July 17, 2020
Alberta is home to several different species of native fish that have adapted to thrive in our cold and clear rivers and lakes.
AWA’s vision is for Alberta’s native coldwater fish to be recovered to self-sustaining levels, with healthy watersheds supplying us with cool, clean waters for generations to come.
Alberta is home to several different species of native fish that have adapted to thrive in the cold, clear streams and lakes of the Rocky Mountains and foothills as well as Alberta’s boreal region. Despite many of them having large historical ranges reaching all the way to the prairies, native trout populations currently occupy only a small fraction of that range in small, isolated patches.
The decline of native coldwater fish in Alberta indicates that our watersheds are not healthy and that land uses on surrounding landscapes need to be considered more carefully to ensure native trout populations persist in the future. Recovery of our native fish must be more than just a paper exercise; it will require significant changes to the way in which we manage our landscapes.
AWA has spoken out against several ongoing proposals that we believe will harm native fish species. In general, forest management practices, management of motorized recreation, and protection of critical habitat all need to be greatly improved if native trout are to have a chance of recovering. No new development (e.g. roads, trails, transmission lines, pipelines, well sites, buildings) should be allowed in areas that may damage critical habitat. While westslope cutthroat trout are the only species currently with legal habitat protection, other species including bull trout and Athabasca rainbow trout have recently been listed and will receive their own habitat protections in time. Therefore, it is important that the Precautionary Principle – applying caution before making any decisions that may cause harm – be applied to land use decisions affecting all threatened native fish species.
All of Alberta’s native coldwater fishes are imperiled. Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), an endangered designation means a wildlife species is likely to become extinct if nothing is done to reverse the factors threatening it. A threatened designation means that a wildlife species is likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors threatening it.
|COSEWIC Assessment||Federal Status (Species at Risk Act)|
|Arctic grayling||Special Concern||Listed as high priority for assessment||Not listed|
|Athabasca rainbow trout||Threatened||Endangered
|Bull trout||Threatened||Threatened (2012)||Threatened (2019)|
|Westslope cutthroat trout||Threatened||Threatened (2012)||Threatened (2013)|
Approximately half of Alberta’s Arctic grayling subpopulations experienced a 90 percent decline in population abundance between the 1950s-1970s. Overall grayling abundance has declined by ~60% since the 1960s. As of 2009, Arctic grayling has been designated a species of Special Concern in Alberta. Arctic Grayling is currently listed as high priority for assessment under COSEWIC.
Athabasca rainbow trout
The collapse of Athabasca rainbow trout has been stunningly precipitous. Their numbers have fallen by an estimated 90 percent over just the past 15 years. Athabasca rainbow trout is currently listed as threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act and are listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act as of August 2019.
Bull trout populations have declined between 30 and 50 percent over the past 25 years, despite the fact that in 1995 regulations were changed to implement a zero-bag limit (catch and release only) for bull trout. Bull trout are currently listed as threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act and are listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act as of August 2019.
Westslope cutthroat trout
Native populations of westslope cutthroat trout have been “drastically reduced, by almost 80%, due to over-exploitation, habitat degradation and hybridization/competition with non-native trout” (Canada Gazette). Westslope cutthroat trout are formally listed as threatened under Alberta’s Wildlife Act and designated as threatened under the Species at Risk Act. This came seven years after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada called for the threatened designation.
The management of wildlife falls under provincial jurisdiction, while the management of waterways, fisheries and species at risk falls under federal jurisdiction. For the past 40 years, the provincial government has failed to recover Alberta’s native coldwater fish species despite the production of management plans and the introduction of zero-bag limits. This suggests that our past actions have been lacking and many significant actions must be undertaken if Alberta’s native coldwater fish are to survive or recover.
In 1980, the Little Smoky River was restricted to catch-and-release only. In 1998, the Fisheries Management Division implements a provincial management strategy and recovery plan. Arctic grayling regulations were changed to catch-and-release only for several rivers within the Athabasca and Peace watersheds. For watersheds where harvest was still permitted, the season was reduced to June-August, size limits were increased from 30 to 35cm and a maximum of 2 grayling could be bagged.
