I started my career working with colleagues from the Canadian Wildlife Service, Canadian Forestry Service and Alberta Institute of Pedology doing a landscape classification and wildlife inventory of Banff and Jasper National Parks. That was where I first learned to look at how landforms work, how vegetation evolves over time, and where wildlife — from amphibians and birds through shrews and voles to the larger carnivores and ungulates — choose to live out their lives. Maybe that’s why there’s often an ache in my heart when I look at land; I see wounds that aren’t necessarily obvious to others.
I spent much of the rest of my working career in landscape ecology and conservation biology before retiring with my wife to Canmore in 2011 where we bought a small home that we actually live in — unlike so many other residences in this town.
When I started my career in the 1970s I lived for a while in Tepee Town, when Canmore was still a recovering coal town. The Three Sisters lands were undeveloped. The Benchlands and Cougar Creek were undeveloped. It was a place that still fit inside nature. Since then, however, it has become a place where nature has trouble fitting in at all. The fate of Bear 148 is only one recent example of the degree to which human use now dominates this valley, even with the seeming abundance of wild space here.
We tend to take things for granted; to assume that because they are there today they will always be there. I used to assume the burrowing owls and curlews that I watched as a child in the prairie east of Calgary would always be there. They are gone, even the prairie is gone; it’s all city now, all the way out to Chestermere. When I saw my first caribou in Jasper they seemed to be quintessential living emblems of that park; caribou became part of how I knew that place during my wildlife inventory days. They’re gone from most of the places where I used to see them; Jasper has a hollow in its heart now.
Animals don’t happen by accident; they need habitat. Some habitats are more critical than others — alluvial and riparian areas, for example, and deciduous woods, native grasslands, south-facing benches. And wildlife needs space and security and room to move without the stress of constant encounters with things that make them uneasy. Like us. Especially like our dogs. They rely on predictable patterns in the environment — patterns of weather, seasonality, the presence of other species, the availability of food.
Animals do not need “wildlife corridors”. The concept of a wildlife corridor has an ecological basis — in fragmented lands, corridors with intact vegetation and low human use enable wary or nervous animals to get around, albeit with a constant level of stress — but it’s mostly a planner’s conceit; a handy device to enable us to pretend that we are providing for nature while filling the landscape full of our stuff. Animals don’t need wildlife corridors; what they need is habitat and space.
If we are who we seem to say we are in this valley, we like living among wild animals. We take pride in saying that there are grizzly bears here, that elk sometimes walk down the street and coyotes sing in the night and that living in Canmore and the Bow Valley is living in the heart of nature. But none of those things are assured if nature starts to run out of space.
That’s why, as an ecologist and a Canmore resident and a thinking citizen of the 21st century, I oppose the latest iteration of the Three Sisters Mountain Village concept. It’s not a village. It’s a development play, for profit. And there’s nothing wrong with profit, earned by honest endeavour and fair play. But buying land on speculation is taking on risk that there won’t be any profit, or that the profits might not be as high as hoped. So I also don’t feel that anyone in this valley owes anything to the developers who want to profit from yet another wave of urban sprawl. On the other hand, I do feel that we all owe something to nature, considering how much it enriches our daily lives (and helps developers market the subdivisions with which they are replacing it.)
That means leaving the wildlife habitat that survives in this valley as intact as possible. If we are talking about corridors, we need to be talking about people corridors, not wildlife corridors. Wildlife shouldn’t be forced to squeeze into narrow gaps between houses, dodging dog walkers, bicyclists and free-range kids in stress-filled efforts to get from one patch of cover to the next. Because at some point, that will stop working for grizzly bears, wolves, moose and other animals who already spend too much time dodging us. Wolves are already mostly absent, even at the current level of development.
In this 21st century, nature is under siege from climate change, habitat fragmentation and the massive footprint of a human population that seems to insist on all the trappings of prosperity instead of asking how much we can do without. If Canmore wants to believe itself to be a community where people and nature coexist, then that requires some self-imposed limitations. We have more options than other species. On where we recreate and how, certainly, but also on where we develop and why.
Every remaining square meter of alluvial habitats in this valley, of aspen forest, grassland, willow wetland and Douglas fir forest needs to be left wild. We’ve already taken more than our fair share. Or we should just start calling ourselves Calgary. If developers want more, they should have a better reason than to sell more high-end weekend retreats that sit empty half the year in cul-de-sacs that echo with emptiness and reek of wasted wealth. And they should look for places without elk, bear or marten tracks, without birdsong and without game trails.
Because if we don’t reel Three Sisters in, that’s what the whole place could become.
Kevin Van Tighem
Dear Mayor and Members of Town Council;
We attended, as a family, last night’s public information session on the proposed Three Sisters Mountain Village. As community members, we felt strongly that it was important for our children to become aware of proposed changes to their community and understand the ramifications it will have.
As such, we are writing to you – our elected representatives – with our grave concerns about this proposal and the permanent legacy it will leave, particularly for the generation with the least power or ability to influence this decision.
On learning that this proposal conflicts with several guiding documents for our community, including the Municipal Development Plan, conservation wildlands zoning, and several bylaws, we have many questions as to the process by which the ASP has even achieved consideration. Further to that, it is truly difficult to understand how a proposal for development over a known liability such as all the undermining in the area could even be considered viable or affordable for the citizens of this community in the long-term.
With the risk of Canmore’s population doubling; urban sprawl all the way to Dead Man’s Flats; little to no economic benefit given the unlikelihood of commercial development (despite the promises); and the potential to choke off an already-narrow corridor of an already-stressed wildlife population, it is truly difficult to understand the logic or the vision for proceeding with such a potentially devastating development.
This development will forever compromise Canmore’s character, quality of life, wildlife, and ultimately the future of our children if allowed to proceed. It flies in the face of our self-declared climate emergency and represents just another profit-driven project that mark the world over with their degradation of the natural world and breakdown of community.
It takes moral courage to put principle over profit and make decisions that are about the long-term liveability and quality of life for a community vs the short-term financial gain of a select few. However, as those who were elected to represent us, isn’t that what you’ve been tasked to do?
Teo Wadsworth (age 13) Brynn Wadsworth (age 10)