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New Parks in Alberta’s Castle Wilderness Boost International Conservation Efforts

Conservationists rejoiced as Shannon Phillips, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Parks, announced the province’s new government would create two parks totaling 104,000 hectares (a quarter of a million acres) in the mountainous Castle area last Friday. It marked the turning point in a forty year effort to protect this spectacular and biologically diverse area that is adajacent to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park just north of the Canada- US border.

DSC_6814 Castle Announcement c H Locke 2015
A smiling Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks, Shannon Phillips (center), looks on as Blackfoot women Margaret Plain Eagle and Shirley Crowshoe (at microphone) bless her announcement of two new parks in the Castle. Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition spokesperson Gord Peterson and others look on. Photo by Harvey Locke

The crowd in the packed room cheered when Minister Phillips announced an end to commercial logging effective immediately. The timber industry was much less happy. Undeterred, the new Alberta government sees the economic future of the Castle region being tied to building an outdoor destination for Albertans and out-of- province visitors. For nature lovers,  the Castle is certainly well worth a visit.

DSC_3399 Haig Pass Castle c H Locke
Haig Pass on the Continental Divide looking into the West Castle Valley. The Castle is renowned for its plant diversity. Photo by Harvey Locke

Located in the narrowest waist of the Rocky Mountains, the Castle has long been identified as an important provincial priority for conservation because of its rich natural values and as an important international priority due to its key location in the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor. The Castle is a continental ecotone, where species from the north, south, east and west meet to make it the most biologically diverse area of Alberta. Particularly rich in plants, it is also a major part of the headwaters of the Oldman River which is important to many downstream users on the dry Canadian Prairie before it eventually flows into Hudson’s Bay.

DSC_2873 West Castle headwaters c H Locke
The headwaters of the West Castle River, a source of the Oldman River, which provides life -giving water to communities downstream on the dry Canadian Prairie. Photo by Harvey Locke

However, heavy logging, oil and gas development, off road vehicle use and random trailer camping threatened to overwhelm its value as secure habitat for grizzly bears, bull trout, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. It suffered under a management policy that sought to provide all things to all people in a finite and fragile space. Previous conservation oriented management designations in the Castle had left out valley bottoms and low elevation wintering range.

A quad drives through the West Castle River in 2015 Multiple use including off road vehicles leads to water quality and sedimentation concerns for sensitive bull trout populations downstream. Photo by Harvey Locke
A quad drives through the West Castle River in 2015 Multiple use including off road vehicles leads to water quality and sedimentation concerns for sensitive bull trout populations downstream. Photo by Harvey Locke

From a global conservation perspective the most significant aspect of protecting the Castle is that these new parks are not isolated. They form part of a larger landscape context in the interantional Crown of the Continent Ecosystem. The Castle borders Waterton Lakes National Park to the south. Conservation designations extend from there into adjoining Montana, USA. In addition to protecting its share of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park which straddles the border, Montana and the US Government have also protected the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness and adjoining areas.  And there are more conservation outcomes proposed for federal lands in the Flathead National Forest.

The two new Parks in Alberta's Castle adjoin Waterton -Glacier International Peace Park in Montna and British Columbia's unprotected Flathead Valley
The two new Parks in Alberta’s Castle adjoin Waterton -Glacier International Peace Park in Alberta and Montana. The Flathead Valley in British Columbia and Montana is outlined in blue. Map courtesy of Flathead Wild.

The western boundary of the Castle is the extraordinary and wildlife rich Flathead Valley of British Columbia. Several passes over the Continental Divide connect them. These areas together form the Canadian core of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem. But the BC Flathead now stands as the only unprotected part. Many people, including me, believe that it is time to bring conservation in that part of British Columbia into line with conservation in Alberta and Montana. A group of conservationists working as Flathead Wild proposes expanding the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park into one third of the Flathead Valley together with establishing a wildlife management area that would connect it northward to Banff National Park.

DSC_2869 hikers on Castle Flathead divide c HLocke
Hikers on the Continental Divide between Alberta’s Castle area and British Columbia’s Flathead Valley. The Alberta Government has decided to prioritize outdoor recreation, wilderness and wildlife habitat protection over resource extraction in the Castle. Conservationists seek a similar conservation outcome in  adjoining areas of the Flathead. Photo by Harvey Locke

Nature knows no borders.  The Castle area’s north- south valleys feed out of the wildlife sanctuary of Waterton- Glacier International Peace Park and also funnel wildlife north towards Banff National Park. This will be increasingly important as climate change causes species to want to move north or upslope in search of cooler places to live.

The Alberta Government’s decision to protect 1050 square kilometers of the Castle with two new parks is a major step towards protecting the integrity of nature across this international landscape. Transboundary conservation of this kind is essential to maintaining habitat security and connectivity for wildlife at the Yellowstone to Yukon scale. And the Castle’s natural beauty will serve as an inspiration to all who visit it.