Currently, all Arctic grayling are under catch-and-release only regulations. In addition, the Alberta Government has been piloting a five year “Recovery Rest Period” in the upper Pembina River since 2016, putting a temporary pause on all angling and implementing habitat restoration measures in order to help recover Arctic grayling. A federal Recovery Strategy or Action Plan has not been produced for this species.
Athabasca rainbow trout
Alberta established a provincial recovery team in April 2010 and has produced an Athabasca Rainbow Trout Recovery Plan (2014-2019). A federal Recovery Strategy or Action Plan has not been produced for this species.
A provincial Management Plan was first produced for bull trout in 1994, and an updated Bull trout Conservation Management Plan (2012-2017) was released in 2012. A federal Recovery Strategy or Action Plan has not been produced for this species.
Westslope cutthroat trout
A joint federal-provincial multi-stakeholder recovery team was established in 2009 to develop a recovery plan/strategy that would satisfy both provincial and federal requirements. In 2013, the Alberta Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan 2012-2017 was released and a year later the federal Recovery Strategy for Alberta Populations of Westslope cutthroat trout was made public. The federal strategy adopted the full provincial recovery plan with the addition of critical habitat identification, as required under SARA.
A Critical Habitat Population Order was issued for the westslope cutthroat trout, Alberta populations at the end of 2015. The Order engages section 58(1) of SARA which prohibits a person from destroying the functions, features and attributes of westslope cutthroat critical habitat identified in the Order. A person who contravenes section 58(1) is liable to a fine of up to $1,000,000 or imprisonment up to 5 years. Now that a critical habitat order has been issued, protection and restoration of this species and its habitat must be effectively implemented.
Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) reside in northern Alberta and are known for their large and colourful dorsal fin. Other distinguishing features include their large scales dotted with brown and black spots along the body.
A member of the salmonid family (related to trout, charr, and salmon), they are a freshwater fish and rely on cool, clear and well-oxygenated waters. They are found primarily in rivers and streams in the Athabasca, Hay, and Peace River basins. They can also be found within rivers that are fed by wetlands and within a few small, clear lakes.
Arctic grayling are opportunistic and feed upon any aquatic and terrestrial insects they happen to see above and within the water, as well as on other small fish and eggs.
Arctic grayling are a migratory fish species and have been observed to swim over 50 km. In the fall, they migrate downstream to overwinter in deeper pools. In the spring, they move upstream to smaller tributaries to spawn when waters approach 5-10 °C, typically around May/June. Male grayling will go upstream to select a spawning site which they will defend from other males, a female will then select a male to spawn with and they will simultaneously release eggs and sperm; unlike other trout species, grayling do not dig redds. Eggs hatch after a couple of weeks.
There is uncertainty surrounding why some areas are currently unoccupied by Arctic grayling and yet are connected to other areas used by the species (for example, Jasper National Park).
Alberta’s Athabasca rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are found throughout the headwaters of the Athabasca River system and its major tributaries in western Alberta. A member of the salmonid family (related to trout, charr, and salmon), they are a freshwater fish and rely on cool, clear and well-oxygenated waters.
Having survived the last ice age, they are the only rainbow trout species native to Alberta (more southerly populations were stocked decades ago) and are specially adapted to cold, unproductive (low nutrient and food) waters. As a result, these rainbow trout are small, grow more slowly and spawn later (in late May-early June) than introduced species. They eat both aquatic and terrestrial insects.
This species can vary widely in appearance and there are two variations that appear in Alberta: one contains darkly green dorsal fins with yellow-silver sides and black spots on the body, and another with a silvery appearance and weakly visible colours and spots. They can be difficult to distinguish from juvenile introduced rainbow trout without genetic testing.
Bull trout (Savelinus confluentus) are Alberta’s ‘provincial fish’ and found across Alberta’s Rockies, foothills, and boreal regions. They are a char and member of the salmonid family, and rely on cold, clean, complex and connected habitats in order to survive.
Bull trout are long, baseball bat shaped fish with large jaws. They typically have a dark back and sides with pink and yellow-orange spots across the body, but lake populations can be silver in appearance. Their most distinguishing feature is a white tip on their lower fins and the absence of black on their dorsal fin
Bull trout are often compared to grizzly bears, because they are also top predators in their aquatic habitats and their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem. They feed on other fish, especially mountain whitefish and also eat aquatic and terrestrial insects.
