Wild Alberta’s Last Stand

Eight naturalists visit our province’s most biodiverse region to see what they can—and can’t—find

By Jeff Gailus

The Castle wilderness is our own Costa Rica. Tucked into the southwestern corner of Alberta, the Castle features the largest number of plant and animal species of any region in the province—an island of remarkable biodiversity in a sea of growing industrial and residential development.

Which is, of course, why we’ve come. My students and I saw some of the more obvious wild denizens on our way to the trailhead in Waterton Lakes National Park’s Red Rock Canyon: elk, bighorn sheep, a small black bear the colour of cinnamon grazing dandelions along the road. Now we’re preparing our packs and readying our minds and bodies for a five-day trek that will take us out of the federal government’s national park and into the unprotected wilderness that is the Castle.

Although the real jewels in this biological treasure chest are the plants, my students—six intrepid university students taking a field course with the Wild Rockies Field Institute—are hoping for a glimpse of a grizzly, 50 (or so) of which roam the mountains and foothills that biologists say provide something of a refuge for Alberta’s beleaguered grizzly bear population.

“Where would you be most likely to find grizzlies in this valley?” I ask them as we gear up. “Where’s the best grizz habitat?”

They look around for a few minutes, then point to the south-facing slope above us. “There?” says Laurie. “It’s drier, which is why the forests are thinner and there are more meadows. Which means more berries and plants. Grizzly bear food.” Bingo. They’ve been listening after all.

An hour in, our packs still heavy, we encounter our first grizzly sign along Bauerman Creek. In the middle of this trail through thick coniferous forest are three large mounds of fresh scat. It is midsummer and the bears are eating plants—perhaps horsetail and cow parsnip, clumped in the understorey. A poke with a stick indicates the mounds can’t be more than a few hours old.

The students look around nervously. Visibility is limited, but what they can see is evidence that Alberta’s biggest carnivore is in the vicinity, perhaps even within shouting distance. This is not something they’re used to. Most of them are from big cities: Philadelphia (Laurie), Toronto (Megan), Portland (Wes), Chicago (Erica). The other two are from rural America—Brady is from northern Wisconsin and Hana is from a little town in Adirondack Park, a protected area in upstate New York that’s bigger than all of Alberta’s mountain parks combined. Only Dave, the other instructor, has any real experience with grizzly bears.

“Let’s just stick together,” he says, while I reach down and check my bear spray. “There’s no need to worry.”

A few hours later, the trail branches to the north and heads up toward Lost Lake. The forest is dark, but stalks of beargrass taller than my waist light the way, the large white flowers glowing like torches in beams of sunlight that penetrate to the forest floor.

By late afternoon we top Avion Ridge and descend down the other side on an old logging road, or skid track. It’s the first sign that we’ve left the protection of the national park and are entering a different world: the Castle Special Management Area. For all its unparalleled biodiversity, the Castle is no park. It’s much like the rest of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, a place where grizzlies and the rest of the wilderness must contend with the full force of human industry.

The Castle features the most plant and animal species of any Alberta region. Some are found only here.

We set up camp along the Castle River and cook dinner in the summer dusk. Afterward, Wes, Brady and I wander into the woods to hang our food in a tree 200 m from camp. As we walk back to our tents, I spot more bear scat. This time it’s full of elk hair, a jagged piece of bone gleaming in the waning light.

Much of the magic of this place is invisible to the casual tourist. Besides deer, goats and bears, the Castle features mammals of the more diminutive sort—the wandering (or vagrant) shrew, for example, one of the few terrestrial species to echolocate its way through its underground world, much as dolphins and whales do in the ocean. Despite its name, this tiny predator hunts insects in only one place in Alberta—the Castle.

The Castle also provides a stronghold for 25 species of fish, many of which are declining elsewhere. The Castle provides the last stronghold for the golden trout and voracious bull trout which once dominated Alberta’s streams and rivers. 

