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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Nature Conservancy of Canada's 10th Annual Eat and Greet very well attended

Front: Jenel Bode, Anne Stevick, Connie Simmons, Jen Jenkins, Wonnita Andrus, Kristi Stebanuk
Rear: Tony Bruder, Lorne Fitch

Toni Lucas

Nature Conservancy of Canada held their 10th Annual Eat and Greet at the Twin Butte Community Hall on Friday, February 6,  with Stewardship Coordinator Anne Stevick acting as Master of Ceremonies.  There were a number of speakers, including Oldman Watershed Council Planning Manger Connie Simmons, Cows and Fish Riparian Resource Analyst Kristi Stebanuk, Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association Carnivore Working Group's Tony Bruder, Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association Communications Coordinator Jen Jenkins, and Cows and Fish Professional Biologist Lorne Fitch.

Each person gave a quick overview of what their group purpose is, and what they have been doing for the past year. They spoke to approximately 120 people who were in attendance for the meeting, a significant turnout for the event.  Some of the goals of the meeting were to update people about what each group is doing, to share information, to talk with people in the area about what is needed going forward, to and strengthen existing partnerships and explore new ones.

Oldman Watershed Council Manager Connie Simmons

The Oldman Watershed Council (OWC) is one of 11 watershed councils in Alberta. OWC Planning Manager Connie Simmons had the Oldman Watershed Headwaters Indicator Project final report on hand for those who wanted a copy. She discussed the report, and explained how watershed organizations across Alberta advise governments.  She also talked about the regional OWC Source to Tap meetings that gathered information to hopefully influence the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP).

Wonnita Andrus and Connie Simmons
"This is a way that folks can actually be a part of watershed management, planning, and doing," Simmons said. "We are tasked to do a few things. The government is giving us some funding and they say 'Here's the things we need you to do to help us out." She said that includes watershed health assessments, state of the watershed reports, and long term water management plans.

"Most important, and that is why I have highlighted it, we enable and hope to enable change," she continued, saying that process includes education, engagement, and encouragement.  A priority document was prepared.  "Out of that came eight goals for an integrated watershed management plan for the entire Oldman Basin." She said that will lead to action plans. "That's where community, and us, and whoever we can get onboard with the government, are actually going to do something, on the ground."

Water quality and contaminants will be the next focus for OWC, for the whole Oldman basin.  "It's daunting," Simmons said, adding that OWC is looking for community members to assist them in the endeavour.  

Two OWC maps were on display, demonstrating pressures on the headwaters of the region. "It's everything you can imagine," she said, citing roads, logging, pipelines, and recreational use and abuse as major factors of those pressures.  "What is the cumulative impact on the headwaters health?" she asked.  "This isn't telling us about the condition of the headwaters, it is telling us about the pressures," she clarified,  indicating red marked areas where the pressures were high. "So, we have some work to do."

"This data is Government of Alberta data, from 2012. It comes strictly from them."

According to Simmons 17 Source to Tap meetings were held, at which information and viewpoints were gathered and taken to partnership advisory networks.  Scientific data and public input was analyzed to develop a plan. This plan went through a public review and was adjusted accordingly. This plan was available at the meeting. "So, you see we have done a lot of work to say how are we going to take care of the headwaters, what are we hearing from people, and what is the science telling us."

Simmons also discussed species at risk in the Oldman Watershed, including bull trout, westslope trout, cutthroat trout, and mountain whitefish.

Aquatic invasive species were also raised as a concern "Now, that's two mussels and a weed." Zebra mussels, Quagga mussels, and Eurasian water milfoil were mentioned. They are commonly transported through the use of recreational watercraft.  Boats and other equipment can be cleaned off to inhibit spread. Some stages are microscopic so a visual check is not enough.

"We try to stop them at the border." 

"We are really talking about a big threat to this watershed."

Another big threat, according to Simmons, is recreational use of some of the watershed's more delicate and important areas, including spawning grounds.

"I can't underscore enough that every single committee we talked to, when we talked about impacts to the watershed, they said 'What are we going to do about the recreational pressures?' We have to do something."

