Features & Images » Feature Story

Right of Passage

Safely and efficiently moving people and wildlife on Banff’s section of the Trans-Canada Highway and beyond

by

comment

While the idea of wildlife-specific crossings is nothing new to Banff National Park, it is only in the last decade (and more predominantly in recent years) that scientists, parks staff and researchers are beginning to comprehend and effectively utilize the 30-odd years of research collected along Banff National Park’s section of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Going back to the mid 1970s, when the onslaught of ever increasing human traffic began, it was decided that the amount of both human and wildlife fatalities due to highway collisions was simply no longer acceptable. It was then that Parks Canada began to come up with an ambitious plan; one that they most likely never imagined would make Banff the world leader for animal specific crossings and attract researchers from around the globe to come and observe their achievements.

By 1981, with highway traffic increasing considerably on an annual basis it was time for major upgrades to begin.   Completely bisecting the park through the Bow Valley at a crucial area for wildlife feeding, mating and dispersion of offspring, the Trans-Canada needed to be transformed from two lanes into four while implementing a tangible plan that allowed wildlife the same right of passage as the millions of visiting motorists. The goal was to maintain ecological integrity amongst the parks diverse wildlife population.

In those plans it was decided to build 22 underpasses and two overpasses over 45 kilometres of fenced-in highway, as well as to create a progressive visitor education program that would combat wildlife feeding and reduce the speed limit to 90 km/h.

Those implementations effectively gave Banff more wildlife passages than any other place in the world and positively modified visitor behavior to cut ungulate animal collisions by over 96 per cent and non-hoofed animal collisions by over 80 per cent (given that bears occasionally still climb over fences and animals such as coyotes and wolves still find the need to sporadically dig under them).

  Research using a mix of both primitive and modern day techniques continue to this day, giving researchers a wealth of data on which to study the movement and habits of all animals that now commute using these park features.

Freshly racked sand pads provide paw and hoof prints identifying different types of animals while silent remote digital cameras snap four photographs in rapid succession at one second intervals, recording behavior and how animals react while using crossings. Strategically strung barbed wire retains fur or hair samples which can be used to track individual animals and their anatomy through DNA testing.

With this information, parks staff continually modify crossings to seem as comfortable and as natural as possible for the diverse wildlife that depend on them for to roam freely through the park.

The 50-metre-wide overpasses that come with a price tag of $2.5 million dollars each contain several natural features that attempt to blend into the natural landscape. Fifteen-metre banked walls on either side block traffic out of sight and nearby native plants and soils are planted along the crossings to camouflage into the landscape. Where feasible, some underpasses mask the overhead noise of traffic with running water as animals are more comfortable with crossings containing creeks.

With up to 24,000 cars a day on that section of the Trans-Canada in summer months, the highway is currently undergoing another major expansion from two to four lanes from Lake Louise’s Castle Junction all the way to the B.C. border, which will involve building an additional 16 underpasses and two new overpasses.

Speaking with Tony Clevenger and Cathy Gill of communications for the Banff Wildlife Crossings Project of Parks Canada, Pique Newsmagazine got a better insight on the project’s successes, challenges and what lay ahead.

 

Pique: Since construction how many animal crossings have taken place on or through the 24 over/underpasses and what animals frequent them the most?

 

Parks Canada: In the past 11 years of monitoring, 11 species of large mammals have used the crossings more than 95,000 times. Elk and deer use the crossing most. This is a result of these two species being most abundant in the Bow Valley, not an indication of greater preference by them or avoidance by other species. All large mammals in Banff National Park use the crossings regularly.

 

Pique: Have there been any new trends recorded with the crossings?

 

PC: Yes, there are a few trends that we have observed. Firstly, research shows that there is a learning curve for animals to begin using wildlife crossings after construction. It can take up to five years for wary animals such as grizzly bears and wolves before they feel secure in using the newly built crossings.

Secondly, results show that some animals prefer certain types of crossings. For example, grizzly bears, wolves, elk, deer and moose prefer wildlife crossings that are high, wide and open, and have good visibility, whereas cougars and black bears show a preference for smaller, more constricted crossings, ones that provide good cover and protection. Basically species use crossing types that match what they require for travel habitat.

 

Pique: What challenges do you currently face and what challenges lay ahead?

 

PC: Learning more about how populations of wildlife benefit from the crossings. Until now, our research has addressed individuals, i.e., responses of different species to crossing types and total number of times different species use the 24 crossings. For transportation agencies to be convinced of the real benefits (and investment cost-benefits) we need to be able to demonstrate scientifically their importance to populations in terms of (1) survival of individuals within the population and (2) how the crossings facilitate movement of all ages and sexes, including breeding and reproduction. We are currently engaged in a three-year research project using a noninvasive DNA-based technique to provide answers to that question and using black and grizzly bears as the study species.

