The importance of Elk Valley as a wildlife corridor has been understood for decades. Researchers have been compiling evidence since the 1990s proving that the highway and local settlement are harming apex predators. For some, grizzlies in particular, it’s also preventing healthy genetic mixing between populations living north and south. With increasing mining and forestry, more people visiting the area for recreation and traffic increasing, the area’s ecological linchpin status is in jeopardy.
“This is the last, best corridor,” says Tony Clevenger, the researcher whose science informed the design and placement of Banff National Park’s renowned highway wildlife overpass and underpass system and one of Reconnecting the Rockies’ original project leaders. “This is what ties Y2Y together. Basically, if you lose this, you lose everything.”
The push for Reconnecting the Rockies dates back a decade, the blueprint laid out in a pair of critical documents. The first, a 2010 report recommending structural changes along the Highway 3 corridor to foster “wildlife and connectivity,” studied the route from Cranbrook through the Elk Valley and into Alberta where it exits the foothills of the Rockies near Lundbreck, 40 kilometres east of the Crowsnest Pass. Written by Clevenger and six others, it identifies priority areas and recommends action along the highway at six points in Alberta and eight in B.C.
The second document came together nine years later, when Clevenger, Lamb and Tracy Lee, senior project manager at the Miistakis Institute, a Calgary-based conservation organization, published an amendment to the original report focused specifically on Highway 3 in British Columbia. It included additional priority mitigation sites beyond those flagged in 2010 and is the basis for the work that’s now underway.
Even as they published the first report, the authors knew they needed more data on wildlife deaths on the B.C. side to have a workable plan for that area. Enter citizen science. It took several years, but a key part of gathering that new information began in early 2016 with the launch of RoadWatchBC. Developed jointly by Miistakis, Yellowstone to Yukon and Wildsight, a conservation and sustainability network in the Kootenay region, RoadWatchBC invited Elk Valley motorists on Highway 3 to log wildlife sightings — animals killed, injured or trying to cross — on an app and website. The program ran until early 2019, with more than 200 people submitting observations. “Citizen science was a good way to meaningfully engage people and address a data gap at the same time,” says Lee.
Adds Y2Y’s Batycki: “Ministry data is badly underreported because it’s just based on roadkill. The RoadWatchBC program helped citizens be extra eyes to find out where animals are crossing safely, where they’re having trouble and where they’re struck and injured but leave the location.”
Along with the RoadWatch data, the team also got some fresh research from the province, as well as the results of grizzly and elk tracking studies prepared by Lamb, who was then finishing his PhD in ecology, studying human impacts on grizzly bear populations, at the University of Alberta. Before writing the amendment, they held another workshop at a hotel meeting room in Fernie in May 2019 to share their findings and get feedback.
Local hunting and fishing community reps, contractors, area politicians, scientists and other members of the public attended. But the most important person in the room that day turned out to be a quiet, middle-aged man with a light brown moustache who’d driven in almost 700 kilometres from Kamloops.
“We’d never met before. And he didn’t say much. But he sat at the end of the table and took everything in,” recalls Batycki. “At the end of the meeting, I introduced myself and said we really appreciate that you came all the way from Kamloops. And he said, ‘I’m pretty interested in this.’”
That man was Duane Wells, regional manager of environmental services in the engineering section of B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. His team is responsible for ensuring all new road work in southern B.C. meets standards set out to protect wildlife and fishery resources. Typically, that means ensuring stream culverts under new roads are fish-passable and that other structures include passageways for land animals. When it came to retrofits, however, to that point he’d mostly overseen the installation of box culvert passageways for endangered western toads. “A much smaller scale than when you’re dealing with grizzly bears,” says Wells dryly.
Today, however, his partners on the Reconnecting the Rockies team use words like “absolute champion,” “hero” and “catalyst” to describe Wells and the role he has played in turning their plans into reality. This despite the fact that, initially at least, he largely managed it off the side of his desk.
After the Fernie meeting, Wells drove the Elk Valley route himself, noting the bridges and their foundations and what kind of work and equipment would be needed to improve wildlife passage beneath them. A month later, he returned for meetings with Teck Resources, which operates five open-pit coal mines in the Elk Valley. While there, he asked his contact to show him where animals commonly cross the highway.
At the second site they visited, Wells had an epiphany. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect,’” he says.
Named Alexander-Michel for the two nearby creeks, it was highlighted as a priority crossing site in 2010. But it took a transportation engineer to stop at this section of highway, observe the train tracks running closely alongside the highway at the bottom of a narrowing in the terrain, and identify it as the prime spot for an overpass.
He immediately called Batycki, Lee and Wildsight’s Elk Valley conservation coordinator Randal Macnair and asked if he could show them what he was thinking.
“We met Duane up at Crowsnest Pass,” says Batycki. “We got in our cars and he pulled us over at Alexander-Michel and said: ‘Here’s where we’re going to put your overpass.’ And we were just looking at each other. We couldn’t even speak.”