OWC has a plan for Dutch Creek, a particular area of concern when it comes to those recreational pressures.  "We are going to adopt a watershed, and we are going to use this as a demonstration tool, as a pilot project."

"There is a lot of education that has to be done."

"We are going to be out there, on the ground in Dutch Creek talking to recreational users."

Cows and Fish Riparian Resource Analyst Kristi Stebanuk

"So, tonight I am here to show you some visual stories," said Cows and Fish Riparian Resource Analyst Kristi Stebanuk, before showing  a few 2 to 5 minute personal story about the area. "We can't always get people 'on the ground' opportunities, take them to real sites, and get them involved directly on the ground. So digital stories are a way to spark emotion, they leave people with feelings, and they also have hard knowledge and ideas. They can teach new techniques and tools."

"They can be valuable for reflection, consideration, and cause for purpose."

Click here for some of those stories.

Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association Communications Coordinator Jen Jenkins

Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association (WBRA) Communications Coordinator Jen Jenkins said that when she came to join the WBRA she had an eye opening experience. "I live here. It's pretty, we have mountains, we have bears, we have wind, we have cool plants, we have cool people, right? I quickly found out that there is a lot more to the biosphere reserve."
"Really the biosphere reserve in our area is a community driven organization."

Jen Jenkins
"At some point in time some people in our community thought it was worthwhile to have a designated biosphere reserve."

"The goal is to fulfill the needs and wants of the people living within the biosphere reserve, and also fulfill the needs of the environment." "Ideally what we would like is for those two things to work together really well."

WBRA had a busy year last year, improving  communications: updating their website, newsletter, and they are soon to unveil a movie about the area. "Know that it's to come."  According to Jenkins they are setting new goals and held public forums recently to gather input toward developing those goals .  Watch for an upcoming story here about the recent WBRA Pincher Creek forum. "We did two days where the general public had the opportunity to give us their opinions on some of the things that the biosphere has been working on."

WBRA Carnivore Working Group  - Tony Bruder

Tony Bruder explained the purpose and initiatives of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association Carnivore Working Group.

"What we do is we try and help ranchers that are engaged in issues with large carnivores. In this area, that generally is the grizzly bears," Bruder also included the area's other carnivores as being of concern, including black bears, cougars and wolves. The area the group works within includes the MD of Ranchlands, the MD of Willow Creek, the MD of Pincher Creek, and the County of Cardston. Some of the things they do to help ranchers deal with carnivore incursions include electric fencing, bear proof grain storage options, and deadstock removal bins. They are also working with the government to improve the compensation program for ranchers that have suffered losses through carnivores.

Tony Bruder
"The main thing is, we try really hard. It has to work for you, the landowner. Because if it doesn't work for you, there is no point in putting it there."

"As any of you ranchers know, deadstock removal is very expensive."

"It's an attractant, a major attractant for grizzlies, blacks, and wolves."

"From my own personal experience, we removed that attractant from our landscape. The bears still come in, they take a look, but they don't hang around."

According to Bruder, in 2014 the group paid $46,000 for deadstock removal of 870 head, at a cost of about $53/head. "That encompasses about 92 producers."

"Those carcasses are being removed at this point by Southern Alberta Processors." Bruder said the costs are increasing significantly,  explaining that a carcass that currently costs $90 to remove will soon cost $120. "Our expenses will go up, yet again."  A more comprehensive compensation program for landowners that are losing stock due to predators through the Alberta government is being discussed.  "We are still in talks with them, we know that there are changes are coming."

"To any of you out there that are having grizzly, wolf, black bear, or cougar problems with your livestock and do have an idea for a project that might work to help you mitigate those issues, contact myself or Jeff Bectell and we will see what we can do to help you with those problems."

