ltd. that could have disrupted wildlife corridors and nearly doubled Canmore’s population. It wasn’t the first time development on the land, tucked below the towering Three Sisters mountains, was rejected, with history of development plans dating back to 1989. The developer is now suing the town of Canmore and its former municipal council.

For the mayor, the real challenge now lies in making sure visitors are educated on what they can and cannot do in environmentally sensitive areas. To prevent wildlife movement blockages, he stressed keeping people out of wildlife corridors, walking dogs on leashes in designated areas and educating visitors on the importance of wildlife attractants and not disturbing the environment in a harmful way.

When it comes to Canmore’s future as a wildlife corridor, Mr. Heuer remains hopeful. “If there’s any place that could pull it off, it would be here,” he said. “I want to be able to live my life and have my family grow up in a place where we’ve pulled it off and then it can become a model for other places in the world.”

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