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Species recovery plan in motion for Alberta's cutthroat trout

Fly fishing and fish habitat on the world famous Bow River, seen here near Canmore, Alta., has been seriously affected by silt from a faulty TransAlta hydroelectric facility.

Craig Douce/Craig Douce

Simple pleasures once came with fishing for westslope cutthroat trout.

The brightly coloured fish, dotted with black speckles and so-named for the red-orange streak that runs under its mouth, swims and spawns in the cold freshwater rivers in some of the prettiest and most rugged places in Alberta. Cutthroats were once so plentiful that they could be carted away by the wagonload.

"They are pretty eager to hit a fly – dry fly or wet – they are easy to catch," said Dale Meier, a long-time fly-fishing guide in the Rocky Mountains around Canmore, Alta. "We fished for them all the time back in the '80s – the good old days," he added.

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But the truly good old days went back even farther than that.

When the railway came in 1885, so did over-fishing by irrationally exuberant anglers who employed everything from nets to dynamite. Industry soon saw the potential to harness the region's waterways, and hydroelectric dams were built throughout the trout's native range in southern Alberta, including the Rockies. But that flooded trout habitat and wiped out spring spawning grounds.

Meanwhile, misguided attempts to restock the province's water bodies with exotic species such as rainbow and brook trout have muscled out and cross-bred with the native cutthroat populations.

"It's extremely, extremely dire for them," said David Mayhood, an aquatic ecologist Freshwater Research Ltd., who has reported on the cutthroat's plight to both the federal and provincial governments.

Currently under way is a federal-provincial species recovery plan, which is expected to be completed this fall. But saving the cutthroat from oblivion won't be easy, when man-made hazards lurk everywhere. A faulty hydroelectric generator, for instance, has left one cutthroat population in peril.

According to Mr. Mayhood's research, thousands of kilometres of rivers and streams were once teeming with hundreds of populations of cutthroat. There are now perhaps a dozen – each with 30 to 200 adult fish – of genetically pure specimens passing through maybe 100 kilometres of Alberta's waterways, he said. (The provincial government estimates up to 40 native cutthroat populations left in Alberta, but notes those fish may not be 100-per-cent genetically pure.)

"The really sad thing is that these fish were extremely abundant," Mr. Mayhood said. "… Now, it's really ridiculously small and it's extremely sad."

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That makes every population important for the overall survival of the species. A recent mishap at TransAlta Corp.'s Spray Lakes hydroelectric plant located near Canmore, on the edge of Banff National Park, has led to widespread flooding, stirring up debris and turning cutthroat habitat winding through provincial and federal lands into a big, fast-moving mucky soup.

The situation is friendly neither to fish nor anglers.

"We've been kicked in the guts here," said Nick Schlachter, owner of Wapiti Sports & Outfitters in Canmore. The short-lived tourist season for the rod and reel set is almost a writeoff, he said. But his concerns don't end there. "We're just worried about the fishery and their spawning grounds down the road," he added.

The area where TransAlta operates was once a world-famous draw for anglers, with picturesque waterways flowing into Banff, but construction of the Canyon Dam outside national park boundaries more than 60 years ago nearly wiped out the indigenous cutthroat population.

In May, TransAlta shut down one of two units at that hydroelectric plant for maintenance, but not long after, the second unit failed. To complicate matters, heavy winter snowfall followed by relentless rains created an unusually large spring melt.

As a result, water levels rose, began spilling over the dam and gushing at up to 50 times its normal rate when flows peaked last week into a pair of tributaries that run through Banff and feed into the Bow River. The Bow flows east to Calgary, and it is where fishing guides take tourists.

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TransAlta spokesman Robert Klager said the company hopes one unit will be back online in September and it is working around the clock to fix the malfunctioning unit. Meanwhile, TransAlta is reporting to government officials to monitor the impact on the ecosystem.

"We take any situation of this nature seriously," said Mr. Klager.

Parks Canada, meanwhile, is trying to make the best of a bad situation. This week officials started dropping logs by helicopter into the swollen river in a bid to create new pools where the cutthroat could thrive.

"If we're lucky this will help mitigate some of the impacts of this environmental event," said Bill Hunt, Banff's resource conservation manager.

In 2006, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended that the cutthroat in Alberta be listed as "threatened," but to date the species has received no status under Ottawa's Species at Risk legislation. Under Alberta's Wildlife Act, the cutthroat was listed as "threatened" in 2009, which triggered work on a recovery plan.

Mr. Mahood suggested the "threatened" listing doesn't go far enough.

What's more, saving the species from extinction is complicated by jurisdictional issues. Of course, cutthroat don't abide by boundaries of national parks, provincial parks, Crown land and private property.

Both the provincial and federal governments are already taking steps, such as attempting to remove non-native fish from traditional cutthroat habitat. Parks Canada is contemplating using gill netting and electrofishing – essentially shocking the fish to swim towards nets – to remove brook trout from strategically selected sites where pure cutthroats have the best chance at survival.

An attempt to remove all exotic fish from every water body in the park, Mr. Hunt pointed out, would be like "trying to scoop salt out of the sea."

The new recovery plan will also look at land-use rules for forestry and oil and gas companies, and whether anything different can be done to prevent damaging silt from being pumped into the water, noted Jennifer Earle, co-chair of the recovery plan committee and fisheries biologist with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

Controversial concepts, such as cutthroat fishing bans, are being talked about, she said. And then there are also "socially unacceptable" ideas, such as removing all the dams along the Bow River, which, she said, will never fly.

"We all wish we'd done something a lot earlier," Ms. Earle said.

Still, she remains "cautiously optimistic" for the future of the westslope cutthroat.

"We're never going to recover the species to its original range. It's too late. Too much is gone," she said. "We can concentrate on what we have left."

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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