Alberta’s bull trout have three different life cycles depending on the habitat they use:
All bull trout are a slow growing fish and only begin to spawn after 5-7 years. They spawn in the late summer or fall into gravel beds with upwelling groundwater, keeping the eggs warm and well-oxygenated through the winter.
Westslope cutthroat trout: Despite the name “Westslope,” this species occurs in Alberta on the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The name “cutthroat” refers to the brilliant orange slashes on the underside of the jaw. The presence of orange-red slashes beneath the jaw distinguishes the cutthroat from its close relative, rainbow trout. They can grow to a length of anywhere between 15 to 102 cm, depending on habitat and food availability. Body colour ranges from silver to yellowish-green with red on the front and sides of the head. Westslope cutthroat trout thrive in cold, clean, moving water with various forms of cover such as undercut banks, pool-riffle habitat and riparian vegetation.
Westslope cutthroat trout feed mostly on insects such as midges, mayflies and crane flies.
After they reach 2-4 years of age, westslope cutthroat trout spawn the in the spring (May-June) in small, low flowing streams with clean gravels, where they dig their redds. Once hatched, fry will use small riffles and covered areas. Adult will either remain in the stream where they hatched or will migrate to faster waters downstream. Westslope cutthroat trout depend on deep pools and areas oxygenated with fresh groundwater to survive the winter.
The Fish Sustainability Index (FSI) combines scientific counts with angler experiences to determine the health of fish populations within a given watershed. It has been used by the province to monitor trends in fish abundance. A high FSI means that a fish population is relatively stable; a low FSI score means that there is a low density of fish and that a population is at high risk of becoming extinct.
Arctic grayling are found in northern Alberta in the Hay, Peace and Athabasca River drainages.
The major population clusters of Arctic grayling in Alberta are found in the:
There is a very small, self-reproducing population of Arctic grayling in the Belly River as a result of stocking Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park. Another self-sustaining introduced population is found in Quarry Lake.
Athabasca rainbow trout are found in the headwaters and tributaries of the Athabasca River, typically at elevations 900-1500 m above sea level.
Historically, bull trout had a large range, encompassing all of Alberta’s large rivers well into the prairies, they are now found only in the Rockies and foothills. Out of 89 watersheds where bull trout have existed since the 1950s, 20 have become extinct, 62 have low population numbers and 7 remain in healthy condition.
Westslope Cutthroat Trout
In Alberta, westslope cutthroat trout only occupy about five percent of their original range. They are found only in small, isolated headwaters streams within southern Eastern Slopes.
The initial collapse of Alberta’s native coldwater fishes was driven by European settlers who overfished Alberta’s waterways, either for sustenance or intentionally so that settlers could introduce fish species that they were familiar with such as rainbow trout, brook trout and brown trout. Bull trout were considered undesirable, because as predators they were (incorrectly) thought to reduce the populations of other more ‘desirable’ species. As a result, many native fish were outcompeted or hybridized (bred) with introduced species: rainbow trout hybridized with Athabasca rainbow trout, lake and brook trout aggressively overtook areas previously occupied by bull trout. Subsequent habitat degradation became the final “nail in the coffin” that rendered many populations extinct.
Lorne Fitch, a retired fisheries biologist, has extensively researched the history of Alberta’s fisheries which he has detailed in his essay Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish: Alberta’s Fish Crisis. A few quotes have been provided here for illustration:
Currently, Alberta’s native coldwater fish populations are extremely small, isolated from one another, and very susceptible to extinction. Significant actions must be undertaken if Alberta’s native coldwater fish are to survive or recover.
The following are the current major threats to the future of Alberta’s native coldwater fish:
Habitat loss and disturbance is perhaps the greatest threat currently facing Alberta’s native coldwater fish species. According to Global Forest Watch Canada, Alberta has the highest amount of industrial disturbance and road networks outside of the Maritimes, the cumulative effect of which has caused the widespread degradation of Alberta’s watersheds.
