Federal Court decision on Maligne Lake legal challenge

Updated February 10, 2016

Woodland Caribou  Image Donald M. Jones

Woodland Caribou Image Donald M. Jones

Statement:

EDMONTON – Conservation groups remain hopeful that a concept proposal for overnight commercial accommodations at Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park will be stopped after a Federal Court ruling confirmed that proposals violating park management plans cannot be approved.

The February 8 ruling came in response to a legal challenge brought by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Jasper Environmental Association (JEA). The groups, represented by Ecojustice lawyers, had argued that Parks Canada’s concept approval of proposed commercial accommodations at Maligne Lake undermined the law by contravening the park’s Management Plan, which explicitly prohibits the release of new land for overnight commercial accommodations outside of the Jasper town site.

The Court decision did not quash the concept approval for the proposed project, concluding that Parks Canada can consider conceptual proposals that may be contrary to a Management Plan, but it did rule that, ultimately, proposals that contravene the Management Plan cannot receive final approval.

“We’re happy to see the Court agrees that Parks Canada must comply with its own Management Plan,” said Alison Ronson, Executive Director of CPAWS’ northern Alberta chapter. “We are still reviewing the decision and considering next steps, but we note that since we brought this case forward the new federal government has promised to limit commercial development in national parks and to focus on supporting eco-tourism in gateway communities instead.  We are hopeful that this trend will continue moving forward.”

If approved, the groups believe that this development at Maligne Lake would set a bad precedent that could lead to greater development pressures throughout the national parks.  It could also put park wildlife, in particular the endangered Maligne caribou herd and sensitive grizzly bear populations, at greater risk.

For media inquiries

Fraser Thomson, lawyer | Ecojustice 403.705.0202 ext. 304  fthomson@ecojustice.ca

Alison Ronson, executive director | CPAWS Northern Alberta 780-424-5128 ext. 309 aronson@cpaws.org

Jill Seaton, chair | Jasper Environmental Association 780-852-4152  jea2@shaw.ca

 

Brewster acquires Maligne Tours

Updated January 11, 2016

Spirit Island

Spirit Island

After weeks of speculation, on Jan. 4 Brewster Travel Canada announced it acquired Maligne Tours Ltd.

The terms of the deal were not made public, but the sale gives Brewster a major foothold in Jasper and adds to the company’s existing attractions in the Rocky Mountain National Parks, including the Glacier Adventure on the Athabasca Glacier, the Glacier Skywalk, the Banff Gondola and the Banff Lake Cruise.

“The entire Brewster team is very excited to add this iconic and successful business to our portfolio of unique and family-friendly experiences in Jasper National Park,” wrote Dave McKenna, president of Brewster Travel Canada, in a press release.

“We look forward to opening in the spring of 2016 and working with the existing staff and the experts at Parks Canada to ensure Maligne Lake’s culture and heritage is preserved for future generations of visitors to enjoy.”

Representatives from Maligne Tours did not respond for comment and Gerry Levasseur, the former owner of Maligne Tours, was unavailable.

The deal was completed by Brewster’s parent company, Viad Corp Travel and Recreation Group, a publicly traded company that owns travel and recreation groups in iconic destinations throughout North America.

“Maligne Tours is a world-class asset and a natural fit with our existing Jasper and Banff-based businesses, offering cross-selling opportunities and operational synergies in a geography and service line that we know well,” wrote Steve Moster, Viad’s president and CEO, in a press release.

Maligne Tours currently owns seven tour boats and operates from May to October. Last year, the company welcomed 75,000 guests.

The business also includes a marina and day lodge, as well as retail services, but offers no overnight accommodation.

In 2013, Maligne Tours put forward a proposal to build a 66-room luxury hotel and 15 tent cabins.

After a public consultation period, Parks rejected the company’s proposal for a hotel, but it approved Maligne Tours’ plans to build 15 tent cabins.

Environmental groups, including the Jasper Environmental Association (JEA) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), decried Parks’ approval, arguing that allowing overnight accommodation at the lake contravenes Jasper’s 2010 management plan, which prohibits the release of new land for overnight commercial accommodations outside of the Jasper townsite.

As a result, in August 2014, Ecojustice, on behalf of CPAWS and JEA, filed a court challenge against Parks in an attempt to quash the decision.

The judicial review went before a federal court judge in Edmonton Oct. 28, 2015. The case is still pending.

“Brewster Travel Canada as the new owners of Maligne Tours Ltd. will have to abide by the decision of the court when it is released,” said Alison Ronson, executive director for CPAWS Northern Alberta.

“We hope that Brewster Travel Canada will recognize the ecological importance of Maligne Lake and the Maligne Valley and will operate the day use area there with respect for the grizzly bear, moose, and caribou that reside in the valley.”

Brewster also acknowledged the sensitive nature of the issue on its website.

“Brewster is aware of approved activities for the area and will work with Jasper residents, local business leaders, and Parks Canada to ensure any future development is appropriate and fits a vision of environmental sustainability.”

The company stated it has no plans to change business operations and still intends to open in the spring of 2016. It also stated that Pat Crowley, who has worked for the company for over 40 years, will remain the general manager, and there are no anticipated staff changes.

According to Brewster’s website, Parks approved its acquisition of the lease.

“As part of Brewster’s ongoing commitment to safeguarding the natural beauty in our national parks, we exercised a highly consultative process with Parks Canada as we worked through their requirements to transfer the leasehold agreements.”

Brewster currently owns two hotels in Banff, including Mount Royal Hotel and Banff International Hotel, as well as a boutique hotel located at the Athabasca Glacier.

Paul Clarke for the Fitzhugh

Brewster to buy Maligne Tours

Updated December 14, 2015

Spirit Island

From The Jasper Local

Brewster Travel Canada will purchase Maligne Tours, the owner of Maligne Tours Ltd. has confirmed.

While the sale was not yet complete on December 12, Maligne Tours Ltd. owner Gerry Levasseur said that a deal is imminent.

“It’s in the works alright,” Levasseur said.

Maligne Tours Ltd. operates a day-use facility and runs boat tours of iconic Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. In 2013, the company proposed constructing a 66-room “heritage” hotel to replace the current day lodge, along with 15 tent cabins. Former Jasper National Park superintendent Greg Fenton rejected the hotel element of the proposal but said administrators would consider the tent cabin component. That decision triggered EcoJustice to launch a lawsuit against Parks Canada, alleging the agency broke the law when they considered an amendment to the management plan. The suit is pending.

When asked why now is the right time to sell to Brewster, Levasseur pointed to the rejection of the hotel proposal.

“I wanted to do a development there and it didn’t work so I decided to move on,” he said.

In 1980, Levasseur bought Maligne Tours from the late Bill Ruddy. Maligne Tours was created by Ruddy in 1955. Its predecessors were Rainbow Tours and Rocky Mountain Camp, started by Fred Brewster. Fred was the fourth son of the well-known Brewster family of Banff.

Today, Brewster Travel Canada is owned by Viad, a U.S.-based stock market index company. Representatives from Brewster did not return requests for comment by deadline.

Bob Covey

 

Maligne overnight accommodation issue now before the court

Updated October 29, 2015

Federal court reviews Maligne Lake development proposal

Posted by: Posted date: October 28, 2015 In: Archive, Feature, News | comment :
Mount Charlton, Mount Unwin, Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Jasoer Environmental Association, Maligne Tours

Mounts Charlton and Unwin, Maligne Lake

 

EDMONTON – The fate of Maligne Tours’ development proposal now rests in the hands of a federal court judge who must decide if Parks Canada erred in its decision to approve the company’s plans to build overnight accommodations at the lake.

Ecojustice, on behalf of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Jasper Environmental Association (JEA), filed an application for a judicial review in 2014, alleging that overnight accommodation at the lake would undermine the law and set a dangerous precedent for development in Canada’s national parks.

On Oct. 27, lawyers from Ecojustice and Parks Canada put forward their arguments to Justice James Russell in an Edmonton court room.

Maligne Tours did not represent itself in court, but filed its own submissions to the judge.

