Planned Canadian mega-resort seen as threat to U.S. grizzlies

By Matt Herbert | 03/09/2015 12:45 PM EDT

A planned ski resort in the heart of untouched wilderness in Canada could have an impact on grizzly bear populations in the United States.

Glacier Resorts Ltd. aims to construct from scratch the Jumbo Glacier Resort, a 257-acre, 5,500-guest ski village in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. The resort, originally proposed in 1991, would encompass a controlled recreation area of more than 14,000 acres and more than 20 ski lifts.

Conservationists worry that any large-scale development could be consequential to wildlife populations and fragment bear movement in the region that stretches from southeast British Columbia to the borders of Washington, Idaho and Montana.

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"The issue is that the proposed Jumbo resort is located within one of the core grizzly bear populations, and if there were to be a development of the scale … biologists are saying that it would effectively fragment the southern populations," said Robyn Duncan, the executive director of Wildsight. "Therefore isolating those southern populations in Canada, but also those really struggling recovering populations in the north Idaho and Montana area."

Few bears live in the valley of the proposed ski resort itself, but the resort is in an area that is home to a "healthy, anchor, core population" of about 600 grizzlies, said Michael Proctor, one of Canada’s leading bear biologists. The area is also surrounded by four or five smaller, fragmented populations of bears.

"Ski resorts aren’t really bad for bears," Proctor said. "It’s the human development where bears get killed and the highways that build in and fragment it. Highways and settlement are what fracture these bear populations. Southern British Columbia is fragmented enough with highways."

U.S. grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states are isolated to a few pockets of rugged terrain in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington. Populations of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone area and Glacier National Park are the largest and are estimated to total between 1,200 and 2,000 animals. Smaller populations along the Canadian border include the Selkirk in Washington and Idaho and the Cabinet-Yaak in Idaho and Montana. Washington’s Northern Cascades ecosystem is the smallest and most at-risk population, with an estimated 20 grizzlies.

A 2012 grizzly bear population study by Canadian and U.S. wildlife officials, including Proctor and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm, found habitat fragmentation near the border hinders bear movements and hurts populations by limiting genetic dispersal.

The paper found that bears, particularly female bears, are far less likely to cross highways into other areas. The paper suggested "strategic land purchase or easements, highway infrastructure planning to facilitate highway permeability to wildlife, and appropriate forest management strategies in linkage areas" to help bears more easily migrate between different populations.

Environmental groups, including Duncan’s Wildsight, worry the ski resort developer has not conducted enough environmental analysis to protect bears.

The original environmental assessment, conducted in 1998, found a "viable" grizzly population in the study area and said the proposed resort would have some impact on bears.

The study also found, as environmentalists and conservationists have worried, that "effects of human activities indirectly associated with the project," such as roads and human settlement, would likely affect bear populations in some capacity. The study concluded that further assessments would need to take place to further analyze the potential impacts.

During a review of the company’s preconstruction permit obligations last October, Canada’s environmental assessment office found the company had failed to comply with certain pre-construction conditions, including the completion of a study regarding a wastewater treatment system and unsupervised road monitoring.

But the review concluded project manager Pheidias Project Management Corp. had met all objectives regarding a grizzly bear management plan.

That plan, produced by ENKON Environmental Ltd. in 2003, offered a variety of objectives to mitigate impacts on grizzly bears. The company committed to reducing habitat loss and habitat fragmentation and stated it would be "investigating the feasibility and the potential benefit of constructing one or more crossing structures," on a road between Jumbo and a neighboring resort, to limit vehicle-wildlife conflicts.

The British Columbia government is currently determining whether the company met progress expectations, as outlined in the permit agreement. Opposition groups contest the progress has not been met.

Neither Glacier Resorts nor Pheidias responded to interview requests.

Uncertain future

Although the resort’s promoters have campaigned on the economic opportunities the project could bring to the area — the company estimates visitors would bring in $12 million in taxes annually and provide 750 to 800 full-time jobs — some local leaders, businesses and residents question the presented figures and said the resort is too remote to positively impact nearby towns, the closest being Invermere, British Columbia, more than 30 miles away.

"The local population and economists largely question the viability of creating another resort, particularly one that’s so far from any existing town," Duncan said. "Most of our resorts are fairly close to town and have been developed that way for a reason — to be close to infrastructure."

The resort also faces legal setbacks.

The Ktunaxa Nation has been one of the resort’s strongest critics and has challenged the master plan’s approval in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The court dismissed the case last April, but the tribe appealed and is waiting for a decision from an appellate court.

"The Ktunaxa have been opposed to this development for 20 years," said Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation chairwoman, following the group’s filing. "We have tried to explain to provincial ministers and other government representatives that Qat’muk is of profound spiritual and cultural importance to our nation and that the resort will desecrate the area and undermine beliefs and practices at the core of Ktunaxa culture and identity."

While the status of the resort is up in the air, Proctor and others are continuing their attempts to recover and connect existing grizzly populations at the Canada-U.S. border.

"We’re trying to reverse that human fragmentation," said Proctor. "We can’t remove highways and population settlement, but luckily in our area the settlement is not continuous."

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