Perhaps the largest challenge I see in the long-term is how transportation agencies are going to be able to accommodate the growing transportation needs in the future. This is really unsustainable ecologically and governments, politicians and transportation agencies are going to need to take a serious look at less fossil fuel-dependent means of transportation and moving towards increased public transportation systems (e.g. rail).

 

Pique: Have other areas with similar issues around Canada looked to Banff National Park for solutions or research information?

 

PC: Yes. Banff is unique worldwide. Banff is the only large-scale highway mitigation complex in the world. Most highway mitigation projects for wildlife have at most four to five wildlife crossings, whereas Banff has 24 large crossings on 45-km of the Trans-Canada Highway. Eight additional crossings are being built today along the segment of the TCH now being upgraded near Lake Louise. For this reason, we have engineers and biologists from all over the world visiting Banff and speaking with our wildlife research team and Highway Service Centre Director, Terry McGuire.

 

Pique: Will anything be done differently for the next section of highway expansion?

 

PC: Yes. What has been learned from six years of monitoring the first phases of highway construction and data analyses is being used in the planning and construction of the next sections. This is an ‘adaptive management’ approach to highway mitigation planning, basically using research results from previous monitoring to guide the planning and design of new crossings. The analyses of wildlife preference/avoidance of crossing types are being used to guide the design of new crossings. Simulation models based on animal movements of five large mammal species in the Bow Valley were used to determine best placement of new crossings. The structures will be slightly larger than crossings on previously twinned sections of the Trans-Canada Highway in the park, primarily because the upper part of the Bow Valley (a sub alpine ecozone) has a different suite of wildlife, including higher densities of lynx, grizzly bears, moose and wolverine.   There is little information on crossing type preference for lynx and wolverine, because they are rarely found in the lower Bow Valley where the existing crossing structures are located.

 

Pique: There is some debate on how to include the hamlet of Lake Louise into the plans. Can you elaborate on this?

PC: The environmental assessment for the current TCH twinning project adjacent to Lake Louise recommended that the highway fence include the hamlet to reduce bear-human encounters. Parks Canada explored this possibility, but at this time, it was not feasible and the highway fence is being built along the right-of-way.

A fence behind the community would have to cross the Bow River twice and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) three times. At these points, fence structures must prevent wildlife passage but allow usual river recreation and railway traffic. Parks Canada tested river and rail structures within a short fence section to assess how well they would deter large animals. The deterrents tested at the CPR openings did not meet wildlife exclusion targets set by Parks Canada in time to meet the TCH Twinning construction schedule. With the cooperation of the CPR, Parks Canada will continue to test deterrents at fence railway openings. A fence behind the community to exclude grizzly bears from the hamlet remains a possible option. This would benefit both people and grizzly bears.

 

Pique: What is the scheduled completion date for the second phase of the highway expansion?

 

PC: Within the remaining 35-km section of two-lane highway in the park, a nine kilometre segment is now being upgraded to four lanes with completion expected in fall 2008.   Further twinning will occur as funding is obtained.

 

Pique: Any additional information people should know?

 

PC: Ungulate vehicle collisions have dropped from an annual average of over 100 per year to less than half dozen today between Castle Junction and the park’s east gate. Approximately 65 per cent of all accidents (outside the park) involve wildlife while in Banff National Park it is 13 per cent (slightly more than one in 10).

Highway mitigation for wildlife may appear to be costly to motoring public and taxpayers, but with average elk-vehicle collision costs being over $10,000, recent studies have shown these measures pay for themselves in several years.

 

Back on the Sea to Sky corridor where several wildlife crossings incorporated into the current highway upgrades will help reduce wildlife collisions. Four underpasses are to be put in south of Whistler in the Pinecrest area and one is already in place near the Horseshoe Bay area. The highway will also include several small-scale culverts to accommodate smaller critters crossing needs as well.  

 

TONY CLEVENGER has been an independent researcher contracted by Parks Canada since 1996 to carry out long-term research assessing the performance of mitigation measures designed to reduce habitat fragmentation on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. In September 2002, he began working for the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University, while continuing his research in Banff and the Mountain Parks. In 2005, Tony garnered support from Parks Canada, Montana State University, and three large North American conservation foundations to partner in funding his long-term research until 2008.

Tony is currently a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Committee on Effects of Highways on Natural Communities and Ecosystems. Since 1986, he has published over 40 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has co-authored three books including, Road Ecology: Science and Solutions (Island Press, 2003). During the last 9 years in Banff his research has resulted in 17 peer-reviewed publications.  

 

CATHY GILL is the Outreach and Education Coordinator for the Trans-Canada Highway Project.   She develops and delivers the school-based and public outreach programs for the project.

For more information on the TCH project, please visit:   www.pc.gc.ca/transcanada