It's all about sustaining bull trout

By Richard Burke
I was a touch ambivalent about the walk I was about to take down the Upper Wigwam River in Southeastern B.C. It is a beautiful river, worth spending time on, and this trip had a particularly useful purpose – counting bull trout redds – not that simply being there and soaking it up isn’t useful.

The older I get, though, the harder it is on the feet and knees to walk and wade on river rocks. So, I reminded myself, this was about the bull trout, not me.
The trip overall was noteworthy, part of a three-day conference on bull tryout organized by Will Warnock and others for the Salvenlinus confluentus Curiosity Society. The conference, attended by mainly scientists from six states and five provinces to hear or present new information on bull trout, was held at Blue Lake Centre, a rustic cluster of cabins and a lodge mainly for educational meetings. It was a half hour west of Canal Flats, B.C. at the south end of Columbia Lake up dusty logging roads well into the Purcells.

The Upper Wigwam is more than 200 km southeast of that, accessible by more dusty logging roads within hailing distance of the Montana border. The Wigwam, in fact, has its source in Montana.
Four teams, a total of 12 participants, counted redds – spawning areas in the gravel river bed – over 20 km. My team was led by Will. The other team member was Kathryn Kuchapski. Both have much younger feet and knees. It was either by design or by fortunate chance I was with them. Both are graduates of the University of Lethbridge – Will's years there culminated in a PhD in Biosystems and Biodiversity in 2012. I had sat in the university classroom when Will defended his Masters thesis a couple of years before that. His affinity for bull trout was reflected in his thesis.

During his time in Lethbridge, he had presented information to the Oldman River Chapter Trout Unlimited about bull trout migrating between the Castle River and Hidden Creek in the Upper Oldman River. Kathryn received her MSc in Biological Sciences in 2013. Both are shining examples of education at work for good.

But, I digress, sort of. Again, this effort was about bull trout. In our 5 km section, we counted 308 redds, which seemed significant.  Overall in the four sections, team members counted more than 500 redds. A survey is conducted annually in the entire Wigwam, the count ranging from 1,500 to about 2,000. The river is B.C.’s single largest spawning run of adult bull trout (3,000–5,000 adults annually). They spawn in autumn then swim downstream, as far as Lake Kookanusa about 50 km to the west (with much more ease than an older man negotiating river rocks, I thought.)

Southeastern B.C. was chosen for the conference, partly because it is “bull trout heaven,” said Will. By contrast, in Alberta across the border from the Wigwam and other thriving  B.C. streams, it is a threatened species. That means it’s “likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse factors leading to extirpation or extinction.” In B.C., it is a species of special concern – less than threatened but still monitored carefully to make sure it doesn't decline.
Jeff Burrows of the B.C. Ministry of Forest Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Fish and Wildlife Branch, told the conference counts by various methods put bull trout numbers at about 14,000 in the East Kootenay alone. In all of Alberta, provincial estimates placed the Alberta bull trout population at approximately 20,000 adults in a 2014 update.

"Since the provincial regulation change to a zero harvest regulation for bull trout in 1995, a number of bull trout populations have recovered to some extent, while others have stabilized at low population levels. In a number of cases, bull trout may have decreased or even disappeared from certain streams,” according to the bull trout management plan.

When I asked Jeff about a perceived superior approach to fisheries in B.C. compared with Alberta, he smiled,  saying only, “We have to make our cases.”
He also supervised the redd-counting effort on the Wigwam, leading us to the muster point 52 km up from Hwy. 3 at an elevation of 1,300 metres. We passed through locked gates “there to keep motorized vehicles out,” Jeff said. When asked about enforcement, he said if a vehicle is reported in the area, it is thoroughly investigated. Noticeably absent in the restricted area were ATVs and RVs.