The focus of the judicial review was whether Greg Fenton, Jasper’s former superintendent, had the legal authority to approve Maligne Tours’ development proposal for 15 tent cabins.

A large part of the discussion focused on the fact that Fenton’s decision would require an amendment to the park’s management plan in order for the proposal to proceed.

Currently, the management plan prohibits the release of new land for overnight commercial accommodations outside of the Jasper townsite.

In light of the prohibition, Ecojustice asked the judge to quash Fenton’s decision.

“This application is about a decision maker acting outside of his authority and by doing so enabling commercial development within a national park,” said Melissa Gorrie, a lawyer for Ecojustice.

The Ecojustice lawyers argued Fenton didn’t have the legal authority to ask for an amendment and that the park’s management plan is legally binding.

“He is calling for an amendment in response to a development proposal that is completely contrary to the management planning scheme that exists,” argued Gorrie.

“He doesn’t have the authority to be looking at the idea of an amendment at all.”

According to Fraser Thomson, the other lawyer for Ecojustice, the management plan is legally binding and therefore the superintendent must follow it.

“The superintendent made his approval of the cabin proposal contingent on the subsequent amendment of the management plan. That’s an important fact, because nothing is more demonstrative of the fact that the superintendent was bound by the management plan than the fact that he conducted himself as if he was bound by the management plan,” said Thomson.

Fenton was present for the judicial review, but declined to comment.

In July 2014, Fenton rejected Maligne Tours’ proposal to construct a 66-room hotel, but accepted the company’s 13 remaining proposals, including the proposed development of 15 tent cabins at the lake.

Pat Crowley, manager of Maligne Tours, attended the judicial review, but declined to comment.

According to Gorrie, when Maligne Tours put its proposal out for public comment it received almost 2,000 submissions, 99 per cent of which rejected it.

Parks Canada’s lawyers urged the judge to consider the approval of the plan as a “conceptual approval” of the first phase of the development process.

“It is quite clear from the wording that there was no guarantee of any further approval,” said Christine Ashcroft, a lawyer for Parks Canada.

“It was always anticipated that there would be proper submission of a detailed design level proposal and that there would be further review, including a detailed environmental impact review of the proposal.”

She argued that following Ecojustice’s line of thought, Parks Canada would not be able to consider any new ideas or new proposals that are not already contemplated in the park’s management plan.

“This court is actually determining whether Parks Canada can even consider a development proposal contrary to a management plan,” said Ashcroft.

“The applicants view the management plan as legislation, they treat it as regulation. We say that the management plan is a key policy document, but it is not legally binding and it may be changed.”

Ashcroft went on to explain that the Canada National Parks Act includes the ability to make changes to management plans and therefore they are not binding.

She also agreed with the lawyers from Ecojustice that the ecological integrity of Canada’s national parks is Parks Canada’s first priority, but she noted that it isn’t the agency’s only priority.

In her closing arguments, Ashcroft described Fenton’s decision as “completely reasonable” and suggested it showed a balance between ecological integrity and visitor experience.

Alison Ronson, executive director of CPAWS’ northern Alberta chapter, declined to speculate about the court case, but warned that if Ecojustice fails to quash Fenton’s decision it could set a dangerous precedent for other national parks.

“If this decision is allowed to stand it’s a slippery slope that could potentially allow private operators in all national parks across Canada to open management plans and open up policies for personal and private benefits,” said Ronson.

As well as setting a precedent, the JEA is also concerned about the effect tent cabins could have on wildlife in the Maligne Valley, in particular the endangered Maligne caribou herd and the local grizzly population.

“Overnight accommodations at Maligne Lake would bring increased foot and vehicle traffic to the area at night and in the early morning when wildlife is most active,” said Jill Seaton, chair of the JEA, in a press release.

“This presents both ecological and safety concerns because Maligne Lake is within the habitat of an endangered caribou herd and is part of an important grizzly bear corridor.”

Seaton and Ronson were both present for the judicial review.

The judge didn’t provide an indication as to when he would make his decision.

