If there’s one route that stirs up a bunch of controversy in K-Country, it’s the now decommissioned Mt. Indefatigable trail. So popular at one time, it actually is described and graces the front cover of Gillena Daffern’s 2010 guidebook for the area – despite being closed in 2005. This former official trail used to have memorial benches on it.
However, it is decommissioned, with that big sign seen above asking you nicely not to go up there. Why? Why isn’t it just closed? Other people ignore the sign; can you? In a time of COVID with many trails busy, traffic up there has actually increased, as people appear to think that a closed trail will be less busy, so this closed trail is even MORE busy than it has ever been.
On this page, we’re going to do a deep dive into the decommissioning, and help you understand why, if you like having grizzly bears on the landscape, you shouldn’t go up there. First, let’s explore why Parks doesn’t just close it.
The process to implement an area closure
The only way you can implement a closure in Alberta Parks is via Ministerial Order. In the National Park, the Park Superintendent can close an area; not in a Provincial Park. Conservation Officers have the right under the regulations to temporarily close things for safety, but a permanent or annual seasonal closure (like wildlife corridors) is under the jurisdiction of the Minister, and only the Minister. Ministerial Orders are not just based on science, but also… politics — who is minister, when elections are, political priorities, and what party is making the decision. Since 2005, 4 proposals have been put on various Ministers desks for a permanent or seasonal closure on Mt. Indefatigable. The most recent proposal was submitted for Ministerial approval in mid 2018; it remains on the Minster’s desk. In fact, the proposed Indefatigable closure isn’t the only seasonal wildlife closure that has been proposed in K-Country in the last 15 years, but not a single one has ever been approved by the Minister of the day.
The most recent closure proposal
The Alberta Parks Ecology Team, and the Peter Lougheed District Conservation Officer staff, were the originators of the 2018 proposal. It was initiated in 2016, and took 2 years to go through internal reviews before it was ready for the Minister. Why did they initiate it? Several reasons.
- Studies by PhD candidates and Masters students of camera and counter data collected by the Ecology team and COs clearly shows the criticality of the movement corridor in that space; it’s one of the few ways grizzlies can move towards the Upper Kananaskis dam, which is a transit barrier.
- From 2005 to about 2010, usage was minimal and at what the Ecology team research demonstrated to be sustainable levels. But despite being closed for 5 years, traffic on that trail started increasing, which recent PhD research has correlated directly to social media posting. As examples, a check on Google Trends in the summer of just 2019 (pre-COVID) showed over 2,000 searches in May, June & July alone for information on the hike. A scan of Instagram will show hundreds of recent photos taken from the trail (including folks walking by the closure sign with a “thumbs up”); many “influencers” with literally tens of thousands of followers are posting photos from up there. An entire wedding party went up there for engagement photos. The voluntary closure is no longer working, and promotion on social media is the main issue (though not the only one).
- The upper slopes of Mt. Indefatigable are meadows spectacularly full of bear food, and more importantly, denning space. There have been collared bears denning up there every year for the last 15 years, and the Ecology team has located those dens every year (visiting in mid summer, when unoccupied). The data shows denning bears are moving their dens as a result of the increased trail traffic. As trail use increases, bears move farther away from the human influenced areas of the trails and are choosing poorer denning sites. Bears den where people aren’t. Problematic denning leads to reduced reproduction rates.
Why is K-Country so important for grizzlies?
Recently published studies by Clayton Lamb show that the only reason we’re able to have the 691 bears we do have in the Province is because of spaces like Kananaskis Lakes, home to a solid population of reproductive grizzlies. The K-Lakes area is at carrying capacity for grizzlies based on the space and habitat they need, so new young grizzlies disperse from those areas to sustain the population elsewhere – if they survive. When forced into worse denning sites, reproduction rates and survivability drop. Bears aren’t able to sustain or grow, and will never disburse and are at risk of not recovering from being threatened.
