Research suggests two parks proposed for the southwestern corner of Alberta are already so heavily used they're becoming useless to the grizzly bears they are supposed to protect.
Analysis of the latest satellite imagery suggests less than half of the proposed Castle Wildland Park has enough undisturbed habitat to support the bears. Almost none of a provincial park planned for the same area has any secure habitat left, despite the region being considered a key link for grizzlies between British Columbia and Montana.
'A lot of restoration required'
"It's great that the government of Alberta is turning this into a special place with two parks," said Wynet Smith of Global Forest Watch, which conducted the study. "But it's evident from the data that there's a lot of restoration required."
The Castle-Crown wilderness is home to mountains, foothills, forests, rivers and creeks. More than 200 threatened species — from grizzlies and wolverines to bull and cutthroat trout to rare trees — live there.
It has also been logged, mined, drilled and laced with an extensive network of trails for off-road vehicles.
Park was proposed last year
Last year, the NDP government proposed a wildland park and a provincial park in the area. Resource extraction would end, but the government suggested that off-road vehicles would still be allowed — something permitted in no other provincial park.
Smith began her study to update a 2010 assessment of the region's habitat quality. This time, she was able to use much better satellite imagery that allowed her to see objects as small as 2 1/2 metres. Aerial photography spotted features no bigger than 50 centimetres.
The improved data revealed much more disturbance than previously thought. The photography alone revealed an extra 703 kilometres of roads, seismic lines and pipeline right-of-ways. Although there are only 130 kilometres of road in the Castle wilderness, Smith found 301 kilometres of linear features that could be ridden on.
That means the wildland park area has a road density of just over one kilometre per square kilometre. The land that would be provincial park has a density of 3.5 kilometres per square kilometre.
Alberta's threshold for bear recovery is no more than 0.75 kilometres per square kilometre.
Government says off-road vehicle use will change
Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the province is still developing management plans for the parks in consultation with user groups.
"This idea that (off-highway vehicle) use will continue as it has in the past in those areas is just wrong," she said. "If it's not consistent with disturbance limits, it will change.
"But the process will dictate that."
Officials with the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association were not immediately available for comment.
The research also looked into the usable, secure bear habitat in both proposed parks.
"The Castle is an important part of that broader ecosystem."
Almost 50 per cent of the wildland park is considered to be remote enough for bears. Only 1.5 square kilometres — .005 per cent — in the proposed provincial park is productive bear habitat.
The Castle is connected to habitat in Montana and British Columbia that is home to about 1,000 grizzlies.
"You can't manage these administrative boundaries in isolation from the ecological boundaries," said Smith. "The Castle is an important part of that broader ecosystem."
Both areas require extensive restoration work, she said.
"There's trails everywhere in the front country. It needs to be managed and restored so it can play its important role in that broader ecosystem."
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960