Surprisingly, this rugged place is also butterfly country. Several species are found nowhere else in Alberta, including the two-tailed swallowtail, whose broad yellow and black wings sport dollops of blue and red. When one landed on my pack, I thought of the paintings of Van Gogh.

The real treasures, however, are the plants. The Castle is an intersection of sorts, a magical place where north, south, east and west meet to conjure a collection of flora found nowhere else in Canada. More than 800 species grow in the region’s rich soil, more than half of all plant species in Alberta. Fully 120 of them are rare in Alberta (compared to 36 in Banff National Park, which is nine times as big), and 38 are rare nationally. 

My students’ assignment today is to find as many as they can—the large-flowered fringe cup, for instance, and the mariposa lily. It would be nice to locate a red and yellow monkeyflower and big sagebrush, too, all of which are more at home south of the Medicine Line. Armed with notebooks and guidebooks, the students spread out, each choosing a little island of habitat. 

The assignment isn’t easy. To minimize our impact, we camped on a dry creekbed. Rain has been scarce this summer; southern Alberta is weathering another drought. And yet here, there, everywhere, bright wildflowers ascend between the rocks like tiny oases.

We gather to compare notes. “What’s different about this valley than the one we were in yesterday?” I ask. “Well, there’s a lot fewer people,” says Brady. “Which is kind of weird considering we were in a national park yesterday.” Everyone laughs. A deer pokes its head out of the bushes on the other side of the creekbed and stares at us. “What else?” I say. “What kind of people? Doing what kinds of things? Look around you. What do you see?”

Rare bitterroot

Rare bitterroot. (Photo Courtesy of Sierra Club of Canada)

“It looks like this place was logged at some point,” says Wes, pointing to the slopes. “And there are ATV tracks and dirt roads all over the place. In Waterton, it was either paved roads or hiking trails.” This is a smart group. They’ve begun to read the land as a grizzly bear would.

The south side of Avion Ridge is ostensibly protected. But here on the north side the land is exposed to the Alberta government’s “multiple use” policies, which allow for a variety of overlapping industrial and recreational uses. There are fewer people here in the summer than in Waterton, but here they can drive almost anywhere and most of them carry guns.

After lunch, I take Hana, Erica, Laurie and Wes up the creekbed. We enter a narrow canyon carved into the limestone by water over several millennia. Water trickles between the rocks, creating large, mirror-like pools. The flow increases in intensity as we navigate upstream until we stand at the foot of a waterfall as tall as a two-storey house. Cool and moist, the canyon is a veritable garden of ferns and mosses. It’s as if we’ve been transported to another world: from drought-stricken Alberta to Tolkien’s mythical Lothlórien.

“Listen!” whispers Hana. “It’s a winter wren.” Born to ex-hippie parents, she’s the best birder in the group. The winter wren delivers its melodies at 36 notes per second with 10 times more power (per ounce) than a crowing rooster. Grizzlies are all but forgotten for the moment—we’re entranced by the vigorous song of a creature weighing less than half an ounce.

We arise early next morning to ascend the thin ridge separating the Castle River watershed from the front canyons that flow water onto the prairies. After a quick breakfast, we follow the river down valley to get our bearings. Rain and snowmelt have carved this watershed into a matrix of canyons, knife-edge ridges and steep hillsides. We want to camp at Bovin Lake tonight, at the head of South Drywood Creek, and heading up the wrong drainage could mean an extra day in the woods.

We stop for lunch at a swimming hole big enough to wash away two days’ worth of grime. After a quick dip, we warm ourselves in the sun while we eat. Then we gather beneath a stand of old cottonwoods for a class about biodiversity politics.

On May 22, 2009, just two months before we’d left, the world celebrated the UN International Day for Biological Diversity. Canada’s Environment Minister, Jim Prentice, who worked summers in coal mines just north of the Castle while at university, assured the public that “conservation is a central component of [Canada’s] environmental agenda… We’re making tremendous progress in protecting and conserving our biodiversity.”

