Environmental groups welcome Parks Canada buyout of Jasper Park backcountry lodges

Environmental groups are welcoming Parks Canada's buyout of two businesses in Jasper National Park's Tonquin Valley, a scenic and heavily visited destination also used by vanishing caribou herds.

"That's a good step forward," said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association. "It's really positive to reduce recreation pressures year-round for caribou."

Late last year, Parks Canada reached a deal with both Tonquin Valley Adventures and Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge to buy all the infrastructure and fixed assets of the businesses and to end their occupation licences.

The businesses had operated for many years and were part of a long tradition of horsepacking into some of the most beautiful and accessible backcountry in the Rockies.

However, the Tonquin Valley is also crucial habitat for one of Jasper's dwindling caribou herds. Parks Canada says the Tonquin herd is down to nine breeding females — too few to produce enough calves to increase the herd.

Campbell said the two lodges were on habitat used by caribou for calving, rearing and rutting, and added to the pressures the animals were facing from predators.

"There are definite indications that the combined effects of trails and infrastructure adds up to be a disturbance," she said. "It can displace (caribou) from prime habitat."

Parks Canada has been slowly closing winter access to the Tonquin for years.

Trails into the region are now closed between November to May. The Alpine Club of Canada and Hostelling International also close their Tonquin facilities in the winter.

"Parks Canada’s primary objective for the Tonquin Valley is to improve the ability of caribou and grizzly bears to thrive in the valley while balancing the strong desire to maintain the long and evolving history of human use of the area," the agency said in a newsletter released in December.

The owner of one of the lodges declined to comment.

Caribou are a major concern for Parks Canada.

The Tonquin herd, at about 50 members, is the largest of Jasper's four herds. One is down to nine members, another survives only because of heavy wolf culls outside the park boundary and the other hasn't been seen since 2018.

Park management is considering whether to try to bring them back through a large captive breeding program. That $25-million project would permanently pen up to 40 female and five male caribou in a highly managed and monitored area of about one square kilometre surrounded by an electrified fence.

A final decision on that project is expected early this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press