The impacts of habitat disturbance and destruction to native fish can take many forms:
Arctic grayling are particularly sensitive to pollution, as they have existed solely within freshwater environments over the past ~4 million years. It has been demonstrated that salt water – a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing – in concentrations as low as 17 ppt (parts per trillion) will kill Arctic grayling, highlighting the potential impacts of such a spill (Blair et al. 2016).
Athabasca rainbow trout have been particularly affected by coal mines – with 7 mine footprints (Coal Valley, Cheviot, Vista, Robb Trend, Gregg River, Luscar, and Obed) within their range. In 2013, a catastrophic failure of a berm build out of earth at the Obed Mountain Mine resulted in the release of 670 million litres of coal sludge and waste water, causing significant harm to Apetowun and Plante Creeks and then flowing into the Athabasca River.
Habitat loss and degradation, even if not directly killing fish, places them under stress and makes them less resilient to climate change, competition with introduced species, and angling pressures.
In addition, it is clear that the advice of fisheries scientists is often blatantly ignored. Take for example Hidden Creek. In November 2012, government approved Spray Lake Sawmills’ plan to log in Hidden Creek and to deviate from provincial road building standards. The government approval completely ignored concerns raised by conservationists and Fish and Wildlife staff. For example, the proposed road crossed two tributaries ~60 m from Hidden Creek. This meant that suspended sediments would settle into Hidden Creek immediately upstream of a 1.8 km section of the creek with the highest bull trout redd densities anywhere in the Oldman basin.
Logging approvals went ahead and subsequent observations found that clearcut logging and the removal of the canopy caused Hidden Creek to fill with massive amounts of sediment-laden water. Following logging and the 2013 flood, bull trout redd counts dropped from over 100 redds a year to 15 in 2014. Instead of reclaiming the road, Spray Lake Sawmills has left it for use by off-highway vehicles (OHVs). To this day, this road is dumping large amounts of sediment into Hidden Creek, further threatening the species.
Currently, only the critical habitat of one species – westslope cutthroat trout – is protected, with a Critical Habitat Order that was issued in December 2015. Unfortunately, AWA has yet to see any meaningful on-the-ground changes; in fact, new disturbances that destroy critical habitat – such as logging roads, cutblocks, and OHV trails – continue to be sanctioned.
Invasive species are a major threat to the persistence of native fish species, replacing them either through competition for the same food resources or through hybridization (loss of genetic integrity).
Athabasca rainbow trout – There has been significant hybridization of introduced/invasive species of rainbow trout with native Athabasca rainbows. Retaining the unique genetic adaptations of our native Athabasca rainbow trout is at serious threat.
Bull trout – While bull trout have been known to hybridize with brook trout, the impacts on bull trout are not currently well known.
Westslope cutthroat trout can readily hybridize with other closely related species such as introduced rainbow trout or other cutthroat species; some of these hybrids survive and can reproduce themselves.
Overharvest is when more fish are killed than reproduce, resulting in population declines. As explained above, overharvest is what drove the initial decline of many of Alberta’s native fish populations.
Zero-bag limits have been introduced for all of Alberta’s native coldwater fish – Athabasca rainbow trout in 2012, Arctic grayling (Little Smoky River in the 1980s and expanded to several other watercourses in 1998), bull trout in the 1980s and westslope cutthroat trout in 2009. While this has thankfully prevented the complete collapse of native fish populations, it did not cause widespread recovery as zero-bag limits were not coupled with efforts to address other issues such as human population growth, habitat degradation, fragmentation and rampant poaching.
However, even catch-and-release regulations can be insufficient when coupled with the high levels of angling pressure seen in Alberta:
“For example, recovering walleye fisheries like Bapiste Lake may attract 10,000 anglers in a summer. The sustainable harvest is likely no more than 1,000 fish. How do you divide 1,000 fish amongst 10,000 anglers? Once minor problems like catch-and-release mortality (usually as low as five to ten percent) have now become major sources of the annual kill when multiplied by the heavy angling pressure.” – Dr. Michael Sullivan, WLA Vol .11, Dec 2003
Catch-and-release related fish deaths also increase dramatically under higher water temperatures: a study in Montana found mortality rates increased up to 16% for rainbow trout and up to 28% for mountain whitefish when water temperatures exceeded 23 °C.
