Marmot Basin : expansion into wilderness?

Updated April 4, 2011

News just in …

Two new wildlife studies will inform future planning for the Marmot Basin
Ski Area in Jasper National Park. Parks Canada, March 25, 2011

The terms of reference for these two studies on two of the park’s most sensitive species have just been released. One of these – Final Terms of Reference for Mountain Goat Research Marmot Basin Ski Area of Jasper National Park – will focus on this species of unknown numbers that frequents the windswept ridges around Marmot Basin. It will involve radio-collaring goats and will take three years to complete under the supervision of Dr. Steeve Coté of Laval University.

Unfortunately it looks as though it will ‘anoint and bless the process of development’. It is not a question of whether Marmot’s proposals should even go ahead because of adverse effects on the goats, it is just a study to come up with mitigations for these potential adverse effects. Then there will be a ‘follow-up monitoring program’ – by whom? Certainly not Parks Canada that has monitored nothing in the Marmot area for the past 30 years and isn’t likely to have funding to do it in the future.

The second study – Draft Terms of Reference for a Caribou Risk Assessment – Whistlers Creek in Jasper National Park – will deal with a species listed as ‘threatened’ under the Species at Risk Act. It will be led by Dr. Fiona Schmiegelow of University of Alberta.

This study is more precise and  lists the possibility of not allowing development of ski lifts on the south slope of the valley if adverse impacts of proposals on caribou cannot be effectively mitigated. However, it implies that whatever the study comes up with, off-piste skiing in that area will be allowed to continue. If Parks Canada is sincere about protection of a species-at-risk, why does that not also depend on the results of the study?

There is also reference to ‘several other supporting developments (maintenance and egress routes) and avalanche control’ without naming them. What ‘routes’ are these and will they run through the protected habitat below the lease that Marmot is ‘surrendering’? If so they could well bring wolves into the area.

There will be many questions about these studies on two of the most sensitive species in the park. We have put a link to them above but any comments to Superintendent Greg Fenton <Greg.Fenton@pc.gc.ca> must be in by April 15, 2011.

History

The mountain national parks downhill ski hills – three in Banff National Park and one in Jasper – have been operating since the 1950s. Their leases were negotiated before people became aware of the importance of some of those areas to wildlife. Since then these operations have become large corporations with inevitable adverse effects on the parks’ wilderness and wildlife. In spite of being constantly lobbied by the ski hills to be allowed more development in their leases, Parks Canada has resolutely managed to keep some important areas from being developed.

Location

Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park operates in a large bowl. Over a ridge to the north lies Whistlers Creek valley, a critical east-west wildlife corridor and important habitat for the woodland caribou – listed as ‘threatened’ under the Species at Risk Act. Marmot’s lease includes a part of the slopes leading down into the valley. However, in 1981 Parks Canada realized how critical this area was to wildlife and protected it from all development.

Changes to guidelines

In 2006 the Harper government in Ottawa relaxed the ski area guidelines and Marmot Basin saw a chance to access Whistlers Creek valley. Despite the fact that no monitoring or research has been done in the valley for the past 30 years, some senior Parks staff allowed Marmot to consider development there. Marmot offered to ‘surrender’ a strip of its protected lease in this critical habitat in exchange for increased development both inside and outside its present footprint.

Also being discussed is the possibility of two ski lifts operating in the valley (dependent on a 3-year ‘caribou risk assessment’). In the proposed draft site guidelines Parks referred to this exchange of a protected pristine strip of habitat as a ‘substantial environmental gain’ disregarding that the two proposed ski lifts would be right above and adjacent to this critical wildlife area, thereby ensuring that wildlife will no longer use it.

Consideration is also being given to summer use on the ski hill in this high-quality grizzly habitat even though the park management plan clearly states ‘the most important factor in grizzly bear survival is minimizing contact with people.’

Conservation groups and other concerned individuals were outraged and clearly indicated this to Parks Canada. Their objections were ignored, the site guidelines were approved and Marmot Basin is now preparing its Long Range Plan for the area. The Plan will have to undergo an environmental assessment but these assessments invariably rubber-stamp a project with a few ‘mitigations’ attached.

Conservation groups are not against reasonable development within Marmot’s present footprint but consider any expansion into critical wildlife habitat as unacceptable.

Concerns of park biologists

The JEA applied under the Access to Information Act for relevant documents and found that Jasper National Park biologists clearly stated the proposed exchange could not be considered a ‘substantial environmental gain’ because of the adverse effect it would have on the threatened woodland caribou and other wildlife.

Precedent for Banff

The three Banff downhill ski areas are now negotiating their Long-Range Plans. If the Marmot expansion into a wilderness area is allowed to go ahead, it will give them the precedent they need to also apply for similar projects.

More detailed account of issue in pdf: Marmot Basin Ski Hill expansion.