Conservation and Cooperation

By Len Broberg

As our vans of students pulled in, Beth Russell-Towe’s smile lit up the gray October day. The Waterton wind tugged at a few loose strands of hair as she greeted the students. We were on a trip across Montana, Alberta and British Columbia for a graduate course offered jointly by the University of Montana Environmental Studies Program and the University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design as part of the Transboundary Policy, Planning and Management Initiative at the two schools.

Beth bubbled with enthusiasm as the students described their work one by one, and this left them with a smile. With a spring in her step, she then took us on a tour of the townsite of Waterton Park, Alberta, describing its unique history and the challenges of managing a community within a national park. Renowned for her efforts to promote ecologically sustainable tourism in the Crown of the Continent and the Trail of the Great Bear, Russell-Towe is just one of many remarkable human and natural resources we encounter on our annual journey through Montana, Alberta and British Columbia.

The weeklong trip is the centerpiece of the graduate course and the foundation of the initiative at the two schools. Throughout the journey, students meet with landowners, private industry managers, government managers and nonprofit staff to learn their perspectives, issues and approaches to conservation around different themes—energy development, large carnivore conservation, or growth management, to name a few. The course, first offered in 2000, is often the seed for research questions that the graduate students pursue for their final projects. Generously funded by the H.P. Kendall Foundation for almost a decade, the course is now a core offering at both institutions.

While the half of the course in Montana offers many new insights, beautiful scenery and engaging speakers, it is the trip north of the 49th parallel that generally offers the most striking learning opportunity for the University of Montana students. Most of the students have not studied Canada in depth or even visited Alberta or British Columbia before. The voices they hear and the sights they see leave a lasting impression. Likewise, their Canadian counterparts are offered new glimpses into land management in the U.S. The chance to share their thoughts and ideas with one another as we transect the landscape offers a profound experiential learning opportunity.

For instance, one day we find ourselves perched on the edge of a yawning coalmine pit in British Columbia. The wind is slicing through the group as we huddle together to hear how the mine reclaims the land it disturbs. To the north and west, we can see the snow-dusted crest of the Greenhills Range above the Elk River.

The students shiver under their hard hats and focus on the scale of the mining operation and the mountain peaks surrounding it. There is hard-won information gained here: how trees, for example, can grow in newly created topsoil laid down by the grass that was previously planted on the site’s bare mineral ground; moreover, how, with the fluctuating value of the coal resource still found below, this site may be surface-mined again. Unlike the requirements of surface coal mining in the U.S., the original topsoil does not need to be retained for reclamation under British Columbian regulations.

On another day, we hike into a grove of giant cottonwood trees down in the Elk River Valley. These are some of the oldest cottonwoods now living on the planet, and we marvel at their age and the human history they have lived through. Predating the arrival of Western European explorers like David Thompson by several hundred years, these trees have likely witnessed K’tunaxa and Kootenay First Nation members fishing, hunting, traveling and camping among their trunks.

Our tour guides for this day are from the Nature Conservancy Canada, Shell Canada and Tembec Corporation. Shell has turned over the Mount Broadwood area of British Columbia to Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) to manage for conservation. We stand at a turnout above the Wigwam River and survey the mountainside for bighorn sheep. NCC continues to allow hunting in the reserve, as well as fishing and other recreation, but it carefully manages access and motorized vehicle use to preserve habitat security for grizzly bears and other animals using the site.

We bump and rattle over many kilometers of gravel roads, then over a pass and down to the Flathead River. Relieved students rush out of the van, a few showing the effects of a couple hours of twists and turns behind the rear axle. Just a few miles downstream, the name of the same body of water changes to “North Fork of the Flathead” once it crosses the border into Montana. All that marks the border along the river now is a concrete obelisk, like a miniature Washington Monument; the border cut (a swath of cleared forest stretching through Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park); and an abandoned border-crossing station.

Along the river just north of the border lies another abandoned building, which once housed the only full-time residents in the BC Flathead, and a tavern-store. After our long trip in, we can appreciate the isolation and difficulty of access that led to the abandonment of the homestead. The BC Flathead is the largest unpopulated watershed along the length of the U.S.-Canada border. In the winter, access would be even more challenging.

We load up again and travel a short way up Sage Creek on the east side of the Flathead watershed. There Tembec representatives tell us about their management of the Kootenay timber tenure. In Canada, the provinces manage the public land (Crown land) outside of national parks.