The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. It’s been 18 years since Canada was the first industrialized country to sign the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—“the other Kyoto”—at the Rio Earth Summit. Designed to recognize and halt the catastrophic decline of the diversity of life on this planet, CBD makes the Kyoto Protocol’s failure to curb climate-warming greenhouse gases look like a Super Bowl victory.

Despite Canada’s biodiversity strategy and international reputation as an environmental champion, governments both federal and provincial as well as Liberal and Conservative have done little to stem a tide of urban and industrial development that is reducing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. Politicians are reluctant to admit to neglect, of course. The federal government’s own Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists 585 wildlife species at risk in this country, but this number is likely an underestimate. Half of all species in Canada haven’t even been identified, let alone assessed.

“The government seems set on a course that will not only fail to fulfill CBD requirements,” writes UBC professor emeritus and biodiversity researcher Geoff Scudder, “but will also fall far short of the desires of an overwhelming majority of Canadians.”

Alberta is perhaps the most negligent of the provinces. There are approximately 80,000 species in this province, about 2,000 of which are vertebrates and plants. (The rest are mostly insects, spiders, fungi and algae.) Of this multitude, only 58 have been assessed by Alberta’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee. Of these, 28 have been designated by cabinet as threatened or endangered. Only 22 have recovery plans. 

The most egregiously neglected species may be the grizzly itself, the population of which has plummeted to an estimated 691 bears (only 360 of which are adults) from an estimated 6,000 pre-European settlement. The grizzly hunt was suspended in 2006, but bears continued to be struck by vehicles and shot by poachers; there have been 221 known human-caused grizzly deaths in Alberta since 2000. In June, Minister of Sustainable Resources Mel Knight finally listed grizzlies as “threatened,” a move government advisers and scientists had recommended for years. But it’s not just grizz under siege—mountain caribou, prairie rattlesnakes, bull trout and even plants such as western spiderwort are all dangerously close to extirpation in an Alberta landscape infested with roads and industrial development.

David Boyd, one of Canada’s distinguished experts on environmental law and policy—and whose book Unnatural Law my students and I discuss as part of today’s lesson—maintains that Canada’s record on protecting wilderness is one of the worst in the developed world. “Some of the most basic, rudimentary [environmental] laws enacted by other nations are still absent in Canada,” Boyd writes. “Canada’s lack of progress in legally protecting species at risk is an international embarrassment. [We] face serious threats to our legacy of biological diversity.”

The five American students can’t believe what they’re reading and hearing. Like most visitors, they perceive Canada as a nation that takes care of its wilderness as though it were a national treasure. They’re stunned to learn that, all in all, the US does a far better (though far from perfect) job of protecting biodiversity.

The most surprised student of all is Megan. She grew up in a Toronto suburb and took environmental studies at university. “I didn’t know any of this,” she tells the group during our discussion under the cottonwoods. “I work in a DFO [federal Department of Fisheries & Oceans] office, and no one talks about any of this.”

Day Four in the Castle is a gruelling test of mettle. Our map is frustratingly inaccurate, forcing us to bushwhack across the steep, wooded slope on the far side of the creek. Several hours later we stumble out onto a road that eventually turns into a trail. We put our heads down and plod toward the ridgeline. Megan and Erica, giddy with fatigue, entertain us with their comedic banter. “I can’t believe I chose to hike to the top of a mountain wearing a heavy backpack,” says Megan, giggling. “Yeah, I can’t wait to tell my friends at home in Chicago,” replies Erica. “They’ll think I’m nuts.”

When it comes to protecting biodiversity, Alberta is perhaps the most negligent of all the provinces.