Trail closures vs area closures
While only a Minister can close an area, the actual control over what trails are where in a Park is on a local, Kananaskis District level. It’s mostly created under Park Management Plans approved by District Managers; you can read the plan for Peter Lougheed Provincial Park here. The elimination of Mt. Indefatigable as a designated Trail and its decommissioning resulted from these plans which state: “If monitoring indicates that off trail use is adversely affecting wildlife, additional measures such as information, education as well as area or seasonal closures will be considered.” The data from the early 2000’s clearly showed that ON-trail use, in addition to off-trail use, was adversely affecting wildlife. So the decommissioning took place in 2005. The data continues to support this evidence, and in fact, shows it worsening. However, without a Ministerial seasonal closure, it can’t be closed.
Conservation Officer staff have become more proactive over the years in using temporary closures to control access in critical grizzly bear terrain; Rawson Lake and Sarrail Ridge are examples of this; the photo to the right was taken in early summer of 2020 and shows 4 hiking parties AND a bear on Sarrail ridge (the trail was closed that afternoon). Uniquely, they are reluctant to put up closure tape on the Mt. Indefatigable sign because the sign itself already says the trail is closed; yellow tape gives the wrong message regarding the importance of the sign.
But does that REALLY apply to me?
The argument that “everyone else is doing it, so why can’t you?” (in psychology and logician terms, “bandwagoning argumentum ad populum“) is an unsustainable one. Bandwagoning depends on the assumption that if you believe something, and large numbers of people disagree, you must be wrong. It depends on people’s own lack of confidence in their ability to judge the merits of something. Given that most people are smart enough to judge the merits of this with all the facts, we thought this page about the facts appropriate.
When you ask folks heading up there why they ignore the closure sign (as Wildlife Ambassadors from Bow Valley Wildsmart have done), their answers are often quite sad; bandwagoning isn’t the only argument. This happens on social media sites regularly any time people post about going up there, and the folks who understand all of the above attempt to influence others. Many argue that if it really needed to be closed, Parks would close it, so the closure isn’t “real”, which is demonstrably false. Some argue that you can walk anywhere in a Park, so they want to go there. That’s only partially true. Some argue there are lots of places for bears to live, and try to extend that logic to suggest the sign means we shouldn’t go into the wilderness at all, anywhere.
In 2019, someone posted this:
“I went with 13 others on Canada Day a year ago. Came across a bear and because we all yelled, he turned around.”
This is pretty much the antithesis of respectful behaviour. The bear was just living their life until people appeared and chased him off, possibly off a food source — in a space where the people were asked not to go in the first place. In a space specifically identified as prime bear habitat, people making poor choices stressed the bear.
Many people maintain active social media sites, some profiting from their images, stories and affiliate links, and they actively promote going up there. Grizzly bears are a COSEWIC Species at Risk & Threatened in Alberta. There are, at last count, just 691 of them left in the province. Who Instagrams for them? Which of the two takes precedence over the other? Since no one can speak for the bears, it is Parks’ responsibility to. The decommissioning was one way of speaking for the bears. The sign is Park’s equivalence of an Instagram post.
Because, in the end, the sign is all about respecting wildlife: Leave No Trace Principle #6, which we explore in depth here. Respect for wildlife from an outdoor ethics perspective means we recognize it is their space, not ours.
We have extirpated most wildlife from our cities and other places we live; the rest of the space is theirs — the living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms of the wildlife. Our Parks, and even our Public Lands, are managed to enable our animals have a space to live. As we write here, Provincial Parks are primarily about ecological protection; enabling human use comes in a distant second. A main purpose of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is to protect the space for grizzly bears; ignoring the sign does the opposite. The Management Plan for the Park clearly states: “Maintaining a sustainable regional grizzly bear population will be a priority” in park management.
So why should you not go up there? The short answer is that going up Mt. Indefatigable is just another nail in the coffin for the long-term survivability of grizzlies, and defeats the purpose of having protected spaces at all. If you care about having grizzly bears on the landscape, if you care about our Parks and protected spaces, if you care about a threatened species and don’t want to personally contribute to it’s extirpation, you’ll pick any one of the 1,200 km of other official trails, or one of the ~2,000 other km of routes and not that one.
REALLY good alternatives, by the way, include King Ridge or the South End of Mt. Lawson, each of which offers a nearly identical hiking experience and views to Mt Indefatigable – and have never recorded bear denning.