Federal Government Declares Proposed Mine Site To Be Critical Habitat

Last week, the federal government declared that dozens of streams and rivers in southwestern Alberta are critical habitat for endangered trout species.

On December 2nd, the Alberta Wilderness Association said that it would drop a lawsuit against Ottawa which sought to force the federal government to issue the order. Under law, critical habitat for native cutthroat trout was supposed to have been declared more than a year ago under the previous Conservative government.

“We’re happy that we likely do not have to follow through with it,” said Brittany Verbeek, the association’s conservation director.

Verbeek said the order lends protection to the creeks, streams and tributaries draining into the Oldman and Crowsnest rivers that are home to the trout. The fish were already protected under the Fisheries Act; now their home is protected under the Species At Risk Act.

“It just means that the area surrounding where the fish live has that increased protection.”

Changes to the stream, such as increasing its sediment load, are now forbidden.

The Alberta government is considering an application from a subsidiary of an Australian company to build a coal mine on a mountaintop in the protected habitat. Benga Mining proposes to turn 12 square kilometres on the top of Grassy Mountain near Blairmore into a terraced site.

At the same time, the province’s energy regulator is investigating the company for a release of coal into Gold Creek, one of the streams included in the critical habitat declaration.

A recent survey by a fisheries biologist found virtually all southern Alberta streams that spawn native trout are threatened by industrial development or overuse.

Lorne Fitch studied 54 small rivers and streams that flow into the Oldman River and which hold bull and cutthroat trout, largely in the area now considered critical habitat. He found nearly all of them face damage from logging roads, energy development and off-highway vehicle trails.

Scientists suggest land that contains trout streams shouldn’t have more than just over half a kilometre of trail, cutline or road per square kilometre. The disturbance density in parts of the Oldman watershed is nearly 10 times that.

Cutthroat populations are estimated at five per cent of historic levels.

 

From Bob Weber – The Canadian Press

Source: http://www.ctvnews.ca/business/feds-say-proposed-alberta-coal-mine-site-a-key-fish-habitat-1.2684688

Photo credit: Robert Berdan

 

 

Why are Alberta’s trout species threatened?

5 per cent.

That’s what’s left of the once-thriving population of cutthroat trout in Alberta. Combine that with a 70 per cent loss of habitat for Alberta’s provincial fish, the bull trout, and things aren’t looking too positive for our freshwater fishes. Both cutthroat and bull trout are now restricted to high elevations, when they were once abundant through the Oldman and Bow river basins.

Facing multiple pressures

So why the dramatic decline? The biggest threat might not be what you think: off-highway vehicles. Quads, 4x4s, dirt bikes, and other off-highway vehicles tear up the stream bottom, compromise important habitat, and increase the amount of silt and sediment being deposited into important spawning grounds.1

But it’s not just our off-roading friends to blame. The creation of logging roads, expansion of energy development, effluent runoff from feedlots, and draining of watersheds to meet irrigation needs are all part of the problem. Together, these pressures create an ecosystem that is heavily disturbed, and its estimated that the disturbance density of the Oldman watershed are ten times the recommended maximum to ensure the long-term health of cutthroat and bull trout.

But why is silt and sediment a problem?

We used to think silt and sediment would just be washed away when it entered our waterways, but this actually isn’t the case: these tiny particles of sand and dirt become trapped in the bigger stones and gravel that make up the stream bed, where it solidifies. Eventually, the sediment and silt becomes so concentrated in the seafloor that water can’t permeate through it, creating what is referred to as a “hardpack streambed.” This makes it extremely difficult for trout to carve out redds (nests) – and hardpacks aren’t expected to go anywhere soon.

Echoed all over the province

In order to see real, lasting change for all of our native species of fishes and freshwater species, Alberta will need to address its land-use policies and make considerable changes.2 Some of these would include better protection for headwaters, more control of industrial activity, and improved water quality monitoring.

What can you do?

The biggest thing we can do to ensure the long-term health of our freshwater species is to limit the impact we have on our waterways directly. When you’re out camping, leave some distance between your site and the water. Don’t use your off-highway vehicle in or near the water. And make sure you use caution down on the waterfront.

 

Sources

CBC News. (June 13, 2015). Alberta trout threatened, say anglers and environmentalists. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-trout-threatened-say-anglers-and-environmentalists-1.3112452.

 

Bob Weber. (July 12, 2015). Most Alberta trout streams threatened: survey. The Canadian Press. Retrieved from: http://globalnews.ca/news/2106366/most-alberta-trout-streams-threatened-survey/.