Nickel and Diming Outdoor Rights

[Note: The following was first published in the October 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Back in May of 2008 the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed Bill 201, the Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Heritage Act. There was a lot of fanfare and pats on the back in the hunting, fishing and trapping communities because their lobbying to enshrine these rights into law had finally paid off.

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A piece of legislation doesn’t protect our rights unless our governments have the will to enforce it.

The bill is simple enough, only one page of text. After the preamble of requisite whereas statements outlining the role of hunting, fishing and trapping in Alberta’s heritage, wildlife conservation and the needs of future generations, the bill lists only two sections. Section 1 states that “A person has a right to hunt, fish and trap in accordance with the law” and that law includes “the Wildlife Act, the Fisheries Act (Canada), the Migratory Birds Convention Act (Canada) and the regulations made under those Acts.” Section 2 states “Nothing in this Act derogates from any aboriginal right to hunt, fish or trap.”

And that’s it—short and sweet with no confusing cross-references to obscure subsections pages away or in other bills, as often found in legislation. Indeed, the private member’s bill (introduced by the late Len Mitzel) received royal assent less than a month after first reading in the legislature—not an easy feat for any piece of legislation, let alone a private member’s bill. It passed so quickly because there was little or no debate, as the bill was stating what was already a fact in the province: people can hunt, fish and trap, provided they do so lawfully. In reality it was a “motherhood” statement that was now cast into law.

But was it enough? If you read the bill carefully, you realize the legislation does not prevent specific hunting, fishing and trapping rights being taken away through changes to the mentioned provincial and federal acts and regulations. For example, the right to hunt grizzly bears or catch and keep bull trout was taken away via a regulation change. Those and other changes didn’t take away your overall right to hunt or fish, just your right to hunt or fish certain species or in certain locations. If we are indeed to lose our right to hunt, fish or trap, it will most likely occur piecemeal as the government closes the season for each species that can no longer sustain a harvest. In effect, we have already seen that in our fishing regulations. In many water bodies, we can no longer harvest fish. As well, a succeeding government could rescind the bill by the passage of another act. So, while it was good to have our legislature recognize hunting, fishing and trapping as legitimate activities, Bill 201 didn’t provide any real protection for those activities.

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If we truly want to protect our right to hunt, fish and trap, we need to protect the wild areas that produce game, fish, furbearers and species-at-risk.

What would provide that protection? In my opinion, a better piece of legislation would have also guaranteed the protection of sufficient wild spaces that support diverse ecosystems (i.e., biodiversity) including viable populations of fish, game and furbearers, such that fishing, hunting and trapping in these areas can be sustained. Of course, such legislation would not have passed quite as quickly, but the debate might have educated the legislators in what is needed to sustain a valuable heritage, and that maybe exploitation of our resources needs to be slowed to accommodate that heritage.

The problem with any legislation is that it is only as good as the will to enforce it. As pointed out in Lorne Fitch’s essay, “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou? (July 2017), there are already numerous pieces of legislation and agreements between various governments to protect and maintain biodiversity, including species-at-risk. But where the boots hit the ground, governments are reluctant to enforce those rules for fear of slowing the economy.

One of the best examples is this province’s treatment of woodland caribou, a threatened species that used to be hunted. Despite ample warnings that this iconic species was in trouble, the province granted rights to forestry and petroleum companies to mow down the animal’s prime winter habitat. Then in a desperate bid to show the federal government that they were doing something to protect the caribou, expensive programs to eradicate wolves and reduce moose numbers were employed in the area where the most distressed herds are found. Meanwhile the resource companies continued to tear down the one thing the caribou need to survive: their habitat. The lesson continues not to be learned. If you want a diverse economy and a high quality of life, then you must preserve sufficient wildlands. What’s sufficient? How about protecting enough wildlands to sustain hunting, fishing and trapping, and maintain species-at-risk?

Why are species-at-risk so important? As Fitch stated in his essay, and I’ve said several times in this space, it’s because species-at-risk are the “canaries in the coal mine.” Their impending demise is telling us that our ecosystems (that support all life, including us) are in trouble.

To be fair, our current government has been attempting to provide more protection for our wildlands. The creation of the Castle parks was a good step in the right direction (and despite what you hear, you can still hunt and fish there). But there is still a lot more to do to roll back the damage that previous governments allowed to happen, especially in our headwater areas and the woodland caribou ranges in our north.

