Real science and community planning: Lizard Creek subdivision

We have one last chance to stop the Lizard Creek subdivision near Fernie and protect grizzlies! Send a message to your Regional District director asking them to cast their final vote to protect bears—and to stand up for the Official Community Plan.

There’s been a lot of claims made about just how important (or unimportant) the Lizard Creek area is for grizzlies. We spoke to scientists who are experts in the area to get the real facts and a John Bergenske, our Conservation Director, wrote a letter to the editor:

Defending the Lizard Creek subdivision proposal before the RDEK board before the vote that moved forward the controversial OCP amendment and re-zoning, Area A director Mike Sosnowski argued that the area is not important for grizzly bears or other wildlife. Grizzly bears in the Elk Valley are well studied by biologists, with many years of data from GPS collars and DNA hair sampling—and their research completely contradicts Sosnowski’s claims.

While the Lizard Creek proposal is proceeding, Wildsight thought it was important to set the record straight for future development proposals. We spoke to two researchers who work in the area to get the facts. Needless to say, we think sound science should guide community decisions, not anecdotal claims from RDEK directors or quotes picked from reports from consultants hired by developers.

We reached out to Clayton Apps, a registered professional biologist who has conducted extensive bear surveys in the area. According to Apps “the Lizard basin and surrounding valleys support what may be the highest localized density of grizzly bears in the Rockies” and “this clearly is a core area of significance to the health of the regional and trans-boundary population.”

Apps adds that “Planning for connectivity options into and through the Elk Valley and around existing human settlement and development is important for maintaining the conservation effectiveness of this area into the future.”

It can’t get more clear than that: the Lizard Creek area is important habitat with a dense grizzly population. But what about connectivity and the impact of development? Is it too late for the Lizard area, as Sosnowski claims?

“I would strongly disagree with any statement or assumption to the effect measures to maintain secure movement and population connectivity options are too late or not worthwhile,” says Apps, “Severing secure movement options that remain could lead to increased bear-human conflict, compromising public safety and conservation.”

We also spoke to another Clayton, grizzly bear population researcher Clayton Lamb, who also has experience in the Elk Valley. Lamb’s research shows that the Elk Valley is densely populated by grizzlies and he also identifies the Lizard drainage as an important corridor for grizzlies. The problem in the Elk Valley, according to Lamb’s research is that grizzly survival rates are very low in the area. Because of conflict with humans, rail and road traffic, and hunting and poaching, adult bears are far more likely to die because of humans than of natural causes.

What’s the solution? It won’t be easy, but step one according to Lamb’s paper on the Elk Valley bear population is “to maintain the integrity of intact landscapes that provide critical habitat for grizzly bears and refuge from human development and associated human–bear conflicts.”

Something has gone quite wrong when we have Mike Sosnowski quoting from a report from a consultant, based on published studies from scientists, claiming everything is just fine and the same scientists who are authors on two of the three studies cited by the consultant, Apps and Lamb, saying something quite different.

The bottom line is that the Elk Valley, and particularly Lizard Creek, is excellent natural grizzly bear habitat, but that roads and rail, garbage and other bear attractants—humans, in other words—are a real danger to grizzlies. Our responsibility is to give grizzlies the safest passage possible through the dangerous valley bottoms. That means protecting connectivity down from their high elevation summer habitat, like Lizard Creek. That means giving bears as much space to roam as possible, not a few narrow slivers along the edges of subdivisions.

When we rely on anecdotes and opinion (and the proponent’s far away consultants) instead of sound science from the experts in the area, grizzlies lose. And grizzlies in the Elk Valley are already struggling to survive.

The rural area outside Fernie has an Official Community Plan, developed by the community members, and it doesn’t designate the Lizard Creek subdivision area for development. We’re concerned that the developers and some RDEK Directors are trying to override the OCP without listening to the public. Ryland Nelson, our Southern Rockies Program Manager, wrote a letter to the editor on the failure of the planning process:

The recent re-zoning of rural land adjacent to Lizard Creek to allow for a small lot subdivision is very disappointing, especially considering that over 400 local residents voiced their opposition during the public comment period.

Area A Director Mike Sosnowski and Fernie Mayor Mary Guiliano argued that the entire area between the City of Fernie and Fernie Alpine Resort is going to be developed eventually.

According to our current Official Community Plans (OCPs), this is not the case. If there are plans for extensive development throughout the entire area between the City of Fernie and Fernie Alpine Resort, they should share those with our communities through an extensive OCP review process.

In a passionate presentation in support of the proposal, Director Sosnowski raised a lot of very serious concerns about wildlife in the Lizard Creek corridor. Unfortunately Sosnowski has all but written off the Lizard Creek corridor, claiming wildlife is “scarce” and it is “too late to think of this watershed as a mecca for wildlife”.

Wildsight, scientists and the people of the Elk Valley haven’t given up on wildlife in our home. Our region is full of important habitat and critical connectivity corridors, like Lizard Creek. On a larger scale, the whole Elk Valley is an important connectivity link between the Glacier and Waterton Parks to the south and the Banff Park complex to the north. With proper long-term planning at a regional level, these corridors can be retained and our communities can grow alongside healthy wildlife populations.

Sosnowski claims that Wildsight hasn’t scrutinized other subdivisions, but Wildsight has engaged extensively in all OCP planning processes in the area, which cover all other subdivisions in and around Fernie. The Cedars, Montane, Alpine Trails, Mt. Fernie Estates and others are all in areas zoned for this kind of development. Fernie Alpine Resort, Island Lake Lodge and RDEK Area A all have their own OCPs, which Wildsight participated in the development of. These OCPs all have provisions for environmental values, including wildlife corridors.

This subdivision, unlike the others, wasn’t planned for in the RDEK Area A OCP and isn’t consistent with it, which is why this revision process and public comment opportunity took place. That the proponent has gone through the ] process and “checked all the boxes” should be the basis for approval according to Sosnowski. Revising our Official Community Plans should be a moment for serious reflection, sound science and public input, not a matter of checking boxes.

Leapfrog development, like this proposal, isn’t smart community growth or planning and will inhibit sound planning for the future growth of the City of Fernie (think of the next West Fernie mess that future generations will have to deal with!)

Continued development in the Lizard Creek connectivity corridor will have dire consequences for grizzlies and other wildlife. If we continue with piecemeal approval of developments in the area, we’ll wake up one day to find the entire area developed and grizzlies having no choice but to travel through our subdivisions.

We need serious community discussions to make sure all future development allows wildlife to move around and through our communities. Elk Valley municipalities, the RDEK and the provincial government need to listen to locals and work together to make sure wildlife connectivity is maintained throughout the valley we call home.

Read more letters to the editor on Lizard Creek, from Jesse Bell and Rob & Marcie Welsh