JEA letter to Greg Fenton regarding the Maligne Valley

Updated November 22, 2013

 

maligne valley, colin range, medicine lake, jasper national park

Colin Range above the Maligne Valley

 

Jasper Environmental Association

Box 2198, Jasper, AB T0E 1E0

 

November 19, 2013

Superintendent Greg Fenton

Jasper National Park

Box 10,

Jasper, AB T0E 1E0

 

Dear Greg

Re: Maligne Valley Situation Analysis

The Jasper Environmental Association (JEA) has reviewed the Maligne Valley Situation Analysis and would like to comment on certain aspects of it with an emphasis on the sensitive wildlife that move through or inhabit the valley.

First we will briefly revisit ‘A Vision for the Maligne Valley’ that was issued in 1992 by the then Canadian Parks Service.

  • Maligne Valley will be maintained in a natural, wild state
  • Wilderness values will be the foundation of all management actions
  • The ecosystem will be protected for its intrinsic natural value, and to ensure continued ‘mountain wilderness’ experience.
  • Ecological integrity will be the first priority
  • Park visitors will be able to experience the valley through low impact recreational activities and heritage education 

“The Canadian Parks Service endeavors to honor the valley’s legacy by limiting development and carefully monitoring use so that generations of visitors can have a taste of what [Mary] Schaffer experienced”

Twenty years later we are concerned that commerce aided by government, appears determined to undermine Parks Canada’s endeavors to protect this unique valley.

—–

Two of Canada’s most important wildlife species inhabit the Maligne Valley: the woodland caribou and the grizzly bear.  The woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou is listed as a ‘threatened’ species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The grizzly bear Ursus arctos is listed as a ‘species of special concern’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Both species are listed as ‘threatened’ provincially under Alberta’s Wildlife Act.

The Species at Risk Act states:

  • • “Canada’s protected areas, especially national parks, are vital to the protection and recovery of species at risk”        (emphasis added)

The Jasper National Park Management Plan 3.2.1 acknowledges that two of the most important ecological challenges facing the park are the status of woodland caribou and the regional grizzly bear population.

Woodland Caribou

History

Until 2002 management of the caribou by Parks Canada in Jasper National Park was virtually non-existent. In spite of warnings by the Canada Wildlife Service and park wardens in the 1970s that this Southern Mountain Caribou population was declining sharply, Parks took no steps that might have saved them. After commissioning two studies (Brown & Kansas 1994 and Thomas 1996) park managers then ignored all their recommendations on human use in caribou habitat. Only when the Species at Risk Act became law in 2002 did Parks Canada finally wake up to its responsibility to try to help this now ‘threatened’ species.

Five threats to the species have been recognized:

  • • Predator prey balance
  • • Predator access to caribou habitat
  • • Human disturbance
  • • Habitat loss
  • • Small population effects

Woodland caribou avoid predation by eking out a living in relatively inhospitable habitat of deep snow unattractive to other prey species. However, with increasing human use of the backcountry in winter Parks found evidence that wolves were following track-set and individual ski trails into these previously remote areas. In 2005 track-setting of ski trails in some caribou habitat was discontinued and dogs were banned from those same areas. Now, eight years later – despite strong objections from local business interests and recreationists – Parks has officially closed whole valleys to backcountry-use in important caribou habitat from the beginning of November to the end of February (mid-February in the Cavell area). We commend Parks Canada’s present management staff for taking this important step and we can only hope that even this short period of area closures will afford some respite for the hard-pressed caribou.

The Maligne Herd

Situation Analysis p 64 Resource Protection:

#7. “The most pressing resource conservation issue in the valley is the future of woodland caribou. In the short-term, Parks Canada can meet its responsibilities under the Species at Risk Act and the Conservation Strategy for Southern Mountain Caribou in Canada’s National Parks, by maintaining a resident caribou population in the Maligne Valley.”