Instead of making individual timber sales, like in the U.S., the province enters a forest management agreement with a timber company for a period of years. Tembec has the agreement for much of the Flathead, and it mandates a certain amount of harvest within the term of the tenure agreement. The eastern peaks of the watershed mark the boundary with Waterton Lakes National Park. A trail that starts in the Waterton townsite snakes over the divide through Akamina Pass and continues down into Akamina-Kishenina Provincial Park—a provincial protected area that encompasses the peaks on the west side of the divide and trails down along part of the northern border of Glacier National Park. Some conservationists have promoted the idea of placing the east side of the Flathead into an expansion of Waterton Lakes National Park, thus regaining some of the land taken out of the park soon after its establishment in the early twentieth century. We look up toward the peaks and see the densely forested lands that would be part of this national park for off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles.

Our speakers and students share mixed opinions about such use of the watershed, weighing conflicts between the grizzly bears habitat security and the opportunity to see a wild area through motorized access. During the winter months, snowmobiles are the only way into the area. A provincial management plan that is adopted after our trip closes the southern part of the Flathead watershed’s east side to most motorized access off the existing road network, settling the issue for now.

On the east side of the Continental Divide, we hear from ranchers outside the national Park. They speak of the pressures of recreational home development from Calgary, which can change the landscape, put stress on traditional agricultural uses and make for some uneasy neighbors. Nature Conservancy Canada has found many willing landowners for conservation easements, a type of private land agreement where the landowner gives up certain future uses in exchange for cash and reduced property values, which lessens the burden of property taxes. For those in the cattle industry of southwestern Alberta, this can be a substantial benefit, as it allows them to maintain their business through marginal years by giving up the right to subdivide and build more structures forever.

NCC sees the benefit of reducing the stress on what has always been vital habitat for large mammals such as elk, grizzlies and mule deer. With recreational home development come roads, pets and garbage—all sources of potential conflict with these species, especially with grizzlies. We hear that Waterton Lakes National Park is not large enough to support grizzlies, and thus, these private lands are essential for providing areas of low elevation that can serve as naturally food-rich habitats for this large predator. Across the entire Crown of the Continent, the major source of grizzly mortality is human conflict. Containing recreational development adjacent to the park is a good deal for the bears.

Another side trip takes us to two reclamation sites along the Eastern Front. Our companions are members of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition, a non-profit Canadian advocacy group. The first site is a reclaimed gas well site held by Shell Canada. We carefully pick our way through the muddy, rutted ground at the end of the gated road to walk into the site and see the work that has been done. Some native plants appear to be taking hold, and small shrubs stick up out of the patchily vegetated ground. CCWC pushed to have this site reclaimed. Every canyon along the southwestern Alberta East Front that is not within a national park has roads and well sites, often several. The potential number of reclamation sites is large, especially as production in parts of the Waterton gas field declines with age.

Often, the sites lie dormant and are left classified as “active,” either in anticipation of reopening the well or in order to avoid reclamation costs. This site has progress to be made, but it is encouraging to CCWC that some reclamation is happening.

The second site shows how the errors of the past can continue to haunt us today. The land was reclaimed and made available for livestock grazing. The cattle, however, avoided an area within the site. Shell tested the site and found that it was heavily contaminated from disposal of drilling waste. It had not been designated as a dump site or managed to contain those types of waste, thus the disposal was unknown to Shell management. Nevertheless, reclamation will require digging up the contamination and disposing of it properly. CCWC played a role in the discovery of the contamination and is pleased that it is being addressed.

The last morning dawns mostly clear, with a few clouds tinged pink by the rising sun behind the peaks of Waterton Lakes National Park. We gather in the lodge’s cozy breakfast room and pack up. The students are sad to leave, and our parting with Beth Russell-Towe is bittersweet. She waves as we head out of the drive.

Our final visit is with a biologist from Waterton Lakes National Park in the bison paddock at the park. Looking across the golden fall grass, we can see part of the herd in the distance, grazing lazily. Bison are fenced in a small paddock in WLNP, although we hear how the park has explored the possibility of making the herd free-ranging to be consistent with its mission to promote ecological integrity—in this case, to restore a large grazer that maintained the grasslands in the park. Through discussions with neighboring landowners as well as a review of the biological and historical information, it becomes clear to the park staff that the area needed for a year-round free-ranging herd of bison would encompass a large area of private land. Those landowners see the use of their land as forage for livestock and open space for wildlife, but not bison. The park has shelved the idea of a free-ranging bison herd for now, seeing it as impractical and costly.

We gather to say our goodbyes to the other half of the class and load up for the drive home. It has been a full week, but a good one. Students have likened the experience to drinking from a fire hose. Yet, after some time for reflection and more background research, some of the students will decide to work on research issues relevant to the management of the Crown of the Continent. It is, in some small way, a means to give back to the people and the landscape we have met on our journey.