New research has clarified for the first time the gap between official trail listings in the southern Rockies and the number of trails that actually exist, suggesting that the effects of growing numbers of backcountry users could be larger than expected.
The findings, the result of analyzing 50 different datasets from Alberta and British Columbia covering more than 50,000 kilometers of trails and roads, show that almost a quarter of the trails in these regions n do not appear on official maps.
“There is a gap,” said biologist Annie Loosen, one of the researchers who wrote the report for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, the Government of British Columbia and the University of North America. British Columbia. “Our report highlights that there is a management gap.”
The report comes as pressure on Alberta’s beloved mountains and foothills mounts. So many people try to get to Moraine Lake in Banff National Park that Parks Canada recently cut off access to private vehicles.
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The researchers compiled information on a large swath of the southern Rockies covering 63,000 square kilometers. The area included the Kananaskis Country and Ghost public land use area in Alberta, as well as Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Glacier and Mount Revelstoke and Purcell Wilderness Conservancy national parks in British Columbia.
They documented over 53,000 kilometers of trails, cut lines, transmission lines, pipelines and rugged resource roads that could be used. The trails were about 22,000 kilometers, the roads 21,000 kilometers and the rest about 10,000 kilometers.
Many of these so-called “linear disturbances” have been taken from official sources such as government or industry maps. Many weren’t, coming from online resources like Trailforks or local groups like snowmobile clubs.
In total, the researchers found that 24% of all trails in the southern Rockies were undocumented and unmanaged. It’s nearly 6,000 kilometers of completely new trails.
“It creates a difficult situation to manage,” Loosen said.
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She said recreational overuse can create significant effects.
Trails can erode or be widened and braided. Streams can be muddy. Trees and other plants can be damaged.
Although animal reactions to human presence vary widely, these encounters also have effects, Loosen said.
“We find studies where the mere presence of a person can lead to a change in behavior. (Animals) spend less time feeding or doing activities that promote productivity.
Some areas have so many trails that they might already be causing problems for wildlife. One of the tools used by land managers to estimate the effect is density — how many miles of trails or roads exist in a given square kilometer.
The researchers found that the so-called “linear density” already exceeds thresholds for grizzly bears in eight of 30 watersheds and for bull trout – Alberta’s provincial fish in -16 of 30 watersheds.
The four regions with the highest linear density were all of the foothills of Alberta west of Calgary, reaching 3.3 kilometers for every square kilometer in the Bragg Creek area. This is eight times higher than the density at which bull trout begin to decline.
At least four government-funded, peer-reviewed studies have concluded that the density of roads and trails is already harming populations of animals like caribou, grizzly bear and bull trout.
Loosen said the study was unable to gauge how often the trails were used, by whom, or what the effect was. She said it was next.
“Outdoor recreation is one of the biggest threats to species at risk,” she said. “Having these experiences is extremely important for people, but it can also have a cumulative impact on wildlife.”
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The Alberta government did not respond to a request for comment on the report’s findings.
In 2021, the United Conservative Party government passed a Trails Act, intended to modernize and improve the province’s trails. Jason Nixon, then environment minister, said the legislation creates a way to allow new trails and added that trail closures were not being considered.
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