Last year, the government announced its plans for woodland caribou, and especially for the two most critical herds (if you don’t count the oil sands herds), the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds. Again, the plans were positive steps forward, especially for the herds in the northwest and north-central portions of the province. However, as I mentioned in my August 2016 column, the plans for the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds (near Grande Cache) are woefully insufficient. Having to depend on a wolf cull and a “caribou rearing facility” to restore the herd, while we wait the 100 or more years for the habitat to grow back after the forestry and oil companies finish their work, is truly a non-starter.

As Lorne Fitch facetiously suggested, perhaps it’s time to write the caribou off and let the business of resource exploitation continue unabated. But that would just continue the nickel and diming away of our right to have wild places and benefit from the species that occupy those places. When we lose a species, we lose a part of what makes us whole as human beings. As ecosystems lose their diversity, they also lose their ability to cope with change, such as the change that is happening with our climate. If we want to continue to have a diverse choice of outdoor experiences, we need to be protecting a diversity of wild landscapes and environments.

Perhaps it is time for the government to start asking its citizens just what kind of Alberta they want to see in the next decades. With our continuing human population growth, climate change and a limited amount of resources, we need to see a vision of the future that goes beyond four years. We need to see how we are going to cope with the coming changes while holding on to what we value in terms of our heritage and human experience. Instead of nickel and diming our rights away, maybe we should be investing in them.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Posted in Alberta, Alberta Outdoorsmen, Canada, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fisheries Management: Complex, Complicated and Poorly Comprehended

Guest Blog: Alberta Environment and Parks is proposing plans to recover native trout in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The plans call for the closing of fishing along many streams to allow the trout populations to recover. However, many anglers and conservation groups are concerned that little is mentioned in the plans about curtailing the ongoing habitat destruction that is occurring. In the following essay biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) explains why fisheries management is so complex and why we should not blame the biologists but the politicians. Loren’s previous essays posted here include: “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?The Inequity of “Balance”Tracks and SpurMyths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use and Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish.

Fisheries Management: Complex,Complicated and Poorly Comprehended
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2017

Fisheries management isn’t rocket scienceit’s vastly more complicated. Divining information on how fish live, their habitat requirements and their status is, by no means, simple. “Counting fish is just like counting trees — except that they are invisible and keep moving,” says John Shepherd of the University of South Hampton. What we do know about the fisheries of the watersheds of the Eastern Slopes is that westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, Athabasca rainbows and Arctic grayling populations are all in trouble. Mountain whitefish populations may be as well.

Fisheries collapsed before there was the province of Alberta and before the advent of fisheries biologists. A natural calamity might wipe out fish populations in a segment of a watershed. Connectivity, the ability of fish to move freely within and between watersheds allowed populations to re-establish. Any lake with a fur trading post had both an awesome and unsustainable tonnage of fish removed. In those simpler times, without the added footprint of development, cessation of fishing resulted in a rebound of fish populations. It is not as simple anymore with the double whammy of angling pressure and habitat loss.

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A healthy riparian habitat is crucial to sustaining fish populations.

Every living thing eventually dies, except zombies perhaps, and does so from the extreme risk of youth, to the stagnation of middle age and the acceleration in old age. Fish begin dying as eggs lain in the stream gravels; only a tiny fraction will survive to the fry stage. Young fish suffer death from competition over food and space. All age classes will suffer predation from kingfishers, mergansers, mink and bigger fish. Non-native trout compete with the natives for resources and may hybridize, reducing fitness for survival. Fish are tested every day within the dynamic systems they live, by flood, drought, fires, landslides and cold snaps that can freeze streams down to the rocks.

Overlain on this landscape of extreme variability is a land-use footprint that is extensive, expansive and cumulative. For some species of wildlife there is opportunity to prosper with some types of land use. For fish, any land use footprint increases the risk to populations and often results in declines. An additional complication is the impact of human-induced climate change, especially on water temperatures. Therein lies the conundrum for fish, and for fisheries biologists to manage populations with the combination of a natural range of variability and human-induced cumulative effects.

A contributing problem is we lack benchmarks for healthy, abundant fish populations so it is difficult to know what is in the realm of the possible. If there is a watershed in Alberta that still contains historic levels of trout, it must be well hidden and virtually inaccessible.

Many people have become so inured to the damage in our watersheds it becomes difficult to see that essential riparian buffers have become too thin and are unhealthy. Beyond the riparian zone logging has changed the hydrologic regime to produce higher spring flooding followed by less water available in critical times for the summer, fall and winter. This can persist for decades. Too many roads and trails lace watersheds, each a conduit for speeding runoff and acting as silt pumps. Culverts, diversions and dams block upstream passage, dams turn stream habitats into sterile reservoirs and divert water from the system. Many streams are subject to excess nutrients, herbicides, pesticides, selenium, mercury and pharmaceuticals.

If overwintering pools fill with sediment, mud coats and permeates spawning and rearing gravels that also produce fish food; algae growths rob the stream of oxygen and critical overwinter flows are too low; and no amount of tinkering with angling regulations will successfully restore trout populations. Until we address the fundamental, underlying problems related to our historic and current land use decisions, fish populations don’t have a ghost of a chance of recovery.

Today, the trout of the Eastern Slopes are not dying exclusively of natural causes. They are bleeding to death from a thousand cuts inflicted upon them by us.

So, when it comes to declines in fish populations and the need to recover them, fisheries biologists are first in line to have the cross hairs of outrageous fortune targeted on them. Everyone seems to have an opinion, generally contrary to the management strategy offered by biologists. Most are fixated on their corner of the fishing world and on their particular desires. Because of the phenomena of shifting benchmarks many cannot believe we have a fish crisis. This can include bureaucrats who haven’t studied history or reviewed archival photographs.

Anglers may carry a fishing rod and have fishing experiences but fisheries biologists wield some truths about fish. A fundamental one is that land use has changed the watersheds fish live in, sometimes irrevocably. Another one is, all angling results in fish mortality, either intentionally through legitimate creel limits, or illegal poaching. Even catch and release fishing causes a collateral mortality. In some watersheds trout may be vulnerable to any level of angling related mortality because of a depressed population size.

We are now at a point where we have traded off healthy, sustainable fish populations for economic development. If anglers and others sense this imbalance has robbed them of recreational opportunity and of watersheds of health and resilience they should start addressing the issue with their elected representatives. Blaming fisheries biologists for scuttling your angling pleasure (and freedom) is as nonsensical as blaming your doctor for your misspent youth.

Today’s fisheries biologists are also anglers and got into their profession as a result of their association with the sport. They are kindred spirits.

Their goal is to reverse the negative trends in fish populations as this is job one as articulated in the Fish Conservation and Management Strategy for Alberta. Angling and harvest of fish can only come after the prime directive is met. Yes, data on fish population status is often inconsistent, sparse and dated. In fisheries management the materials are living objects, existing in a dynamic environment. No one condition is uniform from lake to lake, from watershed to watershed and no problem is capable of exact solutions.

If we wait to fill all those gaps, fish populations in some watersheds will surely wink out, not a desirable outcome. That’s why we need to rely on the professional judgement of fisheries biologists who have gathered and assessed what data exists, used it to model responses to various activities. Models are a surrogate for reality, useful for delineating the actions that have the most potential; the test is applying and monitoring the actions at a scale appropriate to the desired population response. Perfect—no; expedient—yes.

To modify an old aphorism slightly, it takes fish to make fish. Natural mortality, loss of critical habitats for spawning, rearing and overwintering plus harvest, incidental, illegal or minimal may create a bottleneck that doesn’t allow a trout population to reach, and exceed a critical mass. But, how does one distinguish which factors or combinations have the greatest influence on populations?

Cumulative effects analysis shows fisheries biologists the likely extent to which habitat or harvest (or both) are the bottlenecks holding population recovery back. It is a systematic way to work out the issues, especially the habitat ones and not look for answers exclusively in modifying angler harvest.

Fisheries biologists are gifted in the application of science, not in the art of communication. If there is a flaw, the debate about fisheries management looks there instead of the science. Better transparency on decisions in fisheries management would be helpful and create a foundation of understanding.

Trout in the Eastern Slopes are subject to many stressors, natural and human-induced. The degree to which a stressor or a combination of stressors impacts a population is intertangled. That complexity needs to be dissected so a realistic response can be undertaken. Will a little bit of intervention work, or does the medicine have to be stronger? Catch and release might be on the level of an aspirin; watershed closure a major painkiller.

Some contend that harvest is essential, to attract and keep a constituency of anglers. The theory is- what you catch and eat you will support and defend. While there may be a kernel of reason in that, killing fish to defend them, especially those species already at risk seems contrarian. We would not consider any level of additional harm to wildlife species deemed at risk, including limited harvest and harassment (which is what catch and release fishing is to an imperiled fish species). A large number of people who are wildlife enthusiasts, vigorously defend wildlife populations even though they do not hunt. Surely we can do the same for fish under circumstances of their imminent demise.

Like a hanging, closure of a watershed focuses one’s attention. Closures are risky; they divert angling attention and pressure onto other trout populations. Among other things, it is a signal that fisheries biologists have done all that is in their power to restore a fish population, and it isn’t enough. In effect fisheries biologists have met their due diligence for species at risk recovery, now the rest of government and industry have to respond. The “hot potato” of decisions on land use to meet a fish recovery strategy now is in another court, where it properly needs to be because, the conservation of fish populations isn’t the sole responsibility of fisheries biologists, nor are they equipped to deal with all the economic and social issues affecting fisheries declines. Fisheries biologists do advocate for better land use decisions through planning and work with other agencies, industry and conservation groups to facilitate solutions to habitat issues.

Fisheries biologists can control a few things: when people angle; where they can angle; how they can angle (tackle used/restrictions); what they can harvest (species, numbers, and sizes); and whether to stock to bolster native populations and/or remove non-native species. What they have no control over includes: the number of anglers (including those under 16 and over 65 who don’t require angling licenses); where anglers fish within areas open to angling; the experience, proficiency and ethics of anglers; how anglers access areas to fish; regulation enforcement; and what anglers find when they reach a fishing spot (e.g. logging, wellsites, polluted water, low stream flow, dams and diversions, compromised riparian health, off highway vehicle (OHV) misuse, gravel mining, random camping…).

Anglers, the conservation community and even those that don’t fish, but want to know someone is looking after their environmental interests need to work together on recovery, recognizing fisheries biologists are their allies, not the enemy. A start would be to recognize the stewardship obligations we all have. Supporting mandatory angler education (especially fish identification) and using our voices to ask elected representatives to prioritize habitat restoration through better land use guidelines, oversight and enforcement would be essential.

It’s time we face the music with fish populations, especially along the Eastern Slopes. The chickens of development and human population pressure have come home to roost. A focus on treating symptoms will not achieve recovery. Only a painful recognition of the link between land use, habitat and fish will bring us there. To restore native trout populations requires strong medicine that many may find bitter. Everything else is just window dressing. In fairness, loggers, miners, grazers, drillers, OHV users, developers and others who engage in activities in East Slope watersheds need to feel the pain anglers currently do and make the changes necessary to allow trout populations to recover.

There is an old Arab philosophy about health which goes: health is the digit one (1), love is zero (0), glory is zero (0), and success is zero (0). Put the one of health beside the others and you are rich (1000). Without the one of health, everything is zero. This can be modified into a fish context. Habitat is digit one, catch and release is zero, stocking is zero, barbless hooks are zero, seasonal closures are zero and bait bans are zero. Put the one of habitat beside the others and you have abundant, healthy fish populations. But without the one of habitat everything else is zero. We would all be wise to remember this.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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Remembering Old Friends

[Note: The following was first published in the September 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

“The older you get, Don, the more of these you’ll attend,” observed one of my mentors many years ago now. He was approaching retirement age and was about to leave for the funeral of one of his old friends. Since I am now past that mentor’s age, and indeed saw his own passing, I have to agree—if you survive this life long enough, one of the prices you pay is seeing more of your friends and colleagues predecease you.

Some passings have more impact than others, depending on how well you knew the individual and the experiences you shared. Like most people my age, I have had many friends over the years, from grade school chums through college buddies to work colleagues and neighbors. However, the ones whose friendships I’ve most cherished are those with whom I’ve shared some intense life-changing events. Many of those events occurred outdoors.

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Mount Rainier is a dormant volcano in Washington State with the largest mass of glaciers in the contiguous United States.

For example, my wife Betty and I were recently informed that one of our friends from many decades ago had died quite suddenly and the family was planning a memorial for him at the place where we worked, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State. There, Randy and I had worked for the U.S. National Park Service and shared a love for the park with our fellow workers. These were summer jobs often taken by students in their early 20s. They were custom built for people considering careers in the outdoors, and I felt very lucky to have landed one, as did my new colleagues. Many of us worked several seasons at the park and became fast friends. Some of us met our life partners there, making the park a special place indeed.

Although we initially made excuses for not attending the memorial, Betty and I eventually decided to make the trip. Randy needed a good send off, there would be several old friends there, and seeing the park again would rekindle some memories and stories that should not be forgotten. We were not disappointed. Even though we had worked with these people only for a few years out of our lives, their friendships had become a part of who we are.

One of the many subjects we discussed, while hiking trails and viewing the unique landscapes, was why did our times together in this place mean so much to us. The consensus boiled down to our youth, the jobs we were doing and the place we were doing them in.

Being young adults, we were searching for our places in the world. The outdoors beckoned us all, but how were we going to fit that passion into our lives, as a career or a pastime? It was a pivotal time for all of us.

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Mountain rescues were part of the job.

