The transboundary dispute over the resource-rich Flathead River Valley in Canada has quieted over the past year, though conservation groups on both sides of the border are continuing efforts to protect the area through a roughly 125,000-acre Waterton Lakes National Park expansion and an even larger wildlife management corridor.
Last February, British Petroleum dropped its plans for coal-bed methane exploration in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River, a victory for conservation groups and Montana’s congressional delegation that had vehemently opposed it. But, as conservationists warned at the time, the decision didn’t end the fight.
“It does not mean the Flathead is protected from coal-bed methane development, and indeed, until it’s permanently protected in the form of a national park, it is open to future coal-bed methane proposals,” says Sarah Cox of Sierra Club B.C.
For Waterton Lakes in Alberta to be expanded west into British Columbia, the Canadian federal government and the provincial government must agree to conduct a feasibility study. “Once that study begins it’s almost certain that it would become a national park,” Cox says.
Proponents say there are plenty of reasons for a study to be initiated. A recent report for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Canadian Biosphere Reserve Association concluded that Waterton “is far too small to maintain viable populations of large carnivores such as grizzly bears and mountain lions over the long term.” A 2005 economic analysis of the net impact of a park expansion predicted a $1.44 million boost in gross domestic product and 23 full-time jobs. And a poll of local British Columbians conducted late last year found that more than 70 percent support park expansion.
“(The poll) is the biggest thing we have in our direction—the fact that local British Columbians really recognize the special values of the Flathead Valley,” says Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association in Whitefish.
But Casey Brennan of the British Columbian conservation group Wildsight points out another hurdle.
“The reality is we need representation here, locally, that actually represents the folks that are in the majority,” he says, “and unfortunately we don’t have that right now. One can only hope that that changes.”