Whereas other areas of the park now have winter closures, the Maligne herd, due to other interests in the valley, is not so fortunate. Although Parks Canada states in its Maligne Valley Situation Analysis “Losing even one caribou out of the Maligne herd could be critical to their long-term persistence” the valley is not included in the winter closure. Although the herd has decreased from over 60 animals in 1998 to just five today no precautionary steps are being taken to disallow skiing in the Bald Hills and Jeffery Creek areas (used by 600 and 500 people respectively each winter). With the Tonquin/Cavell areas closed to winter use for three and half months skiers may well turn to the Maligne area instead and this small struggling herd will be put under increased pressure. Yet, the Situation Analysis indicates this is important habitat for the Maligne herd. The JEA understands that in a final Recovery Plan for the Southern Mountain Caribou ‘important’ habitat would be classified as ‘critical’.

In the recently released 2013 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development:

  • Identifying the critical habitat of a given species at risk is one of the essential first steps in protecting it and prohibiting its destruction. This is significant because where critical habitat was not identified in the recovery strategy due to inadequate information, it will be identified only when subsequent action plans are developed. If a species’ critical habitat is not protected, the species’ survival or recovery may be placed further at risk.

Another pressing winter issue regarding this herd is the 39-km Maligne Lake Road leading wolves directly into caribou country. As far south as Medicine Lake wolves use both the road and the frozen river but south of Medicine Lake they travel only on the road as the river there remains unfrozen. Closure of that road could just possibly save the rest of that small herd from predation and allow it to recover but by being forced to leave the road open under pressure from business interests, Parks Canada is unable to fulfill its obligations under the Canada National Parks Act to give priority to ecological integrity and under the Species at Risk Act to protect a ‘threatened species’.

Maligne Lake Tours Proposal

With regard to summer use on the Maligne Lake Road, records show that over the past twenty years caribou have been seen on the road every month of the year except July. There is no doubt a hotel that Maligne Lake Tours is proposing at the lake would mean heavy construction traffic on the narrow two-lane Maligne Road for many months. If it is built, there would be increased staff travelling on the road at night; guests arriving after dark and leaving early in the morning – the most sensitive times for wildlife on the road – and an increase in delivery trucks servicing the hotel. There is little doubt that guests would want to use the trails during the long summer evenings, putting pressure on sensitive wildlife that until now have been able to reclaim their habitat when the last visitors leave.

Apart from Maligne Lake Tours and possibly some others who would stand to benefit financially, who has asked for this hotel? Where are the results of surveys that indicate  visitors think a hotel would be an improvement on the wilderness of this world-famous lake? The Situation Analysis states that of visitors to the Maligne Valley, “99% agreed that the visit had met or exceeded their expectations.”

Grizzly Bears

Many of the above issues with the woodland caribou also apply to the grizzly bear. The Maligne Valley is important grizzly habitat and travel corridor. Its protection should be paramount for Parks Canada when grizzly habitat in Alberta is becoming increasingly fragmented and the Rocky Mountain national parks may constitute its last refuge in this province. As noted above, the grizzly bear is a species ‘of special concern’ under COSEWIC and the Report of the Commissioner of Environment points out that the Species at Risk Act is intended to “manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.”

According to the Situation Analysis, the Maligne Valley has five identified ‘pinch points’ along the valley where topography and human use constrain wildlife movement. One of these is at the north end of Maligne Lake where Maligne Tours proposes to build its hotel. Upwards of over 100 visitors in the area in the evenings can only have an adverse effect in the important crepuscular time of day for wildlife. The Opal Hills with its hiking trails to the east of the Maligne Lake Day Lodge is important habitat for two or three grizzlies each summer. How can Parks Canada even entertain approval of a proposed hotel when it acknowledges that “Female grizzly bears with cubs have been observed repeatedly at Opal Hills and adjacent to the Maligne Lake Day Use area by Parks Canada employees” Obviously this is important grizzly habitat constrained by a pinch point.

The following quotes are all from the 2010 Jasper National Park Management Plan:

  • P10 Ensuring Healthy Ecosystems. This strategy involves maintaining or improving habitat security for grizzly bears
  • 3.2.1 The most important ecological challenges facing the park are:  the status of woodland caribou and the regional grizzly bear population
  • 3.2.1 Where grizzly bears thrive, we can feel confident that the requirements of many other mountain species are met.
  • 4.4.1 The goal of Parks Canada and its partners in British Columbia and Alberta is to maintain a non-declining grizzly bear population in the Rocky Mountains
  • 4.4.1 Habitat is considered secure when there is little likelihood grizzly bears will encounter people. When their habitat is secure, grizzly bears can feed undisturbed and maintain their wary behaviour.
  • 4.4.1 Reduce human-caused mortality of wildlife, particularly woodland caribou, grizzly bears and carnivores
  • 5.4 Explore ways to improve grizzly bear habitat security in the upper Maligne Valley.
  • 8.3.1 Ecological protection goals and associated indicators of success, such as maintaining or improving grizzly bear habitat security will be respected when considering new or changes in development, infrastructure and recreational activities.    (emphasis added)

Are these just empty words? How can the Canadian public be asked to meaningfully comment on a statutory document of supposedly high calibre when Parks Canada is fully aware that it may be directed by the Minister to approve some commercial development that runs counter to the Plan’s strategies and key actions?

Harlequin Duck

Another species that would be adversely affected by this proposal is the harlequin duck Histrionicus histrionicus – now yellow-listed in Alberta and British Columbia. This little sea duck that flies from the Pacific coast each spring to breed on the fast-flowing streams of the Rockies, uses the Maligne Lake outlet as an important resting and feeding area before nesting. With a row of tent cabins within 30 m of this designated Environmentally Sensitive Site it would be impossible to ensure the ducks remain undisturbed.

Direction

In the 2010 Jasper National Park Management Plan, we are directed to a document called the Redevelopment Guidelines for Outlying Commercial Accommodations (OCAs) in the Rocky Mountain National Parks (2007). This document brought up an instruction that seems to be missing from park management these days:

  • “The precautionary principle in decision-making emphasizes care and caution when changes to the natural environment are contemplated. This is particularly important when knowledge of a natural system is incomplete, when an area is unusually susceptible to damage, or is thought to be already under ecological integrity stress. This places an obligation on Parks Canada not to make risky decisions in the absence of scientific information, and the burden on project proponents to demonstrate that development does not nor will not have significant negative effects.”

The Maligne Valley Situation Analysis is a strong document on the need for some improvement for visitor education/experience and on the situation regarding the two wildlife species so important to this area. But Parks admits to a lack of data particularly on the grizzly bear and on the possible cause for the decline in caribou numbers. In the face of this huge proposal by Maligne Tours it would seem to the JEA that this would be an appropriate time to employ this ‘precautionary principle’.

In its recent ‘Backgrounder’ to this Situation Analysis Parks Canada asks: “How can we improve ecological integrity in the Maligne Valley, while providing high quality visitor opportunities that allow visitors to experience this unique place firsthand?”

With Park’s stated concern for both woodland caribou and grizzlies; the challenges it acknowledges regarding their management and the fact that visitors have said they are well-satisfied with their experiences there, it should start scaling back on any outdated infrastructure in the valley, not consider new construction – and particularly not a high-end hotel.

The Canada National Parks Act clearly outlines Parks Canada’s mandate:

  • “Maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, shall be the first priority of the Minister when considering all aspects of the management of parks.”

In ‘Highlights.’ Jasper National Park of Canada Management Plan 2010:

  • “Management plans are ‘road maps’ used by national parks … to achieve Parks Canada’s mandate”.  

The JEA suggests that if the 2010 Jasper National Park Management Plan is a ‘road map’ for maintaining ecological integrity we can only assume that Parks Canada is having trouble staying on that road. Regrettably, from some of the statements made in the Management Plan – but omitted from the Situation Analysis – it appears that Parks Canada is being forced into a position of not being entirely straight-forward with the Canadian people.

Sincerely

(Jill Seaton – Chair)

Cc:

Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Environment

Alan Latourelle, CEO Parks Canada

Elizabeth May MP, Leader Green Party of Canada

Megan Leslie MP, Environment Critic for the NDP

Kirsty  Duncan MP, Environment Critic for Liberal Party

 

 

 

 

 

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