Paul Clarke

Reporter@fitzhugh.ca

STAND UP FOR OUR PARKS

Updated October 2, 2015

P1090127-e1443540944987

From  The Pearson Centre

By Nik Lopoukhine

Canada’s system of national parks have been the envy of the world. Beauty, wildness and the diversity of each park set our system of parks apart globally. From its origin of Banff, the national park system stretches from sea to sea to sea with Sable Island to Gwaii Hanaas to Quttinirpaaq on Ellesmere Island.

The protection of these spectacular, diverse and representative areas is in the hands of dedicated professional staff. Their work, protecting these areas for future generations of Canadians, is recognized globally.

Over the years as the system grew, protection became an increasing concern. Internal policies such as eliminating predators and fire suppression, along with burgeoning recreational interests and external pressures from developers were placing our parks at risk. The cumulative effects of poor internal policies and unrelenting pressures for more activities within our national parks became clear. Species were disappearing, ecosystems were degrading and staff was unsure of objectives. Canadians said enough. Support for change in management objectives was overwhelming.

In response, in the 1990s, review Panels were set up. Recommendations were enacted. Legislation was passed and regulations were introduced. Congruent Policies were developed and subsequent Park Management Plans reflected these new directions. In essence, nature protection became the primary priority and clear limitations to development were instituted.

Of note, along with the changes in the governance framework there was a complementary substantive investment in science and monitoring. Parks Canada was poised to become a science based national park system. In June 2000, I was honoured to be appointed as the first science adviser to the Parks Canada Executive Board.

Canada’s National Parks and Parks Canada stood out as models for the rest of the world. Through the course of my eight years, ending in 2012, as the Chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas, I was repeatedly asked for share Canada’s approach to managing its national parks.

Sadly, there is now a regression of our status as global leaders.

Professional staff is threatened by gag orders. Staff firings, without cause, add to the unease. Travel to conferences is limited, locking up Canadian know-how that would otherwise be readily shared with the world. Budget cuts, with science reduced by a third, have placed monitoring and evidence based protection at risk.

With staff silenced, developers have found the door is no longer closed to their outlandish proposals.

Counter to previous agreements, Mount Norquay ski hill operators in Banff National Park now have a summer season in grizzly habitat. The “Glacier Skywalk” in Jasper converted a free lookout to a “pay as you go” large infrastructure that counters standing Park Policy of minimal development. A proposal for a hotel to be built on the shores of Jasper’s Maligne Lake was overturned, but overnight accommodations are still planned despite park policy. Now, in August, Parks Canada approved an expansion of the Lake Louise ski area to in effect double its capacity. What is unprecedented here is this development encroaches into a wilderness area which is prohibited by law from development.

More proposals are under consideration: widening parkways in Banff, expanding Marmot Basin capacity in Jasper and then there is the infamous “Mother Canada” proposal for Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Insofar as our system of national parks, we are once again at a crossroads. The Oct. 19 election gives Canadians the opportunity to once more to stand up and to say once again, “Enough.” It is critical to restore Parks Canada’s science capacity and to respect the fundamental principal of nature first in all decisions as specified in the laws, regulations and policies affecting our national parks.

The world is watching. Let us not disappoint them and by assuring we have a robust system of national parks that as a first priority protects nature for the enjoyment of future generations of Canadians.

Nikita (Nik) Lopoukhine is the retired director general for National Parks Directorate, Parks Canada, and chair emeritus IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

Open Letter from former Parks Canada Scientists and Employees

Updated September 24, 2015

Restoring Science in Canada’s National Parks and National Historic Sites

An Open Letter to the Leaders of the New Democratic Party of Canada, Liberal Party of Canada, and the Green Party of Canada as well as the Media

September 23, 2015

Dear Hon. May, Mulcair, and Trudeau,

As former Parks Canada staff, we are deeply troubled by the seemingly unjustified

and arbitrary firing in mid-June of Dr. John Wilmshurst, who was the Resource

Conservation Manager in Jasper National Park.

