March 25th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 12
Protecting Ovis Canadensis
- Emerald Lake Wildlife Fencing
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
George Hoffman Photo
The continuing threat at the Lakes
According to local wildlife biologist Dale Paton the issue of bighorn sheep losses and their protection at the Crowsnest Lakes has been around for at least thirty years. Local residents and fish and game groups from Hillcrest, Willow Valley and Coleman had long advocated for something to be done about sheep losses in the Emerald Lake area. So have Greg Hale and his predecessors at ESRD’s Fish and Wildlife branch.
It wasn’t until the Miistakis Institute developed their Road Watch program that true data about these losses (not anecdotal information) began to be collected on the Alberta side of Highway 3. Road Watch is a citizen science initiative established in 2004 to collect information on wildlife crossings and losses on Highway 3. It was only after this survey that the true magnitude of this problem was scientifically verified. Using historic knowledge of local citizens, ESRD data, Volker Stevin road kill numbers and the Road Watch mapping program, a strong case was finally built for the need for some serious mitigation.
In May of 2010 the “Highway 3: Transportation Mitigation for Wildlife and Connectivity” report was released by the Miistakis Institute, Western Transportation Institute and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. It is a remarkably in-depth assessment of the issues and potential solutions to some of the more high risk areas on Highway 3. Crowsnest Lakes and the Rock Creek/Leitch Collieries areas were specifically identified as high priority areas using data that was of a conservative nature but still proved the need for serious mitigative measures.
After a lot of years of advocating and a lot of perseverance there is finally some good news to report on the Emerald Lake issue. Alberta Transportation announced last week that they have secured funding for wildlife fencing there. According to Road Watch’s Rob Schaufele: “Their Directional Fencing Project will involve installing about 1.5km of wildlife fencing, parallel to the highway (N & S sides) at Emerald Lake. The fencing will direct or funnel sheep and other wildlife to cross under the existing bridge and prevent them from crossing the highway or coming down to the shoulder to graze or lick salt. The fencing will have jump-outs so if animals get on the wrong side of the fence (Hwy side) they can get over to the good side but not back. “
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Emerald Lake was chosen as a starting point for the fencing project because visibility for motorists is poor and the number of Bighorn Sheep killed there is high. These are tragic losses that are affecting this specific herd’s sustainability and wildlife vehicle collisions pose a serious danger to motorists. Engineering of this directional fencing will hopefully be started this summer.
Some supportive information for its layout is coming from the Wild Sheep Foundation of Alberta who since 2013 has contracted Paton to use remote cameras and snow tracking surveys to document where sheep were successfully crossing Hwy 3 in contrast to where mortalities were occurring. This information will be used in the design of the fencing and so far has shown that they are crossing under the Emerald Lake Bridge. The proposed fence design will maintain their ability to continue doing so.
Consideration is also being given to yet another mitigation step to have an underpass west of Crowsnest Lakes where previous work including the study by the Wild Sheep Foundation has documented that bighorns are currently crossing Highway 3 successfully with limited mortalities.
Coincident with this first mitigation effort the Miistakis Institute itself is conducting a research project here known as Collision Count that is monitoring wildlife collisions specifically at the Rock Creek and Emerald Lake sites. It is yet another citizen science effort and involves the Highway 3 Partnership Program. It has two specific goals which are: Firstly: To generate a pre-construction systematic dataset at these two sites and a control site (Iron Ridge) and establish a wildlife-vehicle collision correction factor by monitoring for road kill off the highway right of way. (It is widely accepted that many animals are injured in collisions and make their way off the highway and die elsewhere and are unrecorded). Secondly: To evaluate the reduction in wildlife vehicle collisions due to installation of the underpass and fencing at Rock Creek and the fencing at Emerald Lake and identify cost savings to Alberta Transportation from investing in this mitigation.
Collision Count has developed a specialized tool for the very dedicated and passionate volunteers working in the program. It is an android smart phone app for data collection that includes a photo upload function to assist with photo identification. They will use this app to eventually develop what they will call their “Animal Snap” citizen science program, where citizens can identify wildlife species from remote cameras through an on-line website. This will allow them, for example, to evaluate the effectiveness of the Rock Creek underpass, a mitigation project next up on the Alberta Transportation list. The Rock Creek corridor is an extremely important area that is bisected and disturbed by Hwy #3. The roadway negatively affects wildlife connectivity and population diversity for a wide range of species. Reducing the highway's negative effects there is one of the Hwy #3 Partnership Group's most important concerns.
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The Hillcrest Fish and Game Society has started raising funds for yet another connected proposal to this mitigation that will monitor how Bighorn Sheep will respond to the fence. They propose to place GPS neck collars on Bighorn Sheep to track movements near the highway. It will provide information of how sheep respond to the fence and if some get around it they will have data on their movements that will help them adjust the fence to maximize its effectiveness. It will also expand the project knowledge regarding sheep ecology of the Crowsnest herd and confirm which area is best suited for a future underpass. According to Paton this project will be a good compliment to Collision Count because it will identify more precisely where sheep can cross successfully to get to important seasonal habitats such as rutting, wintering and lambing areas which are bisected by Highway 3.
Rob Schaufele , a tireless wildlife advocate and coordinator for Road Watch and Collision Count , points out that: “It is important to note that the Emerald Lake Wildlife Fencing project is just the start, or beginning of, a longer term mitigation strategy that could potentially involve more fencing, and wildlife crossing structures (over and underpasses). Key locations have been mapped out along Highway #3 for future mitigation”.
Paton notes that: “It is important to note this initiative will not keep all sheep off the highway but is should keep most sheep away from the high collision zone around Emerald Lake. Sheep are persistent in staying around highways particularly when there are attractants such as salt on the road.”
What a remarkable combined effort this has been. Bravo to all those who have worked for so long to bring this mitigation about. For me personally these initiatives and all the hard work that has been done by so many is gratifying. I had occasion to study big horns up close for over thirty years at the Line Creek Mine. They are magnificent, iconic creatures and deserve as much protection as we, the citizens of the Crowsnest Pass, can help facilitate.
March 25th ~ Vol. 85 No. 12
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