Redesign of Spray Lakes West Campground returns habitat to bears, wildlife

Alberta Parks is significantly reducing the footprint of a favourite campground for Bow Valley locals in a move to better protect people and wildlife.

At the end of August, the Spray Lakes West Campground will close and be condensed from its five-kilometre-long sprawl along Spray Lakes Reservoir’s west side to 1.5 kilometres, restoring habitat for bears and other species, while maximizing site capacity.

“What we’ve been finding due to this campground configuration is it’s really negatively impacted the movement of wildlife. That’s resulted in numerous human-wildlife conflicts over the years. Pretty much on an annual basis,” said Debbie Mucha, Alberta Parks Kananaskis west area manager.

“We’re consistently having negative interactions between bears and people, and that’s with the campground users but also recreationalists in the area.”

The seasonal campground, with open sites from May to September, is about 16 kms south of Canmore on the Smith Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail and sees frequent bear activity and warnings as it’s in the middle of a narrow wildlife corridor.

In May, a warning was issued after a black bear ripped a tent and chewed on non-food items at two different campsites and as of Aug. 4, a warning is in place for the campground due to a black bear frequenting the area.

The new footprint of the redesigned campground, at 17 hectares, is one of a few measures aimed at reducing conflicts with wildlife.

Over 20 years of bear incident data reveals human encounters with the animal are “slightly increasing” as more people recreate in Kananaskis, said John Paczkowski, Alberta Parks human-wildlife coexistence team lead.

“It’s an ongoing issue that we have. Bears use the wildlife movement corridor along the edge of Spray Lakes and we’re seeing a stable, slightly increasing number of human-bear conflicts in the area,” he said.

“We haven’t had anything involving an injury but we’re having instances that are of concern from a public safety and wildlife safety perspective.”

The Smith-Dorrien Valley’s narrow topography funnels wildlife moving north/south along Spray Lakes’ western side to a pinch point along the flanks of Mt. Nestor. On the opposite shore, cliffs along the eastern side of the mountain valley create a bottleneck for wildlife near the Smith Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail.

Buffaloberries, a favourite food for bears, also grow in and around the campground and throughout the valley.

“The area is important not only as a wildlife movement corridor but for habitat,” said Paczkowski. “In the current campground, we get good buffaloberry production some years and we get bears, especially grizzlies, coming from all over – even from the Kananaskis Valley – to access those natural foods.

“The challenge is making sure they don’t get any unnatural attractants in the area and we’re hoping to minimize those potential conflicts.”

Alberta Parks has a buffaloberry removal program, which includes Spray West and many other popular campgrounds, hiking trails and day-use areas throughout Kananaskis to reduce human-bear encounters.

The campground redesign goes a step further and involves making some areas a safe distance away from the campground more desirable for bears by relocating buffaloberries there, for example, to counter the removal of food sources.

“In order to compensate for that, we’re going to try and sort of create enhancement areas outside of the campground footprint, which will give bears space and food where they’re less likely to encounter people,” said Paczkowski.

In addition to habitat enhancement, Alberta Parks is looking at building a wildlife bypass trail, which would be at least 100 metres away from the campground and be monitored for wildlife movement.

The south end and west side of Spray Reservoir are important as a movement corridor for ungulates, in addition to carnivores, according to the 2006 Peter Lougheed and Spray Valley Provincial Parks management plan.

The management plan identifies grizzly bears as a particularly sensitive and high-profile species that warrant special attention.

“Peter Lougheed and Spray Valley Provincial Parks appear to be important areas for grizzly bear cub production. Grizzly bears range throughout these parks and follow spring green-up of the vegetation from valley bottoms and along riparian areas to upper alpine and subalpine zones,” states the plan.

“In late July and August grizzly bears move down into the valley bottoms in search of buffaloberries. This unfortunately often brings them into contact with humans. Many of the campgrounds in both parks annually experience bear conflicts due to abundant berry crops in and adjacent to some of the campgrounds and day-use facilities.”

Paczkowski said it may take time for animals to start using the wildlife trail bypass, but he believes it will provide a better opportunity for grizzly bears and other wildlife to go around the campground and avoid people.

“From the perspective of grizzly bear conservation and reducing human-wildlife conflicts, I think it will aid in minimizing those types of negative interactions,” he said.

While pleased with the decision to reduce campground footprint and enhance wildlife protection, Devon Earl, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, underscores the area’s significance as wildlife habitat and a movement corridor should have deterred its initial development.

“It’s much better to keep wildlife habitat wild than to develop it and then later on rollback that development because we realized it wasn’t a good idea,” she said.

Varying protection levels and management strategies across land use areas in Kananaskis can blur this line further, she added, noting a nearby 20-unit glamping development in the Kananaskis Public Land Use Zone, which is proceeding despite concerns about the area’s role in facilitating the movement of bears and elk.

“I think it’s really important that we consider – in all new developments – the environmental impacts, whether that’s on wildlife and species at risk or watershed values or carbon sequestration,” said Earl. “It's most important that we consider those things up front.”

Prior to the creation of Spray Valley Provincial Park in 2000, the Spray West campground was used as an area for random camping as the park was managed as a public land use forest zone, said Mucha.

After the park was created, campsites were never truly brought up to Alberta Parks code, she added.

“Really what happened is those informal sites were just made more formalized, but they weren’t actually built to any sort of campsite standard,” she said.

“We also have better information today, not only just on the ecology of the site and wildlife, but we have better information for planning campgrounds and designing and developing, and we have standards.”

With the addition of 15 new campsites, the campground will have a total of 65, but space between sites will be slimmed down from what those familiar with the area may be used to.

“We’re looking at really improving the overall feel of the campground and again, kind of formalizing it rather than having a very lengthy, narrower campground, it will be a much smaller footprint and this also make it much easier for staff to service,” said Mucha.

Sites will be closer together to improve visibility and access for staff and to better centralize services like washrooms. Instead of port-a-potties that Alberta Parks was renting, more washrooms will be added, improved and upgraded to today’s standards.

There will also be a mix of campsites as part of the redevelopment, such as tenting and areas for larger RVs, which can’t fit into some of the existing spots. More signage and improved wayfinding, including formalizing trails around the campground will also occur as part of the redesign and hiker-biker sites will be maintained.

The 2023 provincial budget puts $1.7 million into refurbishing and maximizing capacity at the campground, as well as for road resurfacing in Spray Valley Provincial Park.

The Spray Lakes West Campground currently has access to secure food storage, a boat launch, toilets and a water pump at $31 per night.

The campground is set to close for the remainder of the camping season Aug. 25, with construction expected to begin September. It will remain closed until the end of June 2024 while construction is ongoing.

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook