Planning to act

I marvel at how easy planning is and how difficult follow-up action can be. I’m not sure why, but it may be that jaw hinges are better-lubricated than heavy-lifting body parts.
We had more than a hint of the phenomenon this week at a Cows and Fish workshop at Chain Lakes on the Alberta Westslope Recovery Plan: we were there to talk about action – what are we actually going to do to make sure cutthroat don’t disappear entirely from our part of the world. Trouble is, this recent plan has been in the works for more than eight years, approved last March. And, what’s worse, turns out the warning about the Westslope Cutthroat decline was first issued more than 100 years ago.

This is not to criticize those who sent up the most recent flag or those who have laboured over a plan to fix the problem. Without them, there’s no doubt cutthroat would be doomed (without action, cutthroat are doomed anyway.) And they aren’t the only ones who see big problems in our Rockies, on the Eastern Slopes. Cutthroat have been compared with the canary in the mine.

Consider the current efforts to shake thing up. For starters: The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, The Alberta Westslope Trout Recovery Plan (and associated federal WSCT Recovery Strategy which has some interesting divergences from the Alberta plan and notes of interest for anglers), The Oldman Watershed Council Headwaters Action Plan and the 2011-2015 Crown of the Continent Strategic Plan.
There are lots of others, but most may be at odds at least somewhat with the C5 Forest Management Plan that seems to trump many efforts at changing the way things have been done since the late-1800s. That plan is partly status quo in maintaining a multi-use approach, sort of. So does the SSRP, with some apparent concessions to conservation.

Some of the people at this week’s Cows and Fish meeting are landowners just west of the Livingstone Range who illustrate some of the conflict: they brought a huge map detailing logging plans in their valley, up North Burmis Road and Rock Creek Road. Based on the C5 Plan, logging would go ahead around some of the remaining pure strain Westslope Cutthroat habitat.

As one of the landowners said near the workshop’s end: “Let’s all go home and do something about this.” Another was equally passionate about “stopping our attitude that we are entitled” to do what we want where we want.

Here’s some of what came out of table talk:
• creating a mud bog somewhere so those who want to do that can, but are limited to that area and would pay for it;

• adopting Hidden Creek (Oldman River Chapter TUC) from the mouth to the falls to assess habitat needs and help fix sediment problems over fish spawning nests, as well as helping with awareness and education;

• Alberta Conservation Association work in the Lost Creek-Carbondale River area for bio-engineering and education signage around ATV creek crossings and trails;

• more enforcement and, well, more enforcement, similar to a TU StreamWatch program which fizzled in the Oldman drainage after three years, mainly because provincial fisheries enforcement responsibility was switched to a different department.

It’s easy to come away from a session like that with mixed feelings. Some work has actually started, very small scale, to repair destroyed riparian habitat. And maybe that’s the only way to look at the job ahead: small efforts that could add up to a big difference.

Still, a potential barrier shows up in a statement from the DFO Recovery Strategy:
“The provincial recovery plan contains statements on socio-economic considerations. As socio-economic factors are not considerations in any aspect of the preparation of SARA recovery strategies, the socio-economic considerations section of the provincial document is not considered part of the federal recovery strategy for this species.”
If the federal approach trumps, fine. That would mean critical habitat for trout is identified and legally protected from destruction. If the provincial approach takes precedence, those socio-economic considerations were the problem in the first place, particularly when they have been the only considerations that seem to matter in Alberta.

So, even when well-intentioned people in admirable organizations plan well to change things, until the “boots on the ground” to fix long-standing problems are not stifled by socio-economic dominance, it will remain, well, business as usual.

Of note to Anglers:
I first became aware of the real problem with Westslope Cutthroat in 2006. A DFO ad in the Lethbridge Herald set up a process that came from identifying Westslope Cutthroat as a Species at Risk, a designation later upgraded to the more urgent Threatened, and which ultimately resulted in the recovery plan.

When I brought the ad to a TU Oldman River Chapter meeting, the knee-jerk response was, “Does this mean they are going to close streams to fishing?” No one had an answer to that, but the question itself was curious coming from a conservation group meeting.
The plan is evolving to action, and it’s impossible for anglers not to be part of the equation. They are identified in both the provincial plan and the federal strategy.

The federal Species at Risk Act states that
“No person shall kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual of a wildlife species
that is listed as an extirpated species, an endangered species or a threatened species.”

The plan or strategy notes:
• existing sport-fishing regulations should be evaluated for effects on Westslope Cutthroat trout, as well as opportunities to permit angling, especially for the targeted removal of non-native species.

• Educating anglers, the general public, industry, and governments is essential to gain acceptance of, and compliance with, the overall recovery strategy. Support can be gained through increased awareness of the Westslope Cutthroat trout and through involvement in stewardship programs.

• Mandatory fish identification testing (e.g., for a harvest license for Eastern
Slopes Region) should be promoted for anglers to improve awareness of the species and better protection from illegal harvest due to mis-identification. That could involve provision of a fish identification quiz online at AESRD website and good quality fish identification information in the Sport-fishing Regulations.

• A plan and a process to engage stakeholders (e.g., Trout Unlimited Canada, Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA), municipal conservation partnerships, industry) should be created and enlisting their assistance in implementing action items and educational opportunities.

• Consumptive use/exploitation is identified in a table of threats to cutthroat. That includes legal harvest, catch-and-release, size limits implemented for sensitive fisheries. Most harvest permitted on stocked fisheries; incidental or accidental mortality, hooking mortality of released fish, fish mis-identification resulting in harvest, scientific sampling. Uncertainty around angling pressure.

• Potential should be considered that closing fisheries could result in increase in poaching and illegal introductions. Could also include angler mis-identification.

* Catch-and-release angling is a relevant exemption to SARA in the federal strategy.
In considering whether to permit catch-and-release angling throughout the range of
Alberta Westslope Cutthroat Trout, options for the management of the fisheries included
complete closures of angling as well as partial closures or specific stream closures
depending on what impacts were thought to be occurring as a result of angling pressure.

It was determined that complete closures of recreational fisheries in these areas was
unnecessary; however, some stream closures and angling restrictions are already in-place
and will continue to be evaluated to ensure there are no negative impacts to genetically pure populations of West slope Cutthroat Trout.

A condition of catch-and-release fishing is that “captured individual Westslope Cutthroat Trout shall be released without delay to the waters from which they were caught in a manner that causes the least harm to the fish.”