Dr. Wilmshurst is a highly respected scientist and well-regarded manager. His career

with Parks Canada spanned just 15 years, yet in this relatively short time, he made

very significant contributions to the advancement of ecological integrity within the

national park system. As a Grasslands Ecologist based out of Winnipeg, he developed

and led an integrated engagement and research project designed to better understand

and communicate native prairie ecosystems. In 2008, he transferred to Jasper National

Park where he assumed responsibilities as Ecosystem Science Leader, then as Caribou

Program Project Manager, and finally as Resource Conservation Manager. All the

while, he also served as an adjunct professor at Laval University and University of

Saskatchewan.

In recognition of his outstanding work, the Agency bestowed on him its most

prestigious honour, the CEO Award of Excellence, in 2009 for his contribution to the

development of principles and guidelines for ecological protection in Canada’s

national parks. More recently, in 2012, he was given the Public Service Award for

conceiving and leading a restoration and monitoring program for Grasslands National

Park.

The reason for Dr. Wilmshurst’s firing is unknown but it appears consistent with the

purging of science-based management taking place in the national parks of Canada.

Like a spectre, the threat of these seemingly arbitrary firings has haunted not just the

corridors of Parks Canada but also those of other federal departments. As those who

dare to speak up on issues related to the ecological integrity of the national parks or

the commemorative integrity of the national historic sites are removed from their

positions, a deep fear is instilled to ensure that those remaining toe the party line.

Canadians are proud of their national parks and national historic sites. They have

entrusted them to successive governments to care for as irreplaceable legacies and to

ensure that these special places are passed along to future generations in as good, if

not better, condition then when received. They understand that maintaining ecological

or commemorative integrity can only be achieved with science and that this science

must be integrated into park and site management decision-making. They also

rightfully expect that science to be communicated back to them. A government that

blocks, twists, or diverts this communication commits an undemocratic act by

denying their citizens the knowledge to make informed decisions.

Therefore, we are asking you to state publicly commitments you are prepared to make

to protect and restore the ecological and commemorative integrity of our national

parks and historic sites if you and your party form the next government. In particular,

what are you prepared to do to restore science capacity to Parks Canada and other

federal departments so they can carry out and communicate social, ecological and

traditional ecological knowledge? Would you undertake an investigation into what

appear to be politically motivated dismissals of scientists and managers within the

Agency under the Harper government and, where appropriate, offer amnesty or an

apology to the affected individuals?

Additionally, we urge all Canadians to ask these questions of the candidates in their

riding and then to seriously consider these matters when they vote on Oct. 19.

 

The letter is signed by 120 former Parks Canada staff employees including;

Bruce Amos, Director-General, National Parks Directorate,

Nik Lopoukhine, Director General of National Parks

Michael Porter, Director General, National Parks Directorate;

Pat Thomson, Director-General, National Parks Directorate;

Stephen Woodley, Chief Scientist, Ottawa;

 

Parks Canada Scientists

Updated September 23, 2015

john-wilmshurst-1
John Wilmshurst, a resource conservation manager with Parks Canada, speaks in May 2014 about the receding glaciers of the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park. JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Pressure rising against the firing of Parks Canada scientists

In an unprecedented open letter, more than 100 former Parks Canada employees and scientists are protesting the firing of a respected Jasper Park scientist and the “deep fear instilled” among those who remain.

The group is also protesting recent development decisions, including the expansion of Lake Louise ski resort, saying they erode parks policies that demand ecological integrity be protected based on a scientific approach.

Jasper Park manager John Wilmshurst was fired in mid June. No reasons were given and the veteran Parks Canada scientist has not spoken publicly.

“The reason for Dr. Wilmshurst’s firing is unknown,” the letter says. “But it appears consistent with the purging of science-based management taking place in the national parks of Canada.”

A decision last month announcing the Lake Louise development didn’t reflect the scientific evidence presented about the proposal, said Nik Lopoukhine, retired director general for National Parks Directorate, Parks Canada.

“The issue here is the broader question of scientific staff told not to speak, and environmental policies being eroded,” he said in an interview Wednesday morning.

“The final straw was the August announcement on Lake Louise expansion — we decided we need to step and say something.”

The letter asks the Liberals, New Democrats and Green parties to outline what commitments they are prepared to make “to protect and restore” the ecological integrity of the parks.

