By Dr. John Weaver
When the famous naturalist and guide Andy Russell led hunters and summer visitors on horseback through southwest Alberta during 1930s-1950s, the country was wild, the waters clean and full of native trout, and wildlife roamed the mountains in security.
But over the past 50 years, expanding resource extraction and associated roads have penetrated most of these remote valleys. Once-abundant populations have been diminished, habitat security has been breached, connectivity has been fractured, and genetic integrity compromised.
The Alberta government is developing strategic direction for managing land and natural resources in various regions across the province. Last month, it released the draft Regional Plan for the South Saskatchewan.
Unfortunately, the draft Plan falls far short of protecting vulnerable fish and wildlife populations and headwater sources of precious water that are cherished by southern Albertans.
As senior scientist for Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, I assessed the conservation value of Crown lands in southwest Alberta in a recent report entitled “Protecting and Connecting Headwater Havens.” It focused on a suite of iconic species – bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, grizzly bear, wolverine, mountain goat and bighorn sheep.
I compiled and synthesized the latest scientific data collected by Alberta biologists to map key areas for each species, then overlaid these maps to obtain a view for the group. We found that when taken together more than 70 percent the Eastern Slopes of southwest Alberta has vital habitat for 1 or more vulnerable species. About one-half of the area has high importance for the group as a whole.
Based upon its scientific assessment, WCS Canada identified an area over 2,500 square kilometres that provides two-thirds of the most important habitats for these vulnerable species on just 40 percent of the land base. This remaining stronghold occurs in the headwaters of major rivers along the Eastern Slopes – the Castle, Crowsnest, Oldman, and Highwood Rivers.
While these ‘Headwater Havens’ comprise the best remaining habitat security and could provide safe passage for movement in the wake of changing climate, only eight percent of these lands are currently protected.
Many important areas would remain un-protected in the Alberta government’s draft Regional Plan, which would establish new Wildland Parks in about 25% of the area. In fact, the government’s proposed parks would cover only a small portion of each species’ vital habitat. Several of the more productive habitats along the upper river valleys and higher tributaries would be excluded from protection.
Although the additional Wildland Parks represent a commendable step in the right direction, they are woefully inadequate to protect the last best places for these vulnerable fish and wildlife.
I have ridden horseback and hiked through these spectacular valleys and mountains, witnessed bull trout returning to crystal headwater streams to spawn, and watched bighorn sheep nibble short grasses with the roar of chinook winds and eagle wings in their ears. These places are rich in life and experiences that are becoming rare and ever more precious.
But I have also found forestry roads and clearcuts right up to cliffs along the Continental Divide, watched all-terrain-vehicles damage fragile stream banks in too many places, and gazed across open-pit coal mines that leveled mountaintops. What a contrast to the care and respect for the land evident on many family ranches in the foothills.
If Albertans wish to have more of their natural heritage and treasured headwaters protected, then several additional areas should be designated as Wildland Provincial Parks or Conservation Areas with strong standards.
High on such a list should be: the valleys of upper Castle and West Castle River; the upper section of Carbondale River watershed above confluence with Lost Creek and Lynx Creek; the upper section of Racehorse Creek watershed above the confluence of the North and South Forks; the upper portion of Oldman River watershed above Hidden Creek; and the upper Highwood River watershed west of Highwood Junction.
Protecting these headwater havens with new and connected Wildland Provincial Parks or Conservation Areas will help ensure that these remarkable treasures of native fish and wildlife and precious water will be enjoyed by people today and generations yet to follow. They would be smart, effective investments toward a more resilient future in a changing world. Today is not too late, but tomorrow may be.
Dr. John Weaver is a Senior Conservation Scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.