Heart of the park

April 28, 2011

In 2008 the United Nations Environment Program stated:

  • One of the biggest threats facing the Parks is that of the development encouraged by increased tourism. The townsite region of Jasper is an ecologically important area located at the junction of three watersheds. During the winter, wildlife concentrates in the area but development has led to a disturbance in ungulate migration routes around the town, the destruction of key habitats and conflicts between bears and humans (United Nations Environment Program-Wo 2008)

Critical wildlife habitat

The montane ecoregion of the Athabasca Valley is less than 7% of the total park area but this classic montane habitat with its shallow snowpack and relatively warm winters is so vital to the wildlife and the ecology of the park that it can be compared to the heart of the human body: if it is stressed or destroyed the body will no longer function.

Nearly all predator species are found here, drawn inexorably to the prey populations that feed in this excellent habitat:

  • In May/June grizzlies move down from the snow-covered alpine areas to feed on spring vegetation and prey on elk calves
  • In summer black bears are drawn here to some of the best buffaloberry areas in the park
  • This is a prime elk-calving and rutting area as well as for both white-tailed and mule deer. Moose are found here in the extensive wetlands and bighorn sheep frequent the rocky slopes on either side of the valley
  • Wolves, coyotes, cougars and lynx keep prey animals and rodents within the carrying capacity of their habitat

Human pressure

Unfortunately it is also the most important area for human development:

  • The Yellowhead Highway and the Canadian National Rail line run through the valley from east to west and an average of 120 large mammals are killed each year by trains and traffic. The town of Jasper (population 4,700) lies in the Three Valley Confluence where the Athabasca, Miette and Maligne Rivers come together
  • Outlying commercial accommodations, most of them located on prime wildlife habitat of riverbanks and lake fronts, cater to 1500 guests
  • On the far side of the Athabasca lies the 365 ha Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge with its golf course; in summer its visitors and staff number more than 2000
  • The valley serves as a recreation hub for Jasper residents and visitors, with trails – official and unofficial – crossing in every direction.

Trails

One would think that with the obvious pressure that the wildlife is already under in such critical habitat, Parks Canada would try to leave as much space as possible for predators and their prey. Instead, it is making it worse.

By 2000, research with wolves and grizzlies made it clear that they did not enjoy ‘sharing’ the area with humans and were being forced to the sides of the valley away from their prey base. Parks announced it would designate trails for mountain bikes in order to relieve the pressure on some of the wildlife corridors through the area.

After nearly 8 years of acrimonious discussions – costing more than $1.7 million of a government grant ‘to improve ecological integrity’ – virtually all of the 280-km trail system was designated ‘multi-use’ including 47 km of adopted unofficial trails and 42 km of new trails.

For every trail local mountain-bikers were persuaded to give up in critical grizzly habitat they were recompensed with other trails, many traversing prime black-bear buffaloberry areas and wolf travel corridors. Some even run parallel to each other only a few hundred yards apart – effectively eliminating any habitat security for wildlife between them.

Trails covering 85 km in priority wildlife corridors were to be rehabilitated. Two trails in important grizzly habitat and a wolf denning area were to have top priority for closure but two years later this has not been done. Parks is  relying on volunteer labour but it seems that while bikers were well able to cut their own illegal trails they are noticeably absent when it comes to rehabilitating them.

It has become clear  wildlife protection and ecological integrity no longer have priority over human-use in the montane area. In 2008 Parks Canada formed a partnership with the International Mountain Biking Association so other national parks should probably expect the same fate.

For a more detailed account see pdf. Hiking Trails of Jasper

Emergency Landing Strip

‘The Three Valley Confluence Area Strategy reflects a decision made by the Government of Canada in March 2009 to relist the Jasper airstrip for use by private aircraft and for emergency and diversionary purposes.’(JNP Management Plan Sec.1.96) This decision by the federal government could not have been popular with Parks Canada. The 1988 Jasper National Park Management Plan stated that the airstrip was only to be used for emergency/diversionary purposes. Local Jasper pilots challenged Parks Canada in court. The judge agreed it was legally closed but ordered a Comprehensive Study assessment in order to decommission it. Strong lobbying by the pilots and their allies in the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association to the Ottawa government resulted in the airstrip now being listed for recreational as well as emergency purposes in spite of the fact that any plane in an emergency situation may land anywhere in a national park.

Increasing visitor numbers

Parks Canada hopes to increase visitor numbers 2% each year by emphasizing the winter and shoulder seasons – the most critical and stressful times for wildlife, particularly the highly visible elk during spring calving and fall rutting when the species is at its most defensive and aggressive. Winter and spring find many species weak from lack of food and vulnerable to disturbance by humans or harassment by off-leash dogs. The 2010 management plan lists the ‘Indicators of Success’ for this goal as an increase in ‘visitor numbers’, ‘visitor learning’ and ‘visitor satisfaction’ and ‘fewer than 24 elk-human conflicts per year’.

Proposed new activities

Parks Canada, with the help of commercial interests who see the new permissive management plan with its lack of specificity as ‘a big improvement’, has dreamed up another way of separating visitors from their money: introducing new activities which many Canadians would consider inappropriate in their national parks. Hang-gliding, para-gliding, traction-kiting, zip-lining, via ferrata and canopy tours may now become part of the ‘visitor experience’ in the parks. Parks rationalizes these activities by saying commercial operators offering them ‘will provide interpretive messages to participants’. It will be interesting to see how much the participants pay attention.

Lack of monitoring

With most of the wildlife species using the montane ecoregion either permanently or seasonally, and the potential adverse effects on them of human-use, monitoring the health of those populations should be top priority. However, because of the lack of adequate funding and now the downgrading of science in the national parks, monitoring – with the possible exception of the highly visible local elk population– has been sorely lacking. How can field managers possibly make important management decisions regarding these new ideas flowing out of Ottawa to increase visitor numbers without a reliable database to guide them? A case in point is the grizzly: these bears have only been monitored in one area near the east boundary where Parks had to be pressured by provincial researchers to put money into DNA analysis. Yet the new management plan says ‘Human-caused mortality of independent female grizzly bears should not exceed 1.2% of the … population’. As the population has not been counted, one has to ask: ‘1.2% of what’?

Conclusion

There is no doubt Parks Canada, under pressure from commerce and the federal government, is heading down the wrong path if it sincerely wants to protect nature. The agency must reverse its direction before untold damage takes place in these incomparable ‘protected’ areas.