When we get to the top, we collapse and stare at the scene below. Like so many wilderness vistas these days, it’s a postmodern patchwork of insane juxtapositions: a lone bighorn sheep watches us from the pinnacle of the ridge and an osprey fishes Bovin Lake at the head of a beautiful red-rock drainage, while to the east a gravel road leads past a series of silvery sour-gas wells and Shell’s massive Waterton plant, which removes sulphur from gas and turns it into giant yellow bricks.

For three decades, conservationists have been working tirelessly to protect the Castle before industrial and recreational development destroys it altogether. But other interests, primarily energy companies and the growing influence of the off-highway recreationists, have typically won the day. 

In 1998, the Castle was ostensibly “protected” as the Castle Special Management Area Forest Land Use Zone (FLUZ). The designation was part of the Alberta government’s Special Places 2000 initiative, but unlike 80 other special places across the province, the Castle was never legislated as a fully protected area. My students and I saw with our own eyes that the “protections” offered by FLUZ regulation actually allow levels of industrial and recreational use that threaten biological diversity.

Recently, however, a better vision has emerged. The BC government announced a moratorium on mining and oil and gas development in the Flathead Valley—the Castle’s twin on the west side of the Continental Divide—and a campaign to turn it into a national park is gaining momentum. A broad-based coalition is lobbying the Alberta government to likewise protect the 1,040 km2 Castle as the Castle Special Place, 99 per cent of which would be a wildland park. Not only is it Alberta’s most biologically diverse region, the Castle provides fully one-third of the annual flow in the beleaguered Oldman River watershed, where water allocations already exceed supply and drought has become an almost annual event. Many participants in the Castle Special Place initiative are eyeing a piece of the almost $3-billion in revenue generated by Alberta’s provincial protected areas (which do not include Banff and Jasper).

The list of park supporters is long. The prestigious Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy has recommended protection. Environmental groups are on board, of course, but so are ranchers and landowners, biologists and naturalists, hunters and anglers, First Nations, recreationists, local businesses, the Town of Pincher Creek and the City of Lethbridge. Even Shell supports the proposal. To this growing group you can add our little band of adventurers, who’ve seen for themselves some of the most challenging, beautiful and unique backcountry in Canada.

It’s our last day in the Castle. After a serene and tentless night under the stars, we walk down to the shores of Bovin Lake and along the gravel road that parallels South Drywood Creek. Here we get our first taste of something we’d come to escape—the sound of combustion engines. A caravan of quads zoom by, an extended family out for a Sunday drive.

We step aside and let them pass, glad to see them go, and continue our descent down the dusty roadway. It is deflating to leave behind the quiet of the Castle proper. The busyness of the industrial world is too much with us. “Late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” wrote the wise old Wordsworth. “Little we see in Nature that is ours.”

Ferruginous hawk chick

Ferruginous hawk chick. (Photo Courtesy of Sierra Club of Canada)

After we finally leave the gas wells behind, we retreat beneath one of Shell’s brand-new bridges to get out of the rain. Our van is still 5 km away, so I throw off my pack and prepare to run the last leg. Brady and Laurie decide to join me, and the three of us take off into a gentle shower. Shell’s gas plant looms into view, and talk turns to the disappointment of not seeing a grizzly bear. When we are within 500 m of the van, we walk by a portable sign, recently erected. “Caution,” it says. “Bear in Area.” 

We climb into the van and drive back the way we came. At the bear sign, a tan form slinks out of the woods right in front of us. My brain immediately thinks African lioness. I stop the van. The creature stops too, and faces us, crouching. It is eight feet long, the only big cat in North America, something I have never seen in the wild. “It’s a cougar!” I shout to Brady. “Get your camera!”

This truly is a gift rarer than any grizzly, given to us by the wild generosity of the Castle. Brady leans out the passenger window and snaps a few pictures. Giant blocks of sulphur provide the background. The cougar stares at us, insouciant as only a cat could be. Then it rises and walks slowly back the way it came. 

Jeff Gailus’s The Grizzly Manifesto was published in May by Rocky Mountain Books. He lives in Canmore.

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