“As those who dare to speak up on issues related to the ecological integrity of the national parks or the commemorative integrity of the national historic sites, are removed from their positions, a deep fear is instilled to ensure that those remaining toe the party line,” says the letter.

spratt@edmontonjournal.com

Fight For Your Parks

Updated September 17, 2015

New alliance formed

Canada National Parks, First Nations, Kinbasket Shuswap, Fight For Your Parks

Members of the Kinbasket Shuswap First Nations with four members of the conservation coalition.

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Alberta Wilderness Association, Jasper Environmental Association, Wildsight and Wild Canada Conservation Alliance have come together to fight against further inappropriate commercial developments in Canada’s national parks.

Press Release

Broad-based group of Canadians demands a stop to commercialization of Canada’s national parks.

Banff, AB. – September 16, 2015 Today a diverse group of Canadians with a deep concern for the well-being of our national parks gathered in Banff to call for an end to inappropriate commercialization of Canada’s national parks.

Recent commercial projects in Banff and Jasper National Parks have privatized public spaces and threatened the very framework that controls development in our parks.

The Glacier Skywalk and the proposed new accommodation at Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park both convert public space for private gain. The approval of the massive expansion of the Lake Louise ski hill involves releasing new land, which is currently designated as protected wilderness, for commercial development in a much-loved backcountry area.

Canada’s national parks belong to all Canadians. It’s up to all of us to protect the natural values our parks are intended to protect, and to pass them on unimpaired to future generations.

“My family has been involved with Banff National Park throughout the park’s entire history,” said Harvey Locke, a Banff resident and globally recognized authority on national parks. “In 1996 I was appointed by the Minister of Canadian Heritage to advise on the Banff National Park Management Plan that set a balanced framework in place to protect the park and provide a first-class experience for visitors. I am appalled that a recent surge in commercial development approvals threatens the rules that keep development under control and protect nature in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

“When I was superintendent of Banff National Park, we consulted Canadians in preparation for the 2010 management plan,“ said Kevin Van Tighem, a career Parks Canada employee who retired as Superintendent of Banff National Park in 2011. “Over 1000 Canadians participated; none of them called for more commercial development and a lot of them expressed concern about there being too much.”

“We Shuswap (Secwepemc First Nation) people have a long history with these lands now in National Parks,” said Audrey Eugene, Culture & History Liaison for the Kinbasket Shuswap Band. “They need to be managed for nature. Privatizing them for commercial gain is wrong. We feel so strongly about this that our Secwepemc First Nation Elders have passed a statement against privatization of our national parks.”

“As a business owner with a significant investment in both the town of Banff and in an outlying area of the Park, I count on there being a predictable regulatory framework that is fair and protects the Park because the National Park is the essence of my business,” said Peter Poole, principal of Arctos & Bird, Bison Courtyard and Juniper Hotel. “When longstanding policies are waived to

favour one private business over another, it is not only unfair, it is harmful to the rest of us and hurts Banff’s brand.”

Rallying under the banner of FightForYourParks is a wide range of individuals, business owners, environmental organizations such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y), Alberta Wilderness Association, Wildsight, Jasper Environmental Association, Wild Canada Conservation Alliance, scientists, First Nations, and former Parks Canada staff.

Fight For Your Parks intends to shine a spotlight on this serious risk to our national parks during the federal election. Together we will engage Canadians from coast to coast to coast and will work for these specific outcomes:

1. A reversal of the last-minute approval of Lake Louise Ski Resort’s massive expansion;

2. A return to the longstanding policy that no new lands will be released for commercial development in our national parks;

3. A return to honouring the National Parks Act’s emphasis on putting nature (ecological integrity) first in all our national parks; and

4. A commitment that legally protected wilderness in our national parks will stay that way forever.

National Parks are a public good. They belong to all Canadians. Fight For Your Parks insists that the dedication clause of our National Parks Act be honoured in spirit and in law by Parks Canada.