Another factor to consider is catchability, which as the name suggests, is how susceptible a certain species is to being caught by an angler. Arctic grayling are extremely susceptible to being caught, followed by bull trout. This means that is takes significantly fewer fishing hours to catch all of the fish within a certain stream.
Source: AEP and ACA, Status of the Arctic Grayling, 2015 Update.
Unfortunately, when fish are very easy to catch, a common misconception often develops where angling success is mistakenly correlated with high fish numbers. In the case of species such as Arctic grayling and bull trout, it’s highly possible you would have caught one of a small handful of large adult trout remaining in that river.
Combined, the evidence suggests catch-and-release regulations may not be sufficient to recover fish populations. The Alberta Government has been piloting a five year “Recovery Rest Period” in the upper Pembina river since 2016 in order to help recover Arctic Grayling and to determine the efficacy of such recovery actions.
For species such as bull trout and Arctic grayling, which migrate large distances to reach their overwintering and spawning grounds, hanging culverts present a major threat as they strand and isolate fish in one spot and prevent them from accessing the habitat they need through their lifecycle. Even for westslope cutthroat trout, which are now reduced to small headwaters streams, a poorly placed bridge or culvert can cut off access to deeper pools which are critical during the winter (as they don’t freeze over) and as a refuge in periods of drought.
On the other hand, some barriers have actually prevented the invasive species from taking over the remaining few populations of westslope cutthroat trout that are genetically pure. It is important for assessments to determine which barriers are harmful (stranding native fish) and which are beneficial (retaining genetic integrity).
Climate Change has a significant impact on Alberta’s native coldwater fish. Warmer winters and summers, changing snowpack and changing precipitation will result in lower and warmer waters.
Most of Alberta’s native coldwater fish depend on specific water temperatures for their spawning, for example, westslope cutthroat trout spawn when water temperatures reach 10 °C in the spring.
Adult grayling are stressed in waters above 17 °C, resulting in reduced feeding and growth; waters above 24 °C for extended periods of time can be lethal. Lower elevation areas within Alberta are believed to be particularly at risk.
Athabasca rainbow trout prefer water temperatures around 7-18 °C, water temperatures above 22 °C are considered life threatening.
Bull trout are rarely found in streams where the average August temperature is above 16 °C.
Westslope cutthroat trout also experience increased mortality at higher water temperatures and are at great risk of their remaining habitats – often small tributaries – running dry in periods of drought.
In addition, invasive species such as introduced rainbow trout or brook trout often have higher temperature tolerances and are able to reach new areas and replace native fish species through competition or hybridization.
December 2019 – AWA is disappointed with the final Action Plan published in December by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), as it fails to address the concerns raised by AWA and other stakeholders (see below).
June 2019 – The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) releases a draft Action Plan for Westslope cutthroat trout. Despite being more than 4 years late, the document is sorely lacking in details, concrete on-the-ground actions, and is unambitious in its recovery goals. AWA believes the draft plan’s new “bounding-box” approach to critical habitat will likely perpetuate further habitat destruction. The Action Plan must also contain concrete commitments from DFO to routinely monitor and report on the status of all remaining westslope cutthroat trout populations, complete on-the-ground assessments, and create an immediate restoration plan for critical habitat.
June 26 2019 – Brooks Motorcycle Club and its Vice President are fined a total of $70,000 under the Species at Risk Act and the Fisheries Act for organizing a motocross race that crossed through North and South Racehorse Creeks several times, seriously harming and causing the death of young bull trout and threatened westslope cutthroat trout. AWA applauds the decision for defending Alberta’s imperiled native trout and upholding the intent of the Species at Risk Act, as well as recognizing the damage that motorized use can have on fish habitat.
February 2019 – The Timberwolf Wilderness Society files an application in federal court in February to force the Fisheries and Oceans Minister to publish an Action Plan for westslope cutthroat trout.
August 2019 – The final third party review – commissioned by Alberta’s Environmental Monitoring Science Division and conducted by Carleton University – is published in August of 2019. The review concludes that there are multiple strengths of the program as it currently stands. It emphasizes the importance of undertaking a quantitative approach to assess and address the threats to native trout in the East Slopes. Using a handful of watersheds as test cases to determine the validity of the modeling work was also highlighted as being a useful approach that could yield insight for Alberta and other jurisdictions. The review also notes a number of weaknesses of the program: it highlights the need to consolidate all research used to create inputs into the model, and suggests a need to systematically review the model’s inputs. It also suggests that active stakeholder participation is necessary in order to achieve recovery outcomes. AWA supports the conclusions made in the review process and will work to ensure the provincial government follows up on the review recommendations and continues work on the recovery of threatened native trout.
