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Environmentalists call for buffer zone outside Jasper park

After the recent deaths of a collared cougar and a collared wolf just outside the park boundary, environmentalists are calling for a buffer zone to stop trappers from operating so close to Jasper National Park.

In January, a collared cougar was accidentally trapped near Moosehorn Creek, north of Brule, followed by a collared wolf, which was recently trapped and killed southwest of Hinton.

It’s not exactly clear when the wolf was killed, but the collar was recently returned to the Jasper Field Unit, according to Jeff Kneteman, a senior biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks, in Hinton.

“It’s just an arbitrary boundary we’ve drawn, animals don’t know about the boundary, on one side they’re subject to trapping and the other side they’re not,” said Kneteman.

Parks Canada confirmed a collared wolf was recently trapped outside the park and said there are currently three collared wolves in the Jasper area; two in the Sunwapta pack and another in the Rocky River pack.

In Alberta, trappers are legally allowed to set up trap lines on provincial land as long as they have a fur management license or a trapper’s identification card. If they’re operating on private land, they must also carry a signed document indicating that they have permission to set up their traps there.

The province divvies up Crown land into Registered Fur Management Areas (RFMA). These areas are under the control of a “senior holder” who is authorized to trap on that parcel of land for a five-year term, provided the license is renewed each year.

“Animals that stray out of the park along the eastern slopes in Jasper and Banff are under heavy pressure from trappers,” said Dick Dekker, who has been tracking wolves in and around park for the past 52 years and has published two books and several papers about wolves and buffer zones.

“The boundary is a very artificial line so a protective zone beyond it would make sense,” he said.

The 82-year-old acknowledged that establishing a comprehensive buffer zone around the entire park would be difficult to implement, but suggested it could be done in areas where wolves and other animals regularly visit, such as Rock Lake, which is about three kilometres outside the park’s eastern boundary.

“That’s one area where a protective zone would make more than political sense. Logically that area should have been part of Jasper National Park,” he said, explaining elk spend the winter in the area, attracting predators and trappers.

According to Kneteman, on the east side of Rock Lake there is a small provincial recreation area where hunting and trapping is not allowed, however, the rest of the area, known as Solomon Creek Wildland Park, hunting and trapping is permitted. In fact, hunting is permitted in wildland parks across the province.

Dekker said another area that should be off limits to trappers and hunters is the lower Athabasca Valley near Brule and the park’s east gate.

Alberta Parks and Environment was non-committal when asked about the possibility of buffer zones, insisting that its staff closely monitors wolf and cougar populations.

“There is currently no concern with the harvest of wolves or cougars in the area,” wrote Lisa Glover, a spokeswoman for Alberta Parks and Environment, in an email.

“Both wolf and cougar populations are robust throughout Alberta, and the legal harvest of wolves is sustainable. The accidental capture of some cougars does not pose a conservation concern to long term populations.”

Glover said provincial staff monitor harvest rates for both species and, if necessary, will recommend changes to trapping seasons or adjust regulations.

She also noted that if a cougar is accidentally captured it must be registered and the animal is seized.

Despite assurances from the province that both species are not under threat, environmentalists remain resolute in their call for buffer zones around the park.

Jill Seaton, chair of the Jasper Environmental Association, echoed Dekker’s concerns.

“Predators are absolutely critical to create balance in a park and I think we’re losing too many to trappers outside the park,” she said.

“For a long time there’s been talk that there should be buffer zones around the park. Not for everything, but certainly for trapping.”

The idea of a buffer zone around a national park isn’t new.

In fact as of Jan. 28, 10,000 people had signed a petition to establish a buffer zone outside of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. The petition calls on the American government to eliminate hunting and trapping adjacent to the park in the bordering states of Idaho and Montana. A U.S. court recently made it illegal to hunt gray wolves in Wyoming.

This isn’t the first petition to try and create a buffer zone around Yellowstone National Park, but so far previous attempts have failed.

In Canada, conservation groups successfully lobbied the Ontario government in 2004 to establish a buffer zone in all 39 townships that surround Algonquin Provincial Park. The buffer zone prohibits people from hunting or trapping wolves and coyotes.

Parks rejected the idea of a buffer zone around Jasper National Park.

“Parks Canada is focused on taking tangible actions to protect and monitor species within its jurisdiction. A buffer zone around Jasper National Park is not something that is being considered at this time,” wrote Steve Young, a communications officer with JNP, in an email.

“Parks Canada’s mandate and jurisdiction ends at the boundaries of Jasper National Park. Hunters and trappers are operating in a legal manner outside of the park boundaries and have been co-operative in returning Parks Canada collars,” he wrote.

Locally, the Alberta Tappers’ Association threw cold water on the idea of creating a buffer zone around JNP.

“I don’t really see what benefit it provides,” said Bill Abercrombie, vice-president of the association.

“The reality is when your dealing with large carnivores their range can extend a long way in and out of the park boundary, particularly wolves, cougars and bears, so there’s going to be some mortality.”

He said it’s unfortunate a collared animal got caught by a trapper, but suggested mortality is part of any study and it provides insight into the animal’s lifespan and behaviour.

“We need to have a managed harvest of wolves and bears in Alberta simply because the populations have been increasing so dramatically over the past 20 years,” he said, adding he fully supports protecting wildlife habitat from development.

“The issue right now is that we’ve got too many wolves, because of the mild winter and issues with climate change. The reality is that we need to harvest predators to get things a little more balanced.”

He flatly rejected allegations by some environmentalist that trappers operate close to the park’s boundary to purposefully snare unsuspecting animals.

“It’s not really how trapping works and very few wolves are shot by hunters because you’d be a frozen icicle sitting there waiting for something to come outside the park.”

He said trappers use humane techniques so animals don’t suffer and said the animals they do catch are treated with respect and dignity. He said there are approximately 1,500 trap lines across the province and the vast majority catch their intended target.

“Trappers are all about managing and sustaining habitat and the creatures that live on it—we really are,” he said.

Paul Clarke

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