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Our jobs taught us about the responsibility associated with public service. I served as a seasonal ranger and was trained in forest fire control, mountain rescue, law enforcement and public relations. When I first came to the park, I had a budding interest in mountain climbing that I had developed when I hiked in the Sierra Nevada as a teenager. Climbing Mt. Rainier (4393 m, 14,410 ft.), however, seemed out of my league. It involved climbing up steep glacial ice using specialized equipment and techniques. But now I was a member of an organization that would be called upon to rescue mountain climbers who got into trouble on a glacier. So I took the national park mountain climbing and rescue school. It was an intense week on the mountain, learning how to climb on ice and how to rescue people from crevasses, etc. At the end of the course, there was a graduation climb of The Mountain. We were all successful to the summit but more importantly we all were now members of a unique group of people who have shared a special experience. I was hooked. I wanted to climb some more.

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Ice climbing requires specialized tools and techniques.

Fortunately, I worked with a group of people who also wanted to climb. The result was I ended up climbing Rainier three times and going with my climbing friends to climb peaks elsewhere in the Cascade Mountains. I also participated in several mountain rescues. Mountain climbing, especially on ice, is all about teamwork and trusting your partners with your life and they trusting you with theirs. These experiences moulded our characters and bound us together like few other friendships.

When I came to Alberta to pursue graduate studies in wildlife biology, I met other students with similar interests and aspirations from all over North America and parts of the rest of the world. Many hunted and fished, as well as hiked and backpacked. Betty and I fit right in. While we worked at school and in the field, we made many friends with whom we shared many interesting experiences that further defined who we are.

Like the national park jobs, our university work only lasted a few years, after which we each went our separate ways in pursuit of various careers. My first job out of school was working for a biological consulting firm in the Arctic. After that I bounced around various jobs as the economy waxed and waned. Friends came and went, but the most enduring friendships were those with whom we shared outdoor pursuits. Some helped us build our house, and we helped build theirs. Others backpacked, hunted or fished with us.

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Shared outdoor experiences bind friends together.

Some of the longest friendships have come from our hunting experiences. Our moose-hunting group has been hunting together for over 45 years. Sitting around a campfire at night telling the stories and legends that have grown from our experiences is a ritual that never gets old.

One of the boons to keeping us connected with our friends over the years has been the Internet, mostly e-mail. Before that came along in the 1990s, we communicated by postal mail and telephone. E-mail allowed us to easily keep up with each other in real time, and arrange face-to-face reunions and other get-togethers where we put our pasts into perspective.

Never Forget Your Friends
After our trip to Mt. Rainier this summer, one of our friends sent us one of those stories that float about the Internet without attribution. I usually don’t pass these stories along but this one struck a chord, especially after what we experienced. The following is a brief paraphrase:

A father tells his newly wed son that although he’s embarking on a new phase of life, he should never forget his friends. Time passes, life goes on, children grow up, distance separates, jobs come and go, desires weaken, people disappoint, the heart breaks and parents die. But true friends are always there, no matter how long or how many miles away they may be.
A friend is never more distant than a phone. If need be, they will intervene in your favor or steer you down a better path.
When we started down this adventure called Life, we did not know the incredible joys or sorrows ahead or how much we would need from each other. Love your spouse, your parents and your children, but keep a group of good friends.

Sometimes in the hurly-burly lives we lead, we forget to remember how we got where we are and who helped us get there. It never hurts to reconnect and catch-up.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Fishing, General, Hunting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wetlands and Water

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

During the recent discussions about returning catch-and-keep fishing to some of our Alberta lakes, the issues of loss of habitat and water quality came up. Although the Alberta government likes to blame its catch-and-release policy on too many anglers chasing too few fish, in reality loss of habitat plays as big or bigger a role.

Wabamun wetland

Wetlands are complex plant and animal communities that clean water and provide many other environmental services. A wetland’s riparian and emergent vegetation removes nutrients from water before it is released to a lake or stream.

In lakes and streams habitat and water quality go hand-in-hand. If habitat is poor, chances are the water quality is also poor in terms of increased nutrients (e.g., phosphorus, nitrogen), cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms and low oxygen, etc. The water quality of a lake is largely determined by the quality of the water entering that lake. If that water passes over disturbed land, it will carry silt and dissolved nutrients into the lake, silting-in fish habitat and increasing the lake water’s nutrient load. On the other hand, if the water passes through well-vegetated areas, where sediment is filtered out and the plants take up nutrients, less sediment and nutrients enter the lake.