“The national parks of Canada are hereby dedicated to the people of Canada for their benefit, education and enjoyment, subject to this Act and the regulations, and the parks shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.– Canada’s National Parks Act

“Every 20 years there is a frontal assault on the frameworks that control development in our national parks by those who seek to exploit them for private gain,” said Harvey Locke. “Now in 2015 it is our turn to stand up and Fight For Your Parks. We invite everyone to join us.”

-30-

Media Contact

Blair Cosgrove 403-889-4293 blairc@themessageparlour.com @Blaircosgrove

Marmot expansion may occur despite threat to caribou

Updated August 7, 2015

  • Parks Canada is not closing the door on more development and expansion at Jasper National Park’s Marmot ski hill, even though a commissioned study concludes expansion will harm endangered caribou.
    PARKS CANADA PHOTO

From : Rocky Mountain Outlook August 5, 2015

Parks Canada is not closing the door on more development and expansion at Jasper National Park’s Marmot ski hill, even though a commissioned study concludes expansion will harm endangered caribou.

At the same time, the federal agency continues to explore the feasibility of reintroducing caribou into Banff National Park, where a remnant herd was wiped out in an avalanche in 2009, and to augment dwindling herds in Jasper through a captive breeding program.

Scientists are worried Parks Canada is giving in to commercial interests over protecting an endangered caribou herd, in particular the Tonquin herd, whose northeastern potion of its range takes in Marmot Basin ski area.

Mark Hebblewhite, a renowned caribou expert who has studied caribou in both Banff and Jasper, said it’s unethical to think about reintroducing caribou into Banff and Jasper, while at the same time considering development that would harm the struggling Tonquin herd.

“Taking caribou from somewhere else to fill in holes in the dike, while at the same time thinking about more commercial development, is unethical and irresponsible,” said Hebblewhite, an associate professor in the University of Montana’s wildlife biology program.

“Any expansion is basically going to destroy critical habitat during winter for a federally endangered species. Parks Canada’s own risk assessment shows there’s no way you can expand the ski resort without further harm to the caribou.”

Parks Canada commissioned the third party assessment to help them determine whether or not to consider, in a future long-range plan, proposals to develop ski lift access in the Outer Limits and Tres Hombres areas.

The caribou risk assessment is also meant to inform decisions for managing off-piste skiing and other human uses in the Whistlers Creek drainage.

Led by Fiona Schmiegelow, one of the country’s leading caribou researchers, the independent study looked at the effects development and expansion of the ski hill would have on caribou. It was completed more than a year ago, but was never made public by Parks Canada.

Schmiegelow decided to go public with the assessment after John Wilmshurst, who commissioned the report, was abruptly fired as Jasper National Park’s resource conservation manager in June.

Her risk assessment found there is considerable evidence to categorize the Tonquin caribou herd as not self-sustaining. The current numbers in the herd are estimated to be about 38 individuals – and that’s the largest herd in south Jasper.

Schmiegelow, a University of Alberta biology professor, said the recovery strategy for southern mountain caribou identifies all areas of high elevation winter and or summer range as critical habitat, which would include Marmot Basin ski area.

Roads and trails and snow compaction already give wolves far easier access into caribou habitat, and developing additional areas for human activity will only make matters worse for caribou, she said.

“New developments within the Tonquin range could exacerbate current conditions, and therefore would not be consistent with the need for active recovery efforts to address threats to the rapidly declining Tonquin caribou population,” said Schmiegelow.

The assessment concluded new ski area development in the Tres Hombres and Outer Limits areas could significantly increase the number of people in the Whistlers Creek area, and that Tonquin caribou winter habitat selection, predominantly during late winter, has already been reduced within a buffer of approximately five kilometres of the presently developed area.

“This avoidance is not explained by predation risk, suggesting that late winter avoidance of Marmot Basin is a result of human activities,” said Schmiegelow.

“New developments are not consistent with population recovery objectives, and mitigating options for existing developments should be implemented.”

In June, the federal government approved a long-range plan for Marmot Basin that allows expanded snowmaking, additional parking and transportation access, upgrades to the Caribou Chalet and some tree thinning for glade skiing.

But any proposed developments for Tres Hombres and Outer Limits, which the ski hill indicated it would advance in a future additional long-range plan, were waiting on the results of the independent caribou risk assessment.

