The Perfect Storm — Unregulated Access in our Eastern Slopes

Tens of thousands of Albertans are calling for strict limits on off-highway vehicles (OHVs) along Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, and for a ban of OHVs in Alberta’s parks and protected areas. Poor management of the cumulative impacts of industrial development from oil &gas, forestry and mining along the east slopes has created the perfect storm of unregulated access from OHV users.

The West Athabasca Bioregional Society (in Jasper/Hinton/Edson) is part of Alberta’s conservation community that recently released a communiqué calling on government to take a strong stand on years of unchecked damage to our eastern slopes watersheds.

“OHVs of all types are wreaking havoc in many local areas of land bordering the mountains of Jasper National Park and the Willmore Wilderness Park, all the way to Grande Cache. This kind of abuse makes it impossible for other user groups to enjoy the same landscapes,” says Rocky Notnes, local rancher and horse-packing guide near Hinton. “The provincially ecologically significant Athabasca Sand Dunes area is currently like ‘Mad Max on steroids’ with dangerous OHV use, it must be stopped.”

High intensity industrial and recreational land use impacts on water and wildlife, and the lack of management and protection of Alberta’s headwaters along the East Slopes is the foundational issue. “The Eastern Slopes are essential as Alberta’s water tower,” says Connie Simmons, watershed steward and former Board member of the Athabasca Watershed Council.  “Impacts on the source of water for the province and beyond need to be addressed immediately.”

Industrial impacts in the west Athabasca watershed have contributed to the demise of the Little Smoky Caribou herd, north of Hinton. Art Jackson, President of the Athabasca Bioregional Society and ecotourism guide in Jasper says “The Little Smoky caribou herd is in immediate risk of extirpation as a result of years of industrial habitat destruction – and to make matters even worse, the rampant and immoral killing of wolves to ‘save’ the caribou now adds another dimension to Government and industry’s lack of action to control industrial impacts.”

Eastern Slopes fish species are also in serious trouble mainly due to habitat fragmentation from industrial and uncontrolled motorized recreation access. All of Alberta’s native trout are currently considered ‘species at risk.’  Westslope cutthroat trout were federally designated as ‘threatened’ under the Species At Risk Act, Bull trout are provincially listed as 'threatened',  and the unique and rare Athabasca rainbow trout, which only live in the upper Athabasca watershed are currently under federal review to be listed as 'endangered' - within one short step of 'extirpation'!

“Recovery of Athabasca Rainbow is critical and serious habitat protection in rivers and streams would benefit all Eastern Slopes fish species at risk” says Carl Hunt, retired Fisheries Biologist in Edson, and member of the Athabasca Rainbow Recovery Team. “What is immediately required is riparian habitat protection backed up by strong regulations, enforcement, and severe penalties for fish habitat destruction and population loss.”

The continued abuse of access in the Eastern Slopes, originally created by industrial development, and now un-managed and out of control with OHV recreation impacts is threatening all of these critical biodiversity and watershed health values. Protected areas and parks are particularly of concern, with the pressure by OHV users to use these last best refuges for key wildlife species like grizzly bear, caribou and native trout.

The West Athabasca Bioregional Society is now calling on the provincial government to undertake the following actions:

  • Through legislation, ban OHVs from all protected areas and parks in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, and from areas identified as Prime Protection and Critical Wildlife Zones.
  • Permanently close and repair riparian/stream crossing access and upland habitat impacts on Athabasca rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, Westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout habitat.
  • Reduce existing road and motorized trail density in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes to scientifically defensible levels.

West Athabasca Bioregional Society contacts:

  • Art Jackson, President, West Athabasca Bioregional Society, Jasper 780-852-3276
  • Rocky Notnes, Rancher and Guide, Entrance Ranch, Hinton, 780-865-7549
  • Carl Hunt, Retired Fisheries Biologist, Edson, 780-723-4908
  • Kirby Smith, Retired Caribou Biologist, Edson, 780-723-2894
  • Connie Simmons, Watershed  Steward, former Board member, 780-816-0654