Rosebud River valley near Wayne, Alberta., jasonwoodhead23 / CC BY 2.0
Rosebud River valley near Wayne, Alberta. © jasonwoodhead23 / CC BY 2.0

At-risk bats in race against speedway for existence


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Susan Holroyd
WCS Canada Bat Program Manager

Cory Olson
Alberta Bat Program Coordinator

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Bats

Published

2024-05-21

The Rosebud River valley is a sensitive riparian habitat for bats that will be affected by a proposed motorsport track.

This article appeared in the Calgary Herald.

The Alberta government recently approved a proposal for a motor speedway in a sensitive river valley at a speed that would make Mario Andretti blush. But as wildlife biologists, we are raising caution flags about the potential effects of this project on species at risk, from bats to bank swallows.

The Badlands Motorsports complex would transform 425 acres of prairie beauty in the Rosebud River valley into a raucous retreat for car and motorcycle racing. From a wildlife perspective, this is the wrong development in the wrong place, with noise, traffic and habitat destruction — including destruction of imperilled wetlands — in an area well known for its fantastic natural values and vistas.

Riparian habitat — the land along the edges of creeks, rivers and other waterbodies — is often some of the richest for biodiversity. The habitat in the Rosebud Valley is no exception, with 28 “special status” species identified as currently occupying the valley. Destroying or disrupting such habitat can also damage important water storage functions.

We recently documented winter activity by bats in the valley, which indicates that its rock and mud crevices are being used by hibernating bats. In fact, thanks to its unique geology, we believe this valley is one of the most important bat hibernation sites in Canada. Among the species of bats that could be hibernating here is the nationally endangered little brown myotis. Bats also use the valley as a travel corridor and as a feeding ground, thanks to the insect populations that thrive in the wetlands, river shallows, oxbows and other riparian areas.

Bats are in trouble across Canada thanks to an introduced disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS has devastated bat populations in eastern North America and has been steadily moving west. We recently detected the fungus that causes WNS at a site near the Red Deer River, confirming that it has reached Alberta and may already be spreading through hibernation sites here.

The last thing bats need is a huge amount of additional disturbance from noise, light and traffic near an important hibernation area. Projections for the Badlands project indicate it could draw more than 350,000 people a year to watch loud, high-powered vehicles race day and night.

Such riparian habitat is precious, and yet humans have already sacrificed so much of it for roads, railways, towns and cities. Having a largely intact stretch of valley within a day’s driving distance of a major city (in this case Calgary) has become a rarity. There are many less sensitive places where this racetrack project could be located, including places that would not require millions of dollars from the provincial government to upgrade road access.

The Alberta Environmental Appeals Board seems to have not properly understood the irreplaceability of this sensitive and wildlife-rich valley. The recent revelation that the board acknowledges that it lacked the resources to properly review the proposal only adds to the sense that its review was rushed and inadequate. The board’s contention that monitoring at-risk bats and barn swallows would be sufficient to ward off further population declines doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

‘We will carefully monitor the ongoing decline of these species while refusing to stop developments that clearly compromise critical habitat,” is an approach that has failed repeatedly.

The question that both the board and the government failed to ask about this massive project was “why here?” Why put this complex in a sensitive river valley next to known critical habitat for both bank swallows and bats? Why ignore the province’s own Wildlife Act, which explicitly protects bat hibernation sites, and species-at-risk rules in the name of expediting “economic development” in a rural community that is largely opposed to the project?

We need a better answer to that question before we drive more endangered wildlife into the ditch.

Susan Holroyd is the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada bat program manager. Cory Olson is the WCS Alberta bat program co-ordinator.

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