Wetlands
However, if the overland water enters a wetland prior to going to a stream or lake, the quality of the water entering that water body can very much improve. So, what are wetlands? According to Wetlands Alberta (www.wetlandsalberta.ca), “Wetlands are low-lying areas of land covered by water long enough to support aquatic plants and wildlife for part of their life cycle.” Their diverse communities of plants and animals provide many services to the environment that includes water filtration and storage, ground water recharging, carbon sequestration, and habitat for a host of plants and wildlife species that contribute to the biodiversity of a landscape.

wetland fill

A landholder fills and blocks a wetland on crown land to build a road to the lakeshore.

The problem is that over the decades many wetlands have been drained and covered over to increase agricultural production or make way for development. Many people considered wetlands to be “wastelands” that should be drained and put into “useful service,” not realizing the services the wetlands were already providing. This has been especially true around our recreational lakes, where cottage and other development have destroyed or seriously impaired many wetlands. As we’ve learned the limits of our resources, the value of wetlands is finally being factored into decisions about land use. Alberta’s Water Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and the Public Lands Act protect wetlands on both public and private land. If someone wishes to drain or otherwise alter a wetland, they must contact the appropriate authorities. The problem has been that many landholders don’t realize their responsibility and have altered their wetlands (or sometimes crown wetlands) without obtaining the required approvals. Although the violator might be charged, the damage is done.

Wetlands Alberta (a partnership of Alberta Environment and Parks, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Partnership) recognizes five types of wetlands divided into two broad classifications: peatlands and non-peatlands. Peatlands are found most often in northern Alberta and parts of the parkland, foothills and mountains. Non-peatlands are found mostly in the prairies and parkland regions.

Peatlands
About 20% of the surface area of Alberta is covered by wetlands and over 90% of these are peatlands. Peat is partially decomposed organic vegetation whose decomposition has slowed or stopped because of lack of oxygen. As a result, the peat accumulates over the years. Many peatlands have existed for thousands of years and are one of the most important carbon sinks, where carbon is stored and not released back into the atmosphere.

Bogs are peat-covered wetlands where the surface water is acidic as a result of decaying plant material and poor drainage. Shrubs and sphagnum mosses are the main vegetation types overlying the peat. However, some bogs may support trees, such as black spruce and tamarack.

Fens are peatlands fed by flowing ground water. The water is basic (high pH) as opposed to the acid conditions found in bogs. Fen vegetation tends to be dominated by sedges but may also include trees and shrubs.

Non-peatlands
Potholes, ponds and standing water along rivers and lakeshores are classified as Shallow Open-water Ponds. These are usually small bodies of standing or flowing water, ringed with cattails and other emergent vegetation. Some may represent the stage of a lake transforming into a marsh.

Marshes are wetlands that are permanently or occasionally covered by slow moving or standing water. Rich in nutrients, marshes support a variety of cattails, rushes, reeds and sedges because water remains in the root zone of these plants most of the growing season.

Found in both peatlands and non-peatlands, swamps are low-lying pieces of land that are flooded either seasonally or for long periods of time and contain shrubs and trees that prefer moist conditions. They are nutrient rich and productive in terms of supporting many plant and animal species.

Value of Wetlands to Lakes and Streams
Clean water is important for fish, wildlife and people. Wetlands clean water by slowing it down, allowing silt and other suspended solids to drop out, and by filtering it—passing the water through a filter of mosses, peat, soil and plant roots. The roots extract nutrients from the water.

Wetlands reduce the effects of drought by storing water and providing sources of water for wildlife and livestock. They also recharge groundwater by passing some of the stored water into aquifers. By storing runoff water and slowly releasing it, wetlands reduce the effects of flooding.

Anyone who has ever visited a wetland will realize their value in providing habitats for a variety of wildlife, from beavers, muskrats, waterfowl and perching birds to frogs, toads, fish and insects, just to name a few. Wetland communities are diverse and complex. Many other animals from the surrounding uplands frequent wetlands to find food, water, and relief from the summer heat, including moose, deer, foxes, weasels and mink.

OHV damage to wetland

Damage to wetlands comes in many forms. Here an off-highway vehicle damaged a wetland protecting Wabamun Lake.

As in the forests and fields that surround them, wetland vegetation sequesters carbon by taking carbon dioxide from the air, storing the carbon in the plants and eventually in the soil and peat. This valuable service helps slow global warming and climate change. Indeed, our warming climate will be the biggest threat to the viability of our lakes and streams over the next decades.

Wetland Policy
In 2012 the Alberta government released its Wetland Policy (www.wetlandpolicy.ca) in which the government outlined the importance of protecting wetlands and how that should be accomplished. Not an easy task given the various demands for resources and development on both crown and private lands, and the various jurisdictions that are involved in regulating land development. As with all policies and legislation, the Wetland Policy is not much good unless it’s acted upon and enforced.