August 21, 2019 – Bull trout are finally listed under the Species at Risk Act as Threatened, having waited seven years since their COSEWIC assessment in 2012.
August 21, 2019 – Athabasca rainbow trout are finally listed under the Species at Risk Act as Endangered, having waited since their COSEWIC assessment in 2014.
February 2018 – due to controversy surrounding the proposed angling closures, Alberta’s Environment Minister announces the government would be conducting an independent review to confirm whether the approach taken by the North Central Native Trout Recovery Program (NCNT) is the best one for native trout recovery.
From 2018 to mid-2019, AWA participates in meetings to discuss how to best move forward with the science review, conducted by the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division. The stakeholders at the table – which include anglers, conservation groups, and scientists – agree to act as an Advisory Committee during the Third-Party Science Review.
The Government of Alberta approves the Castle Management Plan. This plan mark historical progress for wilderness conservation, in response to decades of concern by locals and environmental organizations over the Castle’s critical wilderness areas. While the plan bans summer off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, OHV activity will still be phased out over the course of three years. This means that the damages associated with motorized recreation will persist until the phase out is complete, and require intensive education and enforcement in order to ensure compliance. AWA believes the focus must now shift to restoring and protecting this valuable wilderness landscape.
November 2017 – The Alberta government announces plans to recover native fish in the Central Eastern Slopes of Alberta. Called the North Central Native Trout Recovery Program (NCNT), it aims to close a number of watersheds to angling for five years, which would be coupled with other initiatives such as habitat restoration, water quality improvements, and the suppression of non-native fish. Some anglers raise concerns, arguing that they were being progressively restricted, while habitat issues were not being addressed.
The Alberta government implements a 5-year recovery ‘rest’ period in the upper Pembina River, combining an angling closure with habitat restoration measures.
February 2016 – Alberta Wilderness Association writes in strong support of listing Athabasca rainbow trout as Endangered, and urges that a goal-oriented recovery strategy is swiftly developed, critical habitat (including riparian zones) is identified and legally protected, and a collaborative recovery strategy and action plan is implemented.
August 2016 – Alberta Environment and Parks announces that off-highway vehicle (OHV) trail closures will occur in the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park until the end of December 2016 in order to protect pure westslope cutthroat trout populations in White and Camp Creeks. AWA commends the Alberta government on this essential step to protect westslope cutthroat trout.
July 2015 – AWA writes in support of a Threatened listing for bull trout under the Species at Risk Act.
December 2015 – A Critical Habitat Population Order is issued for the westslope cutthroat trout, Alberta populations. The Order engages section 58(1) of SARA which prohibits a person from destroying the functions, features and attributes of westslope cutthroat critical habitat identified in the Order. A person who contravenes section 58(1) is liable to a fine of up to $1,000,000 or imprisonment up to 5 years. AWA and Timberwolf Wilderness Society withdraw their application from federal court.
September 2015 – The Public Interest Law Clinic (PILC) files a notice of application in federal court on behalf of AWA and Timberwolf Wilderness Society compelling the federal Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Minister to issue a critical habitat order within 30 days of the date of the Court’s judgment.
May 2015 – The Federal Minister of DFO replies to AWA and Timberwolf Wilderness Society’s March 2015 petition letter, stating that work on the critical habitat order is ongoing and that in the interim sections 32 and 33 of SARA and section 35 of the Fisheries Act protect critical habitat for the Alberta population of westlope cutthroat trout. The Minister’s reply essentially replicates what the AWA had already been told by DFO officials in relation to the absence of a critical habitat order.
March 2015 – AWA and Timberwolf Wilderness Society retain the Public Interest Law Clinic and petition for a critical habitat protection order for the Alberta population of westslope cutthroat trout as required under section 58(5)(a) of SARA to be issued within 180 days after the final recovery strategy is published. The 180-day statutory deadline expired on September 24, 2014. AWA and Timberwolf request that the order be issued on or before April 30, 2015.
