On Tuesday, March 20, as grizzly bears contemplated rousing from their long winter slumber, the British Columbia government ignored warnings from biologists and approved a controversial ski resort in the Purcell Mountains 57 kilometres west of Invermere, B.C.
If things go according to plan, the $900 million Jumbo Glacier Alpine Resort would become Canada's first year-round, glacier-based ski resort. About the size of Sliver Star in Vernon, it will feature 23 lifts, a gondola, and a ski village with more than 6,000 units — and a new paved road right into the heart of the Purcell Mountains.
"After more than 20 years of comprehensive and exhaustive reviews, it was time to make a decision," said Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson in a statement. "I approved Jumbo Glacier Resort's master development agreement after reviewing all of the relevant documentation, and meeting with both First Nations and the proponent."
What Minister Thomson forgot to mention was that the resort promises to be a real problem for southeast B.C.'s grizzly bear population. Echoing the B.C. government's own Grizzly Bear Scientific Advisory Committee, wildlife biologist Michael Proctor, the foremost expert on grizzly bear population dynamics in the region, had informed the government of the negative impacts of the resort on grizzlies. Based on his research, Proctor asserts that the resort will fragment grizzly habitat and significantly reduce the long-term viability of the region's grizzly population as far south as the U.S. border.
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"The Purcell [Mountain] grizzly's numbers are depressed, yet they are a part of an important anchor core sub-population in a larger fragmented grizzly bear distributions," wrote Proctor in his submission. "To recover the Purcell grizzly so it may in fact act as a regional core, it will likely be necessary to strike a better balance between human use and wildlife habitat needs (i.e. we will have to improve upon the status quo). Frankly, inserting a large, all-season resort in the centre of the range will increase the challenge of achieving such an improved balance, as well as potentially create another serious fracture across a most important regional core subpopulation."
The Ktunaxa, one of the First Nations in the region, have similar concerns. They oppose the proposed Jumbo resort because it would be located in an area they consider sacred, a place known as Qat'muk (Got-Mook) that is the home of the Grizzly Bear Spirit and the core of a culturally pivotal sacred site. Instead, they have asked that the area be protected and surrounded by a buffer area in which appropriate activities that respect the land may take place. The Ktunaxa proposal, they maintain, "speaks to our stewardship of the area, as well as our willingness to work with others to make sure this area is accessible in its current state for future generations."
Despite these concerns, the B.C. government went ahead and approved the Jumbo resort. This is yet another example of the failure of the provincial environmental assessment process to adequately address the impacts of development on B.C.'s cherished natural resources. A year and half earlier, in November 2010, the federal government stepped in to reverse a provincial government decision to approve the Taseko Mines' Prosperity gold mine in west-central B.C. Like the Jumbo resort, the Prosperity mine west of Williams Lake has been under consideration for two decades, but then-federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice decided that based on the federal government's "scathing" environmental assessment, the proposed mine could not proceed because the project would have unacceptable environmental impacts on grizzly bear populations and, in particular, fish habitat. The provincial assessment, which was roundly criticized in the federal assessment, had found that any environmental impacts would be outweighed by jobs and economic benefits.
Alas, it's unlikely that the federal government will come to the rescue in the Jumbo approval. The main trigger in the Prosperity mine proposal was the destruction of fish habitat—namely, turning scenic Fish Lake, which provides a home to 80,000 rainbow trout, and its tributaries into a tailings impoundment—which is under federal jurisdiction. Outside of national parks, grizzly bears and their habitat are the sole responsibility of the B.C. government, which means the federal government likely will not intervene.
The Jumbo decision sets a bad precedent for the future of grizzly bears in B.C. Ignoring the best-available science and approving mega-developments in key grizzly bear habitat—developments that scientists expect will threaten regional grizzly populations—suggests that the B.C. government is not all that serious about implementing the province's Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy and ensuring a secure future for these treasured animals.
But you can encourage the B.C. government to protect grizzly bears in the Purcell Mountains by changing its mind about Jumbo.
Jeff Gailus is an award-winning writer and the author of The Grizzly Manifesto (Rocky Mountain Books 2010) and numerous magazine articles.