Cows and Fish Professional Biologist Lorne Fitch

Cows and Fish Professional Biologist Lorne Fitch gave a humorous and historical look at a concerning issue, the threats to native fish species and the pressures that he said have resulted in major changes to their habitats and numbers since the 1880s.
Showing popular historical advertisements for cocaine tooth drops and beer for nursing mothers did dramatically demonstrate how our societal views change with time, study, and education. Discussing family histories and and showing photos from the past, he demonstrated that fishing in the area was considerably different in the past, with more numerous and sizable catches.  "Part of this is about not family albums, so much, but about an album of history about our watersheds and landscapes." Going back to 140 years ago, Fitch said the building of the railways, the introduction of a larger human population, roads, dams, industry including logging, oil and gas, and agriculture, sediments, and recreational water usage has changed the habitats for the native species. Climate change was also discussed.

Lorne Fitch
According to Fitch introduced species such as eastern brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout have significantly impacted the native species.  "These were easier to rear in fish culture operations."

'When I first fished here about 14 years ago, the rivers teemed with fish. Now it is much different.' said the report of an avid hunter and fisherman. He was a NWMP officer  who was referring to the better fishing of 1876 compared to 1890.   He recorded that he was seeing a lower of the size and amount of fish in this area.

Fitch showed a number of photos of fish and fishing in Alberta from 1893 on. Some of these photos highlighted the size of the catch, both in individual fish and overall catch. One photo showed over 125 fish between four fisherman. The fish tales speak of larger sizes of fish than we see now, and the archival photos back up Fitch's claim that there were larger fish than we see today. One picture was of an area west of the Porcupine Hills that parallels Highway 22 today. Referring to another photo he said "I don't think that many of you would classify Callum Creek a trout stream today.  But there are over 60 fish, bull trout and cutthroat trout in this photo from those anglers then."

"It gives some sense of the rich, richness of this landscape, particularly the aquatic resources that were present a little over 100 years ago."

A 1903 Calgary Herald article said that two fishermen caught 400 fish between them from Fish Creek.

"Pretty liberal limits, and a pretty good supply of fish."

A 1916 photo taken at the Waterton River showed the catch with larger older fish. "I suspect they were fishing largely unfished waters."

"In those days the classification or the scale of fish was largely an inverted pyramid, where it was mostly old fish and very few young fish." He compared that to a photo taken in the same area in the 1930s.  "There's still lots of fish, but they are getting smaller."  Another photo, taken in 1920, showed a huge bull trout taken at the mouth of Mill Creek where it flows into the Castle River. "I would estimate that's somewhere between 17 - 20 pounds."

Fitch said flooding in the Crowsnest Pass in 1920 may have been partially due to logging and overgrazing, changing the landscape. "Land use changes were happening very early in the history of our landscape."

A 1910-11 Dominion Fisheries Division study showed "People were already worried in 1910 and 11 about the state of the fisheries." Overfishing, netting, dynamiting, spearing, were just a few ways that these depletion's were happening.

"This is the recurring theme I get from a lot of these archival records - everybody looks backwards and says 'It was a lot better back then'."

Fitch said the Laurentian cutthroat trout is currently at about 5% of historic population levels.

"As fishing success reduced there came a cry - 'We need more fish'."  Eastern brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout were introduced. "These were easier to rear in fish culture operations."

"Here's the High River Fish and Game Association urging the government to take steps to remove bull trout by dynamiting the hell out of them. One of those progressive steps that I'm glad never happened."

Even though fishing and over fishing does play a part in the population, Fitch said that "It's the law of diminishing returns. People stop fishing. But when you change the habitat, the opportunity for fish is gone forever."

"Sometimes we need these sort of time-lapse images that help us understand not only has the landscape's changed, but how much the landscape has changed and what that's meant to a bunch of things, like indicators like the fish."

"If there are four words that sum up what we need to maintain native fish on the landscape it's cold, clean, complex and connected."

Fitch said sediment introduced into the system cements the gravel on the stream beds together to the point that fish cannot break them apart to spawn.

"Big changes have happened in our landscape, and are continuing to happen in our landscape."

"We need to make a commitment on a landscape scale to change the trajectory of some of our development footprint."

"Those family albums you all have are memories. They are memories of the past, but hopefully those family albums that you have also have images from today. We need to put those images from today into our landscape album. We need to be reminded of where we were in the past and what the potential is for the future."

Related links and stories:
Cowboys, Carnivores, and Dead Stock Removal

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