Conservationist calls proposed Three Sisters wildlife corridor too steep, too high

An ongoing, contentious debate is heating up in Canmore, Alta., — where on Thursday, the province will host a public meeting about the proposed construction of a major development in the Bow Valley.

Debate over controversial project has been ongoing for decades

Stephen Legault with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative says Canmore's decision to reject a plan to expand development in the Three Sisters is one councillors should be proud of. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

An ongoing, contentious debate is heating up in Canmore, Alta., — where on Thursday, the province will host a public meeting about the proposed construction of a major housing project and resort in the Bow Valley.

Three Sisters Mountain Village wants to add new housing for up to 4,000 people as well as a resort to the south side of Highway 1. In order to do so, developers have to include a wildlife corridor in the plan — and conservationists are not happy with where they've placed it.

Stephen Legault, with the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, told the Calgary Eyeopener that wildlife in the area spend about 90 per cent of their time on flat-sloped country in the valley, and unless they're hunting for food, it's unlikely an animal will get up into the steeper terrain. 

The proposed development, Legault said, is right where wildlife would typically travel.

"It all comes down to a technical debate about where the wildlife corridor goes and what wildlife need," he explained, adding that wildlife spend the bulk of their time on slopes that are less than 25 degrees. That's something that is difficult to calculate given the slopes of the Bow Valley are anything but uniform, he added. 

Legault said his group differs from the developers in where that slope line is.

"We think it's further down in the valley; the developer is proposing a slope line higher up," he said. "That makes a big difference."

Opponents of the Three Sisters Mountain Village in Canmore, Alta., say a proposed wildlife corridor is too high up the mountain. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The Bow Valley is considered a "pinch point" for wildlife travelling along the spine of the Rocky Mountains between Yellowstone in the U.S. north to the Yukon. 

"[Pinch points] are very important because they provide low elevation habitat, they're relatively warm in winter ... and disproportionately, these places are where wildlife move through," Legault said.

It's essential that the corridor be as wide as possible to assist wildlife in their day-to-day lives as well as their longterm genetic viability, he said. Legault said the absolute minimum width of the corridor should be 450 metres — and that the corridor should begin lower on the slope.

"The challenge, of course, is that 450 metres off of that 25-degree slope takes us right into the middle of where Three Sisters is planning on developing."

Legault said the developers should "go back to the drawing board" with their plans and added that he'd like to see the province undertake an assessment of the impact that all the development in the region could have. 

A report on the proposed wildlife corridor, prepared for QuantumPlace Developments by Golder Associates, states that the proposal included input from professional biologists as well as a community action group.

Consensus difficult to achieve

Together, stakeholders "extensively" reviewed a variety of possible corridor alignments, the report said.

"Through this time, it was evident that consensus ... would be difficult to achieve." The report also acknowledged that expert opinion on wildlife corridors "varies widely."

The spokesperson for the development has not yet been available for comment. 

The public meeting in Canmore will take place Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m at the Coast Canmore Hotel.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener