Crowsnest forest landscape practices put fish on the brink

Native fish in the Oldman River watershed will “wink out of existence” if policies and practices in the Crowsnest Forest aren’t radically changed, the Oldman River TU Chapter was told Tuesday, Jan. 14 at Lethbridge.

Speaking to 20 TU members at the chapter’s annual general meeting, long-time Alberta fisheries and habitat/riparian biologist Lorne Fitch said the main cause for the decline of Westslope Cutthroat, Bull Trout and Rocky Mountain Whitefish numbers in the Oldman system is about a century of landscape practices, particularly by logging companies, that result in runoff that covers fish eggs in streams. Fitch said the consequence is that the number of pure strain cutthroat remaining in an area reduced to five percent off its historic southern Alberta range is about 5,000 fish. Even that number is down from about 7,000 fish since Westslope Cutthroat were listed as a species at risk by the federal government in 2006. The federal designation was changed to threatened last year, following a 2009 threatened designation under the Alberta Wildlife Act.

Fitch participated on the team of 14, including TUC’s provincial biologist Brian Meagher, that developed the Alberta Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan 2012-2017 approved last March. The report made clear that “linear disturbance density within the native range in Alberta is among the highest observed in western North America.” The disturbance results in a moderate to high risk of damage to stream channels from “combined effects of increased peak flows and increased surface erosion as a result of forestry, oil and gas, urbanization, mining, recreation and other land uses.”

At the Tuesday meeting, Fitch, using slides to document abuses, focused on on-going forestry practices of cut block (clear cut) logging and ineffective, even sloppy, mitigation efforts that don’t keep egg-smothering silt from streams where fish spawn.

Without a change in those practices, efforts to recover some of the native fish population will be difficult, he said.

Fitch was a fisheries and habitat biologist for 35 years with the government of Alberta. He is now provincial riparian specialist with Cows and Fish and a director on the Water Matters and TUC National Resource boards. He has won a number of awards for his environmental work.

The chapter will consider ways it can assist in the recovery plan, one member suggesting the group could “adopt a watershed” as a way of observing where habitat recovery might be needed and to help in alerting forest users about recovery efforts.