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Backcountry users ‘vilified’ in caribou debate

“It’s impossible to have a rational conversation about this because it immediately gets couched in ‘it’s people against caribou’ and it’s not,” said Gilbert Wall of Tonquin Valley Adventures. “There is a realization from me, particularly, that caribou are worth saving, but the conversation is dismal right now. It’s ‘people bad, caribou good.’”

And that’s difficult, he said, because the backcountry users are being “vilified,” despite the fact that they’re amongst the lowest impact users in the park, and they’re also some of the most environmentally conscious.

Parks is proposing to close the Tonquin Valley, the Brazeau area and the northern boundary of the park to backcountry use from Nov. 1 to March 1 in hopes of protecting caribou—a threatened species under the Species at Risk Act—from predators such as wolves. The argument for the closure is it is believed compact ski tracks allow wolves access to winter caribou habitat, where they would otherwise be safe from predation.

This is not the only threat to Jasper’s woodland caribou—Parks Canada has identified five—but it is one of them, said Layla Neufeld, a wildlife biologist with Parks Canada’s Mountain National Park Caribou Conservation Project.

“There’s a lot of things that are important to caribou ecology and we need to do everything at this point, because the situation is quite desperate, to do what we can to meet both our obligations for the Species at Risk Act and our management plan and also our ecology goals,” she said.

Referencing research during last week’s Wild Jasper presentation, she said trails clear of snow allow wolves to travel farther and faster. “By staying on compacted trails, wolves travel in areas where deep snow would usually impede movements.” She couldn’t say how many caribou mortalities have been on trails.

Only 71 caribou remain in the park. There are 50 in the Tonquin herd, 15 in the Brazeau and six in the Maligne. That’s not enough for them to be self-sustaining, said Neufeld.

“[Woodland caribou] are declining nearly everywhere, all across the country, from Yukon to basically Newfoundland,” she said. “So that’s a little bit of pressure on us.”

The proposed closures, which equate to about 18 per cent of the park and include some of the most accessible backcountry ski areas, have been met with opposition from backcountry users and groups like the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment. Those opposed feel the closures are being pushed through without research or proof to back up Parks Canada’s claims.

Because caribou are a species at risk, Neufeld said that means decisions need to be made under uncertainty. “We really can’t put off decisions until perfect knowledge is acquired.”

Parks will announce its decision on the closures in May. April 19 is the last day to submit comments that will help the agency in its decision making process.

For Wall, if the proposed closures are approved, it’s the last nail in the coffin for his business.

“It’s kind of like death by 1,000 cuts,” he said, noting that there is no way to increase revenue as the season is continuously cut shorter and Parks is continuously implementing new operating conditions that add costs. Between those conditions and the lack of funding for maintenance of trails and infrastructure in the backcountry, things are looking grim for Tonquin Valley Adventures, said Wall.

“It’s been a long process of making it harder and harder to operate, to the point now where it’s not really possible to operate.”

 

Comments regarding the proposed closures can be sent to caribou@pc.gc.ca.

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