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Sara Renner, Y2Y supporter

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Putting the Brakes on OHVs in Alberta

Y2Y and a diverse group of conservation organizations, scientists and concerned citizens urge the Alberta Government to protect sensitive ecosystems from excessive off-highway vehicle use.

It’s the elephant in the room when it comes to public land in Alberta. Even within the boundaries of protected areas throughout the province, you can hear the clatter and see the churned up trails of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) crossing sensitive rivers, streams and creeks.

Lax regulations under previous governments, which imposed few restrictions on their use, has led to a growing problem throughout the province—especially for sensitive wildlife habitat along Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, the mountains and foothills that make up a huge portion of the eastern boundary of the Yellowstone to Yukon region.

A mud bogging site that was a former wet meadow near Margaret Creek, Alberta. Photo: Kevin Van Tighem.

Irresponsible and excessive OHV use throughout the Eastern Slopes has led to extensive damage on natural areas: they fragment habitats, increase soil compaction, allow invasive species to proliferate, while adding more sediment runoff into streams, which negatively and dramatically affects water quality and fish habitat.

That’s bad news for the headwater forests and watersheds—the source of drinking water for the majority of Albertans downstream. Ecologically significant regions like the Ghost River watershed, McLean Creek in Kananaskis Country, the Porcupine Hills and the Castle Special Place, to name just a few, have already suffered badly.

Recently the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued an order to protect endangered westlope cutthroat trout, a species that exists in only 51 of its historic 272 tributaries in Alberta’s Bow and Oldman watersheds. Part of what’s driving that species toward the brink of extinction in the province is uncontrolled OHV use.

Soil compaction abounds at this Forest Management Area. Photo: Kevin Van Tighem.

Heeding the call for action on this urgent issue, Y2Y is leading an effort by conservation groups, scientists and concerned citizens to urge the provincial government to take immediate steps to protect our rivers, creeks and streams from these destructive impacts. It's an essential step in Y2Y's larger objective to protect Alberta’s headwaters.

Healthy watersheds are valued and protected in policy because Albertans understand the numerous benefits they provide us, such as buffering the effects of climate change, moderating flow to reduce flooding, replenishing groundwater resources and providing critical fisheries habitat.

These ecosystems are also integral in protecting threatened grizzly bears in the province, a fact that was recognized as part of Alberta’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Strategy, which adopted a minimal threshold for road and trail density within core grizzly habitat. And yet, in places like the headwaters of the Oldman River, in the Porcupine Hills, and even in the newly minted Castle Provincial Park, OHV trails have been found to exceed this threshold—in some cases by up to five times!

Another area in southern Alberta where OHV use predominates. Photo: Kevin Van Tighem.

A recent survey released by CPAWS-Alberta found that 94 percent of Albertans agree that wilderness is important because it helps to preserve plant and animal species, and an overwhelming 86 percent would prioritize non-motorized recreation in wilderness areas over OHVs.

Together with our colleagues across the province, Y2Y is asking the Alberta Government to listen to its public; to take immediate steps to change course on OHVs in Alberta. These should include:

  • A moratorium on OHV use on existing trails within Prime Protection and Critical Wildlife Zones, as well as a moratorium on further OHV trail development in these Zones. 
  • Permanent closure and decommissioning of all trails and roads where critical habitat for westslope cutthroat trout exists, and adherence to the westslope cutthroat trout recovery strategy and critical habitat protection order. 
  • A commitment to keeping OHVs out of protected areas within the Eastern Slopes, due to the predominance of critical habitat for threatened grizzly bears and native fish.

We all want to enjoy these amazing landscapes, but we can’t do it at the expense of what makes them special. It’s time for the province to take protecting our headwaters and the wild creatures that live there seriously.

The intact landscapes we want to see in Alberta's Castle Watershed. Photo: Stephen Legault.