Skip to main content

Bank swallow perched on a branch.Paul Reeves/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

In the Rosebud River Valley in the heart of Alberta’s Badlands, retired farmer Rick Skibsted can sit on his deck with his morning coffee and hear the river more than a kilometre away – it is that quiet. Settlers began ranching and farming in the valley here 120 years ago, and the properties are still measured in sections while families like his remain in place, working the soil that was broken by their great-grandparents.

Although the flat plateaus are cultivated, the valley bottom is still rich in biodiversity. On the undulating native grasslands and amid the coulees, mule deer forage and rare birds of prey, including the prairie falcon and ferruginous hawk, nest. But the quiet is threatened by development: a proposed motorsports resort. The farmers in the valley have enlisted one of the smallest inhabitants, the bank swallow, to try to keep the peace.

The bank swallow was officially identified as endangered in Canada eight years ago. While Mr. Skibsted is most devoted to the valley’s big birds of prey, he has a soft spot for these singing acrobats, the smallest of Canada’s swallows. “It is distinguishable in flight from other swallows by its quick, erratic wing beats and its almost constant buzzy, chattering vocalizations,” the listing under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) says.

Over the past four decades, 98 per cent of the Canadian population of bank swallows has disappeared, although they are still found in most parts of the country. Colonies of the birds burrow in the steep banks of the Rosebud River and feed on insects over the wetlands that dot the valley bottom.

Mr. Skibsted and his neighbours hoped that SARA would prohibit destruction of the bank swallow’s critical habitat, which they contend is threatened by the proposed Badlands Motorsports Resort. But as the years-long battle over the Rosebud River Valley has shown, protection of endangered species does not come swiftly, nor is it assured.

“Their policies have no teeth,” Mr. Skibsted said in an interview. “Especially on private land, they are pretty wishy-washy.”

This is what he learned when he and other Rosebud farmers sought to compel the federal government to protect the bank swallows in their valley.

The court ruled against the farmers, saying they had no public standing to call on the government to meet its obligations to protect bank swallows. But in the process, the group exposed the grindingly slow pace of SARA. “The minister has unreasonably delayed in posting the proposed recovery strategy,” Federal Court Justice Cecily Strickland concluded in her May 10 decision, referring to the Minister of Environment.

“To state the obvious, the Species at Risk Act was enacted because some wildlife species in Canada are at risk,” Justice Strickland wrote. She noted that protection has come slowly in other cases, pointing to the southern mountain caribou, the marbled murrelet and the Nechako white sturgeon. “Many are in a race against the clock as increased pressure is put on their critical habitat, and their ultimate survival may be at stake.”

With that nudge from the court, the federal government finally produced a draft recovery strategy for the bank swallow on June 21. It will be out for consultation until the end of September, and the final result may or may not change the outcome of the proposed development in the Rosebud River Valley. But the strategy makes clear that Canada has to protect critical habitat from development if it is to save this species.

The draft strategy identifies critical habitat sites across the country – including in the Rosebud area – and says to just slow the decline of this population, more must be done to protect their habitat.

“The critical habitat identified in this recovery strategy is insufficient to meet the population and distribution objectives,” the draft strategy says. “Any new residential, commercial or industrial development should avoid removing nesting habitat in natural settings. … Wetlands and grasslands play a significant role in the production of insects consumed by the bank swallow, but continue to be lost or degraded at an alarming rate in North America. The availability of foraging habitat near nesting habitat increases the likelihood of recovering the species.”

But when it comes to private lands, Canada is reluctant to impose restrictions. It is up to Jonathan Wilkinson, the Minister of Environment, to decide whether to issue an order to prohibit destruction of critical habitat.

In 2005, a father-and-son duo, James and Jay Zelazo, set out to build a racing facility for Alberta’s motorsports aficionados. Their target customers are men, aged 30 to 60, who own high-performance street automobiles such as Porsches, BMWs, Corvettes and Ferraris.

The Zelazos found a patch of farmland for sale approximately 100 kilometres northeast of Calgary and scooped up the 240-hectare property next door to Mr. Skibsted for less than $1-million. Their plans include a country-club style resort, including vacation condominiums as well as recreational activities and amenities for the whole family.

James Zelazo said he and his son looked for a remote location in an effort to avoid the opposition that inevitably springs up about the idea of a motorsports racetrack. The design includes measures to protect environmentally sensitive areas, and to buffer the noise “to be within acceptable industry standards.“

But once the plans were filed, the opposition arose. Mr. Zelazo is dismissive of his neighbours’ concerns. “The people that oppose it weren’t opposing it because they’re concerned about the bank swallows really, they were just looking for another way to try and stop our project.”

So far the project has consumed $5-million for public hearings, studies and applications. They still haven’t built anything. But Mr. Zelazo says he’s confident the recovery plan won’t interfere with his project. “We’re completely buying into this whole thing, and we’re just as much wanting to protect all the species at risk as anybody. Our project is not going to, in our mind, have any detrimental effect on it.”

He said the only reason they haven’t started construction is they need to raise more money. If the financing comes through, construction could start later this summer, with the first track open by the summer of 2022.

On the other side of the Badlands Motorsports Resort property is the Clarks’ farm. Like Mr. Skibsted, Wendy Clark now regrets that they passed up the chance to buy the land when it was listed for sale in 2005. Now, she and other residents hope to buy the developers out, so they can take their project somewhere else. “We’ve said, you’ve picked the wrong location to have a motorsports place. This is not a place for this kind of thing. This is a serious natural environment; in many ways, it is very fragile.”

Whether the racetrack is built or not, some things won’t change. Mr. Skibsted has spent three decades or more trying to ensure that the valley’s wild spaces remain undeveloped, and to that end, he and the Clarks have attached conservation easements to their properties, which total more than 1,600 hectares. The easements are legal agreements attached to the title to the property, regardless of who owns it, ensuring that the natural values of their lands are maintained.

“We won’t allow any subdivisions or development or draining of wetlands; we are not allowed to break any more native grass,” Mr. Skibsted said. He has now handed over the farming operation to his nephew, the fifth generation of the family on this land. “My nephew will continue to farm it sustainably.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.