At the Wabamun Watershed Management Council, we’ve seen several examples of altered or abused wetlands around Wabamun Lake. Most of these are the result of people not knowing the rules and the consequences of the damage they do. But why don’t they know? Mainly because our provincial and municipal governments fail to inform people of these rules, especially when they apply for permits to build or clear land. Many people still believe wetlands are wastelands and that they should be filled in, especially on their own land. However, land ownership comes with certain responsibilities, including being a steward of that land and ensuring the quality of the water that passes through it.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Generations and Attitudes

[Note: The following was first published in the July 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We’ve all heard the names used to identify different generations, such as “Baby Boomers” or “Millennials.” Giving names to generations is a convenient way for sociologists and demographers to roughly describe groups of people of similar ages, cultures and life experiences. Different generations have different values and attitudes and sometimes they come into conflict.

WWII Generation
My parents were born in the early 1910s in what demographers now call the WWII Generation (born roughly from 1900 to the mid 1920s). This generation survived the Great Depression and provided the bulk of people who fought in the Second World War or who contributed to that war effort.

2006-06 Meredith-Rainbow-MaligneLk

Catching fish just to release them was not a consideration for earlier generations.

My dad grew up in a rural farming community. He learned to fish and hunt when those activities were considered just another way to get food on the table. He wasn’t much of a hunter but fishing was his passion. My mother also grew up in a rural community. She didn’t fish or hunt but appreciated the wild fish and game that was brought to the table. The two met as schoolteachers during the Depression and knew they were lucky to have jobs.

Silent Generation
My brother came along in the generation that followed: the Silent Generation (born mid 1920s to mid 1940s). It’s called the Silent Generation because members, in general, concentrated on their careers and made few waves in terms of social activism, unlike the generation that followed. They saw their parents struggle in the Depression and war years and understood the value of having and keeping a job.

Demographers admit these names and descriptions are broad generalizations that often don’t fit particular individuals. For example, my brother (now deceased) never did concentrate on a single career for any significant length of time. He moved from job to job as his interests changed.

Boomers
I was born 10 years after my brother, after the end of World War II. That places me on the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation (born mid 1940s to mid 1960s), so called because we were large in number as a result of being born in unprecedented post-war prosperity. Jobs were plentiful for our parents and if we were middle class or better we had access to much material wealth and good educations. We also benefited from the social programs that governments developed as a result of the Depression, such as employment insurance, workers’ compensation and government pensions. However, many of us also saw the inequities in society and became social activists, questioning many of the things our parents believed. It was the boomers who spearheaded the start of the environmental movement.

Like my brother, I didn’t conform to many of my generation’s so-called norms, although I did take full advantage of the educational opportunities available. While I saw a lot of social activism on college campuses and gave moral support to some of it, I did not take part in the activism.

Both my brother and I inherited our father’s passion for fishing. Some of my best memories of that time involve fishing with my brother and dad on a lake or the ocean. Although we didn’t have to fish or hunt to feed our family, it was understood that any fish caught and kept was to be eaten. Catching fish just to release them was not a consideration.

By this time our family had moved to the city. My dad ensured we each went into the Boy Scouts where we would get outdoors and learn some life skills and self-reliance. In those days, the Scouts were very outdoors oriented. Our local troop camped regularly, where we learned woodcraft, orienteering, hiking and canoeing.

Along his way my brother developed an interest in hunting. He passed that interest on to me and encouraged me to take a hunter training and firearms course.

Gen X
We boomers gave rise to the next generation, what demographers now call Generation X (born mid 1960s to early 1980s). That creative name was assigned because for many years demographers didn’t know how to describe this generation and X in science refers to an unknown. Gen X is a lot smaller in number than the Boomers because the birth control pill allowed more boomer women to pursue careers, postpone child bearing and have fewer children. These children were often left on their own after school before their parents came home from work, and longer during the summers, causing them not to get as much adult supervision as previous generations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fishing and hunting opportunities require advocates willing to step up and protect wild places.

Again, these are broad generalizations. But Gen Xers did not receive the outdoor experiences previous generations did. First, many boomer families moved to cities for employment. Second, often both parents worked and there was less time for getting outside the cities. As a result, the proportion of the population that bought hunting and fishing licences kept dropping. As well, our growing human population placed more demands on resources. To compensate, governments introduced the concept of catch-and-release fishing, as well as lotteries for hunting licences. Gen X was the first to grow up during the rapid technological advances we see today. They accepted home computers and the Internet as part of life more readily than many Boomers.