Greg Fenton, superintendent of Jasper National Park, said Parks Canada has still made no decisions on ski hill development for Tres Hombres and Outer Limits, and likely won’t until fall.

“We are still reviewing the report,” he said. “There has been some preliminary analysis by my staff and when there are final recommendations to me, I will have a discussion with Marmot Basin about those recommendations and then I will make a decision.”

Fenton said Parks Canada still plans on moving ahead with a captive breeding program as part of its caribou conservation plan. Earlier this year, the Calgary Zoo pulled out of a partnership, which they cited was due to lack of funding from Parks.

The cost to construct a captive breeding facility is estimated between $2 million and $3 million, with operating costs between $300,000 and $500,000 per year. There are now considerations to include a visitor centre as part of the program.

Fenton said the B.C. government has conceptually agreed to provide caribou for the breeding program from some its herds, but Parks Canada is still looking for a location for the breeding facility.

“The animals would be raised to augment existing herds in Jasper, focusing on the Maligne, Tonquin and Brazeau,” said Fenton. “And we’ve always said the vision and goal is also herd reintroduction in Banff in the north end.”

Jasper National Park has four main herds. The northern A la Peche herd, estimated at less than 100 caribou, spends most of its time outside the national park. In recent years, surveys suggest the A la Peche population has declined.

Three additional herds of caribou are found in the southern part of Jasper National Park, spending most, if not all, their time within the national park. The three herds use distinct regions of the park and rarely interact.

In total, their numbers are estimated at approximately 55 animals and have been declining. The largest herd in south Jasper is the Tonquin herd with 38. The other two herds, Maligne and Brazeau, both have less than 10 animals.

Schmiegelow’s report concluded when caribou on provincial lands in Alberta and B.C. are at risk from industrial development – given wolves have greater access into traditional caribou range with roads and seismic lines – national park herds are more important than ever.

“Recovery actions for caribou populations with ranges within national park boundaries are urgent and can inform and potentially influence the outcome of management decisions for surrounding populations,” she said.

Hebblewhite said Parks Canada should do everything possible to save the Tonquin herd, noting the risk assessment should be the centrepiece of Parks Canada’s decision-making, not business interests.

“It’s the biggest herd solely within the national park system,” he said. “The Maligne and Brazeau herds are basically the walking dead.”

Hebblewhite said he believes any future expansion at Marmot Basin would be contestable in court under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

“It would be very difficult for a federal government to fight for development in critical habitat. I think it would be suicidal,” he said.

Hebblewhite said the Lake Louise ski hill – which is proposing massive growth and expansion and has had its site guidelines to guide future development approved – also falls within caribou range.

“I don’t see logically why it’s not critical habitat. People may say that’s because there’s no caribou, but there has been no official decision that wrote off caribou in Banff National Park as extirpated,” he said.

Article by Cathy Ellis

Rocky Mountain Outlook

Tonquin Caribou Risk Assessment

Updated July 25, 2015

JEA COMMENTS

Parks Canada had refused any development by Marmot Basin into the wilderness area of its lease in the Whistlers Creek Valley since 1981 because of possible adverse effects on woodland caribou and mountain goats. However, in 2008 it decided to consider development expansion into the valley depending on the results of an independent two-year caribou study. The study was completed in March 2014 and the JEA understood it would be available to the public last fall but all requests to obtain it since then were refused.

The Report on the Tonquin Caribou Risk Assessment was finally released this week – but not by Parks Canada. It was released by Dr. Fiona Schmiegelow, the report’s lead author, citing the abrupt firing last month of Dr. John Wilmshurst, Jasper’s Resource Conservation Manager, as the catalyst for her decision to make the report public.

The 62-page report and its 97-page appendix show only too clearly the importance of Whistlers Creek Valley to the caribou, the dire straits the Tonquin caribou herd is in and steps that should be taken to avoid disturbance of this endangered population that has dropped from approximately 111 in 2006 to 54 in 2011.

Download the pdf Report on the Tonquin Caribou Risk Assessment