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.

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

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