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Alberta is home to several different species of native fish – such as bull trout, Athabasca rainbow trout, and westslope cutthroat trout – that have adapted to thrive in the cold, clear streams and lakes of the Rocky Mountains and Foothills. 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.

    • Introduction
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    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. 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 the forested headwaters are managed.

    AWA has taken a stand on 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. We also continue to be opposed to the surface coal mine proposal in the Crowsnest Pass (Grassy Mountain) that could have severe impacts on nearby creeks home to threatened (and federally protected) westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout.

    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 be applied to land use decisions affecting all threatened native fish species. AWA will continue to raise awareness about the important connection between healthy water and abundant native trout.

    Westslope cutthroat trout. PHOTO: © AWA FILES

    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 are formally listed as “threatened” under Alberta’s Wildlife Act. It is also designated as “threatened” under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).  This came seven years after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada called for the threatened designation. The designation was made because native populations of this fish have been “drastically reduced, by almost 80%, due to over-exploitation, habitat degradation and hybridization/competition with non-native trout.” Under SARA the threatened designation means that a wildlife species is likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors threatening it.

    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 is issued, protection and restoration of this species and its habitat must be effectively implemented.

    Athabasca Rainbow Trout

    Alberta’s Athabasca rainbow trout are found throughout the headwaters of the Athabasca River system and its major tributaries in western Alberta. Having survived the last ice age, they are the only rainbow trout species that is native to Alberta (more southerly populations were stocked decades ago). The COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) assessment rates the threats to the species as “severe due to habitat degradation associated with resource extraction and agricultural practices.” They also point to introduced rainbow trout and fishing as contributing threats, threats compounded by climate change. The collapse of Athabasca rainbow trout is stunning, 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. PHOTO © R. BLANCHARD

    Bull Trout

    Bull trout, Alberta’s ‘provincial fish,’ are found across Alberta’s Rockies and foothills. A member of the char family, they rely on cold, clean, complex and connected habitats in order to survive. Most of Alberta’s bull trout migrate large distances throughout their life, spawning in small tributary streams at higher elevations and then living downstream. 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.

    Unfortunately, Alberta’s anglers did not always view bull trout in a favourable light. They were considered a “junk fish”, as anglers wrongly believed these predators were negatively affecting other fish species. If caught, anglers would throw them out to rot. This behaviour collapsed Alberta’s bull trout populations in major waterways such as the Bow River. Since that time, human development in bull trout habitat has continued the decline, with clearcuts, roads, and industrial activity creating hotter streams, dirtier waters. Culverts hanging out above the water have disconnected migratory routes, stranding populations. Heavy angling pressures and climate change are compounding these problems. As a result, populations have declined between 30 and 50 percent over the past 25 years.

    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.

    Overharvesting and poaching initiated the problem with these fish many years ago, and poaching still contributes to the problems they are having. The major issues arise from continuing habitat destruction and degradation from resource development. The resulting network of roads also creates access for off-road vehicle traffic, impacting otherwise remote, small streams. This further degrades sensitive habitat and increases angling pressure.

    The introduction of non-native fish species, such as non-native rainbow trout, brook trout, and brown trout are also a threat to native trout, through genetic mixing and competition for resources.

    Climate change: warmer winters, changing snowpack and changing precipitation is also predicted to have a negative impact on remaining trout habitat.

    2019

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    December 2019 – AWA is disappointed with the final Action Plan published in December by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as it fails to address the concerns raised by AWA and other stakeholders (see below).

    June 2019 – The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada 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.

    Bull Trout

    August 2019 – The final third party review – commissioned by the 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 created inputs into the model, and suggests a need to systematically review the inputs into the model. 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 – Bull trout are finally listed under the Species at Risk Act as Threatened, having waited for 7 years since their COSEWIC assessment in 2012.

    Athasbasca Rainbow Trout

    August 21 – Athabasca Rainbow Trout are finally listed under the Species at Risk Act as Endangered, having waited since their COSEWIC assessment in 2014.

    2018

    Bull Trout

    February 2018 – due to controversy surrounding the proposed angling closures, the Environment Minister announces the government would be conducting an independent review to confirm whether the approach taken by the 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.

    2017

    Bull Trout

    November 2017 –  the 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 5 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.

    2016

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    August 2016Alberta 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.

    Athabasca Rainbow Trout

    February 2016Alberta 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.

    2015

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    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 withdraw their application from federal court.

    September 2015The Public Interest Law Clinic (PILC) files a notice of application in federal court on behalf of AWA and Timberwolf compelling the DFO Minister to issue a critical habitat order within 30 days of the date of the Court’s judgment.

    May 2015The Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans replies to AWA and Timberwolf’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 officials with DFO in relation to the absence of a critical habitat order.

    March 2015AWA and Timberwolf 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 2015DFO 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 2015AWA writes to DFO to receive an update on DFO’s 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.

    Bull Trout

    July 2015 AWA writes in support of a Threatened listing for bull trout under SARA.

    2014

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    November 2014AWA meets with officials from DFO, 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 leads AWA to believe that a critical habitat order under section 58 of SARA would be put in place by end of March 2015.

    July 2014AWA receives a response from the Minister regarding the June 2014 letter. The Minister stated that DFO was reviewing our concerns and would contact the AWA to discuss issues further.

    June 2014AWA sends a letter to the Minister regarding the Recovery Strategy. AWA believes the Recovery Strategy has failed to adequately identify critical habitat for westslope cutthroat trout. AWA asks the Minister for a satisfactory response by September 23, 2014.

    March 2014The federal Recovery Strategy for Alberta Populations of Westslope Cutthroat Trout is released on the Species at Risk Public Registry.

    February 2014AWA submits comments on the proposed federal recovery strategy, with concerns regarding the critical habitat designation lacking important components.

    2013

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    December 2013A proposed federal recovery strategy for threatened westslope cutthroat trout (Alberta populations) is released under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

    March 2013Alberta’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.

    The Recovery Team releases Alberta Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan 2012-2017.

    Bull Trout

    December 2013Logging 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, point to a failure on the part of the provincial government to adequately protect these threatened species.

    2011

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    November 2011The Recovery Team submits its draft Recovery Plan for westslope cutthroat trout.

    2009

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    September 2009A 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.

    2008

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    July 2008AWA requests Endangered status for Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi) in Alberta.

    March 2008Fisheries and Oceans Canada conduct 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 response to the workbook and encourages others to do so as well.

    2006

    Westslope Cutthroat Trout

    November 2006The 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.”

    October 8, 2019

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    July 10, 2019

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