Westslope Cutthroat Trout: Recovery Efforts, Critical Habitat Order and More….

Photo Courtesy of Calgary Herald -  A Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Shane Petry/Department of Fisheries and Oceans / Herald)

Photo Courtesy of Calgary Herald - A Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Shane Petry/Department of Fisheries and Oceans / Herald)

Since the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced a Critical Habitat Order for the Alberta populations of Westslope Cutthroat Trout (WSCT), there has been both applause and concerns arising from industry, recreation groups, environmental non-profits and stakeholders alike, regarding what will change. Although the Oldman Watershed Council can’t answer all the questions on this topic, what we do know is that the DFO will have a larger role to play, because projects that intersect with WSCT habitat will need DFO approval. In an effort to get ahead of the talk and into the actual action, the Oldman Watershed Council (OWC) met with Government of Alberta experts on the WSCT and their habitat.

The Government of Alberta (GoA) is working on a few projects that are directly related to WSCT. Firstly, a Fish Sustainability Index (FSI) on WSCT is nearing completion. The FSI is a method of assessing fish stocks while incorporating present conditions and predicting possible future threats on populations. The FSI takes into account metrics such as adult and juvenile densities, geographic extent of existing remnant populations and limitations about those populations. In addition, Genetic Mapping will give indications into the degree of hybridization of WSCT and outline where pure (greater than and equal to 99%) and near pure (greater than and equal to 95%) populations are - in order to provide an estimate of historical ranges and estimate recovery chances and levels of concern in specific tested locations.

Building off the above findings, the GOA is also developing Fisheries Management Objectives (FMO) and Habitat Management Objectives (HMO) for certain WSCT populations. The FMOs and HMOs will highlight management actions, such as fishing regulations and habitat management, to achieve the objectives laid out, mainly to recover and maintain each population. Setting these objectives is currently a provincial priority and a standardized method for assigning FMOs and HMOs is under development.

Prior to the Critical Habitat Order, the Oldman Watershed Council had developed the Headwaters Action Plan (HAP). The HAP identified 3 main indicators for headwaters health, one being presence and abundance of fish - especially native populations.

Within this indicator, two Targets were set - Target 1: Maintain current native and naturalized fish population integrity within the headwaters and explore opportunities to increase native fish populations in their current range; and Target 2: Restore native fish in selected streams in the headwaters.

The OWC has since been working with our Headwaters Action Team, which is made up of various stakeholders including: Cows and Fish, Trout Unlimited Canada, Spray Lake Sawmills, the Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad and the GOA to address these two Targets. This year, we are focusing on an education program, called Engaging Recreationists, which, in part, will deliver information on WSCT and the distresses they face.

Efforts are being concentrated across many organizations to gain momentum on the WSCT Recovery Strategy. Cows and Fish recently held a stakeholder session which brought together multiple presenters to speak as experts on their work relating to WSCT. The OWC presented on our Engaging Recreationists project and Headwaters Action Plan. We were also in the company of many other experts, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who explained the Critical Habitat Order; the Government of Alberta who touched on the projects mentioned above; and various other organizations, such as Cows and Fish and Trout Unlimited Canada, who highlighted their on-th- ground efforts.

In addition, the GOA is seeking interested parties to assist in developing a citizen science project to complete stream crossing classifications and measure stream temperature.

Experts suggest that this data would be very useful to feed into recovery efforts. Examples such as this are reflective of the many projects to be done on-the-ground, but unfortunately, there is a lack of boots to do them.

The work the OWC does in the headwaters will continue to have a large focus on WSCT. The many stakeholders we partner with, including Government, environmental non-profits, community, industry, recreation groups, ranchers, landowners and various other organizations, make our efforts more effective in meeting one of the goals of our Headwaters Action Plan - to maintain and restore the populations of WSCT.

Interested parties are invited to contact the OWC for more information on ways to help with the recovery efforts. ** **

Larin Guenther, Planning Manager
Oldman Watershed Council