February 2015 – DFO responds to AWA indicating they were hopeful the critical habitat order would be issued soon and in the interim the Fisheries Act and sections 32 and 33 of SARA protect individual westslope cutthroat trout and their habitat.
AWA teams up with Timberwolf Wilderness Society and sends a joint letter to DFO reiterating concerns about the lack of recovery progress and specific timelines; requesting a justification as to the delay in issuing a critical habitat order for westslope cutthroat trout.
January 2015 – AWA writes to DFO to receive an update on their progress since the November 2014 meeting and to reiterate the urgency to issue a critical habitat order for westslope cutthroat trout, as ongoing activity is threatening critical habitat.
Athabasca rainbow trout are assessed as Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
December 2014 – Despite repeated expressions of community angst and serious environmental concerns, the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD, Forestry Division), the University of Alberta, and Canfor have begun to log the Star Creek basin. Logging began a few days before Christmas. Earlier in the month, a haul-road approximately 10 km in length was constructed into the Star Creek valley from the Travel Alberta, Travel Information Centre. The haul-road crosses Girardi Creek before entering the Star Creek valley, site of the logging operation. Both streams are home to threatened pure-strain westslope cutthroat trout. The haul-road, seen to be actively channeling muddy water into Girardi Creek, fails to meet proper setbacks and other appropriate mitigation measures. AWA and other groups write several letters of concern to ESRD’s Forestry Division, the University of Alberta and Canfor, but the logging has proceeded unabated.
November 2014 – AWA meets with DFO officials, where concerns were restated regarding the critical habitat in the Recovery Strategy. AWA is informed by DFO staff during the meeting that a critical habitat order had not been issued for westslope cutthroat trout. Discussions at this meeting lead AWA to believe that a critical habitat order under section 58 of SARA would be put in place by end of March 2015.
September 2014 – AWA writes to the provincial government in opposition of an experimental logging project in the Star Creek watershed.
March 2014 – The federal Recovery Strategy for Alberta Populations of westslope cutthroat trout is released on the Species at Risk Public Registry.
February 2014 – AWA submits comments on the proposed westslope cutthroat trout federal recovery strategy, in particular AWA’s belief that the critical habitat identification is not consistent with the requirements of the Species at Risk Act and is inadequate for the successful recovery of westslope cutthroat trout.
October 31, 2013 – A catastrophic failure of a berm build out of earth at the Obed Mountain Mine results in the release of 670 million litres of coal sludge and waste water, causing significant harm to Apetowun and Plante Creeks and then flowing into the Athabasca River.
December 2013 – Logging in Hidden Creek, the most important spawning grounds for threatened bull trout in the entire Oldman River system in southern Alberta, reaches its end. It also contains threatened westslope cutthroat trout. AWA believes that the details surrounding this logging operation, including the lack of an appropriate risk assessment, the speed of the operation, and numerous deviations allowed from the Operating Ground Rules (OGRs), point to a failure on the part of the provincial government to adequately protect these threatened species.
AWA writes in concern regarding FOIPed materials about the approval process to log Hidden Creek in September 2013. Chiefly, the FOIP reveals that the decision to log Hidden Creek was made in direct contradiction to the recommendations made by Fish and Wildlife biologists:
Key among the recommendations made by provincial biologists:
July 2013 – AWA replies to the AB Minister’s March letter, calling into question a number of the claims that had been made: reiterating that Hidden Creek has long been valued for its native trout habitat, the lack of empirical evidence surrounding the claim that buffers meet the need for aquatic values, and the lack of any standards regarding native trout in the C5 management plan.
March 2013 – The AB Minister’s response to AWA’s January 2013 letter regarding Hidden Creek states that Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) had first submitted an application to log the watershed in 2009. Since that time, the Ministry reclassified Hidden Creek as a Class ‘A’ waterbody. The Minister notes the road deviation was listed on the Forest Harvest Plan and Annual Operating Plan, stating that “our ground rule watercourse buffer requirements meet the needs of the aquatic values” and that “these portions of the road will be reclaimed to pre-harvest standard or better”.
