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Keeping Wildlife in Alberta’s Bow Valley

As builders push Canmore's Three Sisters Mountain Village development, conservationists and scientists urge planners to balance the needs of people and wildlife.

As builders push Canmore's Three Sisters Mountain Village development, conservationists and scientists urge planners to balance the needs of people and wildlife.

The picturesque town of Canmore, Alberta, is home to Y2Y’s main office, but its real claim to fame is its proximity to surrounding protected wilderness areas and abundant wildlife.

Dwarfed on all sides by towering mountains, the town is part of the beautiful Bow Valley, which funnels the swift-flowing Bow River from its headwaters through downstream communities. That broad valley is also a conduit for millions of people drawn to mountain trails and campgrounds, and for wildlife that move along multiple corridors amidst the steep and often inaccessible peaks.

Nearly 20,000 people live in the Bow Valley and many, many more visit every day. It's one of the most densely developed mountain landscapes in North America that still has grizzly bears, wolves and cougars present. All of this pressure, however, has created challenges for wildlife managers and wildlife alike. 

Photo: Wendy Francis
Development in Canmore. Photo: Wendy Francis

The fact that these iconic carnivores still thrive in the Bow Valley is not just a happy accident. It’s the result of decades of land-use planning that has for the most part kept wildlife in mind and attempted to balance pressure for more growth with efforts to protect known wildlife corridors.

Now, after almost 25 years of debates and decisions, the Province of Alberta and the Town of Canmore are considering a development proposal—the Three Sisters Mountain Village in east Canmore—that could negatively impact wildlife connectivity in the region and sadly undermine decades of success. The proposal will likely be brought before Town Council in the fall of this year.

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Watch: Y2Y raising awareness over the impacts of development in the Bow Valley.

The proposed Smith Creek Area Structure Plan would add as many as 1,700 homes and upwards of 4,000 people to Canmore’s swelling population. In addition, the developer wants to change the proposed use of an adjacent unfinished golf course to high-density residential development, further encroaching on the narrowest section of the wildlife corridor in the Bow Valley.

“The proposed development at Smith Creek in the Three Sisters Mountain Village is part of a suite of activities and developments taking place in the Bow Valley that could have a dramatic impact on the ability of wildlife to move between Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country,” says Stephen Legault, Y2Y’s Crown, Alberta and NWT Program Director. “The decisions we’re making now will have an impact for decades to come. If we’re going to err, let’s do so in favour of wildlife. We can always allow for more development in the future; if we err and allow too much now it will be much harder to change course down the road.”

Scientists and conservationists believe the current proposal would add further barriers to wildlife movement in this ecologically important region linking Banff National Park and Alberta’s Kananaskis Country. They are concerned the latest proposal has taken a step backwards—especially when it comes to the room left for wildlife to pass through the region. 

Bighorn sheep. Photo: Stephen Legault

“We want to ensure the final development plan reflects the best available scientific evidence,” says Dr. Hilary Young, Y2Y’s Alberta Program Coordinator. “Unfortunately, the current proposal doesn’t leave enough room for wildlife. In order to travel the 10 kilometers from one end of the development to the other without facing cliffs and steep hillsides, they need more room than the developer is currently considering.”

"Functional corridors are critical to the safe, secure passage of wildlife through the Bow Valley, which is one of the most important wildlife links in the Rockies stretching from southern Wyoming to the Yukon," says Legault. "If corridors are designated without all the scientific knowledge available, the consequences will be felt across the whole region and will be long lasting.”

Canmore residents are encouraged to watch for a chance to provide feedback on the development proposal, coming this fall.

Check Y2Y’s Facebook page this fall for more info. Others are encouraged to contact the Alberta Government and tell them to take the needs of wildlife into account in the Bow Valley.