A letter to Sup’t Greg Fenton from George Mercer

Updated November 21, 2013

Southern Mountain caribou, Maligne herd, Mts. Charlton and Unwin, Maligne Range

A bull of the dwindling Maligne herd by Don Jones of Great Gray Imagery

Greg Fenton

Superintendent

Jasper National Park

Greg,

As you probably know, I have had much to say about the Maligne Valley and the state of woodland caribou in Jasper National Park and to be honest I question the utility of saying anything else, given Parks Canada’s and Jasper National Park’s track record of dealing with these issues.

But here goes

I still cling to the faint hope clause that sanity might prevail in Jasper.

I doubt if there is anyone who wishes more than I do that the recent history in the Maligne would have followed a different track and had a different outcome.

After transferring to Jasper from Wood Buffalo National Park where park staff were able to raise the profile of a number of issues and with the support of Canadians and Canadian environmental organizations, put an end to logging in the park and an end to the proposed slaughter of the park’s bison population, Jasper became a major turning point in my career.

When I went to Jasper I was asked to help raise the profile of some of the issues that would connect the park with and make it more relevant to its neighbours in what we were at that time calling the Greater Yellowhead Ecosystem. These were landscape level issues including woodland caribou and grizzly bear conservation that recognized the importance of managing for these species across jurisdictional boundaries.

The grizzly bear issue came to a head during the Cheviot Mine Environmental Assessment Review and now lives on in many forms, not the least of which is the work of the Foothills Research Institute.

The venue for woodland caribou research and monitoring during my time in Jasper was the West Central Alberta Caribou Committee and the Alberta Caribou Recovery Team. The park was a bit player in both, I think largely because our issues paled in comparison to the challenges faced by provincial biologists and land use managers.

Despite that, I felt it was important that Parks Canada and Jasper National Park in particular, pick up where others had left off and help reinvigorate caribou research and monitoring in the park to determine why the population in the southern part of Jasper continued to decline, despite living in a protected area without the pressures of industrial land use that were impacting woodland caribou populations on adjacent lands in both British Columbia and Alberta

In the not so distant past, caribou occupied habitat from Banff to Jasper including Alberta’s Whitegoat and Siffleur Wilderness Areas, yet during the late 1990’s they were seemingly on the way out in Banff and the provincial wilderness areas, largely due to that fact that their numbers were so low that they were deemed functionally extirpated. This is one of the grim realities of small, disjunct populations that were at one time part of a larger regional caribou population able to absorb losses in some areas because of the ability to be repopulated by animals from other parts of the region.

As human activity increased and populations became fragmented and marginalized, they probably succumbed to the pressures of poor habitat quality, predation, human disturbance, poaching, severe winters and stochastic events such as avalanches.

Each year we found fewer animals and as we all know, the last few caribou we located in Banff National Park were killed by an avalanche a few years ago.

The population in the southern portion of Jasper National Park seemed to be in better shape largely because there was better (though not ideal) habitat, recruitment rates still seemed adequate to maintain the population, and with the exception of trails and a few roads including the Maligne Lake Road, the area was largely intact.

Interestingly, the A La Peche herd which uses northern Jasper National Park in the summer and winters in the Willmore Wilderness Area was faring much better, quite likely because both of these areas have little in the way of human use and development, a factor shown to be critical to the persistence of woodland caribou populations.

Despite our efforts to better understand and manage conditions critical to woodland caribou survival in the southern portion of Jasper, our efforts to convince Parks Canada management that human use was the one thing we could try to manage to help maintain or increase woodland caribou numbers, were unsuccessful.

I am firmly convinced that our lack of success was a result of pressures applied by or on behalf of commercial and development interests on Parks Canada’s senior managers.

And those pressures continue today, aggravated by a government that has the worst environmental track record of any Canadian government in recent memory.

Sadly, the numbers say it all.

During caribou surveys in the late 1990’s we were finding upwards of 70 animals in the Maligne Valley. The most recent survey found five, a reduction of approximately 90 percent in a little more than a decade.

Yet Parks Canada has done little in the way of meaningful action to try and turn this situation around.

In light of what we know about the critical state of woodland caribou in the Southern Mountains and the population in southern Jasper National Park in particular, the proposal to increase visitation in the Maligne Valley including the development of overnight accommodation by Maligne Lake Tours can only be considered a perverse slap in the face to caribou conservation and the ecological integrity mandate of Parks Canada.

Notions that use and development will be managed and restricted to times and locations that will minimize their impact on woodland caribou provide little comfort considering Parks Canada’s failure to take direct action over the last decade or more to stem the decline of woodland caribou in the Maligne Valley.

There has been lots of talk, but little walk.

If Parks Canada were truly serious with respect to recovering woodland caribou it would place a higher priority on recovery actions including managing the direct and indirect effects of human use and development instead of pandering to a minority of recreationists and developers whose only interest is self-interest.

In fact, if it was truly committed to woodland caribou conservation, Parks Canada would be taking steps to completely eliminate human use in the Maligne Valley from early fall until spring, if not longer.

I firmly believe that approval of any proposal that compromises the potential to help recover woodland caribou in the southern portion of Jasper National Park is ethically and morally, if not legally, a breach of the trust we place in Parks Canada executives to protect and maintain our national parks for the benefit, education and enjoyment of future generations.

To lose a threatened species in, of all places, one of Canada’s iconic national parks, because of what can only be considered gross mismanagement, is almost beyond comprehension.

The right thing to do is to say no to development and to aggressively manage human use in the Maligne Valley if there is to be any hope of recovering woodland caribou and helping restore the park’s ecological integrity.

Sincerely

George Mercer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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