Development in wildlife corridor in mountain town of Canmore, Alta., back for debate

A decades-old debate over development in an important wildlife corridor in an Alberta mountain community is to be back before council next week.

Plans for two projects, which make up about 80 per cent of the remaining developable land in Canmore, show they could almost double the town's population to nearly 30,000 in the coming decades.

A decades-old debate over development in an important wildlife corridor in an Alberta mountain community is to be back before council next week.

Plans for two projects, which make up about 80 per cent of the remaining developable land in Canmore, show they could almost double the town's population to nearly 30,000 in the coming decades.

"This is the first plan that was able to be developed with clear guidance from a council in Canmore," said Chris Ollenberger, managing principal with Quantum Place Developments, which is overseeing the proposed Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek projects.

"These area structure plans are probably the best ... in the entire Bow Valley for balanced, responsible development that is sustainably orientated, climate-goal orientated ... and respects wildlife."

Ollenberger said the plans, which are to go before council Feb. 9, also address concerns about a lack of affordable housing in the tourist town near Banff National Park.

If council gives first reading to the plans next week, they would go to a public hearing in March.

Experts said they are concerned the latest proposals for the eastern edge of Canmore still don't address concerns.

Adam Ford, an assistant professor in the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, said the developments would add more pressure to an already busy valley.

"It's death by 10,000 cuts," said Ford, who suggested the two plans need to be considered in a cumulative way.

Ford said one of the main issues is the wildlife corridor that goes through town — a concern echoed by local experts.

"We know that this valley is of international importance from the Yellowstone region in the south all the way up to the Yukon in the north," said Hilary Young with Yellowstone to Yukon, a conservation group based in Canmore.

"This tiny little constriction through the Bow Valley, where it's already quite developed, (would) be pushing wildlife even further up the slope and risking that they won't move through the valley anymore. It could block wildlife movement entirely."

The wildlife corridor — and how wide it needs to be to allow animals including grizzly bears, elk and wolves to move efficiently — has been debated for decades after a 1992 environmental assessment found it to be an important area.

In June 2018, Alberta Environment and Parks under an NDP government said the wildlife corridor would be too narrow under another Quantum proposal. It was reworked by the developer and approved by the United Conservative government early last year.

"We appreciate the extensive work that has been done to date that built on the high quality of work that (Alberta Environment and Parks) identified in the (previous) submission," said in a letter from the province on Feb. 26, 2020.

"When considering the improvements that have occurred in the Bow Valley in the last 25 years on the basis of wildlife and habitat protection, there is reason to be optimistic for wildlife now and in the future."

The approval came with recommendations, including creation of better habitat in the corridor, a detailed plan for highway crossing structures and fencing, and company participation in efforts to reduce conflicts between people and wildlife.

Ollenberger said the developer has a plan to deal with those issues, but he admits the wildlife corridor is a challenge.

"There's no book that everybody says this is the way and, if you just do this, all is well," he said, noting there are many variables to take into account.

He said safeguards, including a fence around the developments and a new wildlife pass that would allow animals to move under the Trans-Canada Highway, would address concerns.

Ford, Young and local wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer said that wouldn't be enough with so much development.

"It would change the character of our community," said Heuer, who suggested the projects would add congestion and, as plans stand, don't fully address affordable housing for the town.

He and Young noted the development would cover the entire footprint of Three Sisters land and leave little room for wildlife.

"The science on wildlife movement hasn't changed since 2017 when they last submitted a proposal," said Young. "It's still very clear that this narrowing of the corridor would actually have much broader consequences of wildlife movement through the valley."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2021

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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