January 2013 – The Minister of Sustainable Resource Development responds to AWA’s November letter, stating that Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) has been asked to treat Hidden Creek as a Class ‘A’ water body, requiring a 100 m buffer from activities.
In response, AWA writes with additional concerns, flagging the lack of ecological assessment conducted before the approval of the cutblocks and significant deviations that were granted to the Operating Ground Rules, resulting in nearly 2 km of the haul road to be placed within 100 m of Hidden Creek.
December 2013 – A proposed federal recovery strategy for threatened westslope cutthroat trout (Alberta populations) is released under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).
March 27, 2013 – Alberta’s westslope cutthroat trout are finally designated a threatened species under the federal Species at Risk Act. This comes seven years after the designation was recommended by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
The Recovery Team releases Alberta Westslope cutthroat trout Recovery Plan 2012-2017.
Provincial regulations are changed so that Athabasca Rainbow Trout are catch and release only across their range.
The Alberta government releases a Bull trout Conservation Management Plan (2012-2017). It states that “bull trout have suffered a 33% reduction in historical range and 78% of the identified core management areas are vulnerable to extirpation, with 6% already considered extirpated.”
December 2012 – The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assesses the Saskatchewan-Nelson bull trout populations as Threatened.
November 2012: AWA writes a letter to the Alberta Premier and the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development (ERSD) in opposition to imminent logging plans for Hidden Creek in the Livingstone-Porcupine, part of the headwaters of the Upper Oldman River and a critical spawning ground for westslope cutthroat trout as well as threatened bull trout.
November 2011 – The Recovery Team submits its draft Recovery Plan for westslope cutthroat trout.
September 2009 – A joint federal-provincial multi-stakeholder recovery team is established for westslope cutthroat trout. The team will take two years to produce a recovery plan for the species. Representation on the team includes both federal and provincial staff as well as key stakeholders such as the forestry and oil and gas industries, biologists, and environmental non-government organizations.
July 2008 – AWA writes to the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), requesting Endangered status for westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi) in Alberta.
March 2008 – Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) conducts consultations on whether the westslope cutthroat trout (Alberta populations) should be added to the SARA list. Their consultation document states that “all available information suggests that many populations are lower relative to historic levels and numerous local extinctions have occurred.” The document further clarifies the source of the problem by stating that “habitat degradation and loss due to timber extraction, mining and hydroelectric developments have been directly responsible for loss of habitat and decline of several populations.” Also of great concern has been the introduction of non-native competitive species that have taken a toll on the existing native cutthroat trout fishery. AWA submits a response to DFO and encourages others to do so as well.
November 2006 – The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) calls for the Alberta population of westslope cutthroat trout to be designated a threatened species. Populations of this fish have been “drastically reduced, by almost 80%, due to over-exploitation, habitat degradation and hybridization/competition with non-native trout.”
COSEWIC recommends that a wildlife species be listed as “threatened” when that species is likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors threatening it.
Bull trout are listed under Alberta’s Wildlife Act as a species of Special Concern.
The Fisheries Management Division implements a provincial management strategy and recovery plan for Arctic grayling. Arctic grayling regulations are changed to catch-and-release only for several rivers within the Athabasca and Peace watersheds. For watersheds where harvest is still permitted, the season is reduced to June-August, size limits are increased from 30 to 35 cm and a maximum of two grayling can be bagged at a time.
Bull trout are designated as the provincial fish of Alberta.
Regulations are changed to implement a zero-bag limit (catch-and-release only) for bull trout.
The harvest of bull trout is banned in Waterton Lakes and Jasper National Parks.
Alberta Wildlife publishes a Bull trout Management and Recovery Plan.
The harvest of bull trout is banned in Banff National Park.
The Bull trout Task Force is created. Composed of conservation groups, government agencies and biologists, it intends to find solutions to halt the decline of bull trout.
Angling in the Little Smoky River is changed to catch-and-release only for Arctic grayling.
Approximately half of Alberta’s Arctic grayling subpopulations experience a 90 percent decline in population abundance between the 1950s-1970s.
Due to overfishing and the widespread introduction of invasive species, 20 of Alberta’s 89 local watersheds containing bull trout are functionally extirpated (locally extinct).