I was at the conference as a member of the TU Oldman River Chapter, which acts as steward on about 4 km of Crowsnest River frontage it leases in the Crowsnest Pass. My participation there was to bring information back to the chapter on bull trout habitat and recovery efforts elsewhere.
Here are some other takeaways from the conference and the Alberta Bull Trout Conservation Management Plan 2012-17 about bull trout that may help our chapter (and other groups) determine how it may help in bringing back bull trout numbers:

• The species needs cool water (13 C)  to thrive. Those temperatures are generally found in lakes and streams in higher elevations, like the Oldman River headwaters which has significant concerns from over use by industry and recreational users that affects bull trout spawning areas. According to the Alberta Bull Trout Conservation Management Plan, “Generally, bull trout populations in the southern watersheds – Oldman, Bow and Red Deer rivers – have experienced the greatest declines. . . . The fact that many bull trout populations have not recovered, or are still considered vulnerable, has largely been a consequence of the increasing cumulative impacts of industrial and recreational activities within the species historic range as well as competition from introduced fish species” such as brook trout.

• Bull Trout have been abused in Alberta for at least a century. (The one at right we found dead on the Wigwam rocks.) You can find frequent references to the species being considered a trash fish and caught then thrown into the bushes. Angling regulations have been changed recently to catch and release on all trout in the Oldman drainage. “Where bull trout recovery has occurred (in other jurisdictions), it has been largely due to angling regulation changes and related management activities including: (1) zero harvest limit, (2) bait bans, (3) seasonal and permanent angling closures in key spawning, staging and over wintering areas, (4) public awareness and education efforts to reduce fish mis-identification and unintentional harvest, and (5) enforcement efforts to reduce illegal harvest," according to the recovery plan.

Alberta has so far been slow to respond to pleas for increased enforcement. And, according to the BT management plan, “While a few populations are abundant and may be increasing, generally, angling restrictions alone have not been adequate to recover bull trout populations.”

• Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, the department which has responsibility for fish, is studying bull trout sustainability. Jessica Reilly told conference participants “the sustainability of bull trout in Alberta was recently evaluated (in 89 areas of the province) to determine whether the stock is healthy, fish abundance and threat mitigation,” starting with the question: What is the state of Alberta’s fishery? Early findings include: road density above 1.4 km per square km is “probably bad for bull trout” and the areas which showed the highest adult bull trout density in the province were all in national parks.

By the way, road density is a priority for action in the Oldman Watershed Council Headwaters Action Plan.

• The bull trout was declared Alberta’s official fish in 1995 as a way of highlighting its shaky status. According to the Alberta Culture and Tourism website:  “The bull trout is one of eight species of trout found in the province's glacial waters. To ensure Alberta's population of bull trout never becomes endangered, there is a catch and release policy governing all bull trout fishing in the province.”

There is no mention in the message of factors other than fishing that have contributed to the fish’s decline, such as “resource development (that) creates high-risk environments for bull trout due to the cumulative effects of degraded habitat conditions combined with increased angler access,” according to the bull trout recovery plan.

• Bull trout “threatened” designation is based on federal legislation which requires the province to develop a recovery plan, but it takes an inordinate amount of time to develop plans and legislation does not force recovery activities, says Rick Taylor of the University of British Columbia, who sits on the committee which determines wildlife status under the Canada Species At Risk Act.

He also says, “There is no question recent weakened federal legislation will weaken protection of bull trout.”

• The Waterton River drainage has been studied recently by Alberta Conservation Association fisheries biologists, who categorized the system as high risk, low recovery potential. The ACA's Jason Blackburn pointed to problems that started in the early 20th century with developments such as Oil City in Waterton Lakes National Park. Other obstacles to bull trout recovery focus on hybridization (with brook trout) and high stream temperature variations from the top of the system in streams such as Spionkop, which with Yarrow and Blakiston Creeks had the highest numbers of adult bull trout in the survey. In lower sections, temperature is likely too high for bull trout.

Blackburn’s assessment of the likelihood for bull trout recovery is “there’s still hope, if someone cares enough.”

• Alberta also has a Westslope Cutthroat Recovery Plan because that species is also threatened. Alberta Cows and Fish Riparian Habitat Management Society has been front and centre in trying to move from planning to action on recovery of the two fish species. A work day to repair some Allison Creek riparian habitat is scheduled for Oct. 24. Oldman River Chapter has been invited to participate. As well, the chapter has offered to adopt Hidden Creek, a prime bull trout spawning area. What that might entail has yet to be determined.