Millennials and Generation Z
The Millennials (or Generation Y, born early 1980s to mid 1990s) are distinguished from Gen X mainly by their complete emersion—almost from birth—in digital technology, accepting smart phones, tablets, Wi-Fi, social media and the instant gratification they provide. Generation Z (born mid 1990s to mid 2010s) is the last generation described to date. Because its characteristics are still being defined, this generation is mainly noted for being the largest in our North American population, outnumbering Boomers. Both these generations have less time to connect with the natural world than did their elders.

Each of these six generations is distinguished from the previous one by the ever-increasing pace of social change their members have experienced. What used to work for one group in terms of interacting with people, finding a job or having enough time to participate in outdoor activities might no longer work for the next group.

It’s easy for older generations to criticize younger ones for not having the same values or not helping out. I’ve sat in meetings of non-profit organizations and heard people complain about the lack of young people stepping up to participate, and I have to admit I’ve sometimes joined that chorus. But is it fair? Maybe the organizations need to be communicating better with the people they want to step up.

bha-logoA good example is what happened with the formation of the Alberta Chapter of the Backcountry Hunter and Anglers. At the organizing meetings I was impressed with the number of young, keen and motivated people that showed up to take leadership roles and help make a difference for Alberta’s wild places. Many had been hunting and fishing for much of their lives but had not bothered to join the Alberta Fish and Game Association. When I asked why, they stated they didn’t feel the AFGA represented their values with regard to wild places. They felt the government needed to hear from hunters and anglers who appreciate the solemnity of a true wilderness experience. Perhaps getting people to step up begins with asking the right questions.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, General | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?

Guest Blog: Alberta Environment and Parks is requesting public input into its woodland caribou range planning efforts. The deadline for input is July 27, 2017, but AEP will accept comments about specific plans after that date. In the following essay biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) questions the whole premise of the exercise and suggests a relatively simple solution that would save a lot of money, time and effort, and allow Alberta to get on with business. Loren’s previous essays posted here include: The Inequity of “Balance”, Tracks and Spur, Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use and Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish.

“A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2017

Caribou populations are cratering in Alberta; this is evident even to the congenitally imperceptive amongst us. As we prevaricate, mumble, delay and equivocate, a day of reckoning approaches, morally, legally and financially. What do we do about caribou?

Alberta has a natural resources inventory, bequeathed to us from the federal government under the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement of 1930. Among other things this transfer included fish, wildlife, native plants and their habitats. I suppose it was implicit in the agreement we, as a province, would look after these natural resource treasures.

Clear cut

If we are not willing to protect caribou habitat, why are we bothering to protect caribou?

Subsequent agreements committed the province to protect and maintain biodiversity (i.e. National Wildlife Policy, 1990; United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, 1992; Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, 1995; Alberta’s Commitment to Sustainable Resource and Environmental Management, 1999; Responsible Actions, 2009). The federal government has been clear about these responsibilities at the same time as being complicit in enjoying rents, royalties and taxes from resource exploitation.

Every bureaucracy has a process for acquiring things and then for writing things off when an inventory item is outdated, redundant, broken or lost. It keeps things in balance to have such a system, an accounting of sorts.

In hundreds of bathrooms, outdoor privies and in many offices hangs a plaque with the pithy little saying: “The job isn’t finished until the paperwork is done.” Indeed! When we have failed to care for our inventory of biodiversity, as evidenced by declines and losses of caribou, grizzly bears, bull trout, cutthroat trout, Arctic grayling, Athabasca rainbow trout, sage grouse and a host of others, the paper work is incomplete.

Are we at a point for caribou where we have run them out of options since we can’t, or won’t entertain a change in our business as usual mentality? Maybe it’s time to own up to the reality that we are unable to maintain caribou and finalize the paperwork.

A Modest Proposal for preventing caribou from being a burden on industry, corporations and the government, and for making their habitat more financially beneficial to the public.

Sometimes we can have our cake and eat it too, but we cannot, it seems, have caribou and logging, oil and gas, roads and other developments in the same time and space. So let’s just say it—cash trumps caribou. If we recognize and endorse the compulsive overvaluation of one segment of the economy over another, the undervalued segment (i.e., caribou) will diminish and disappear.

pipeline

Is it time to admit that cash trumps caribou?

Wouldn’t it be simpler and more honest just to say, openly and categorically—caribou stand in the way of progress? They will have to join the bison herds, swift fox, greater prairie chicken, plains grizzly, plus tracts of native prairie and aspen parkland. We must maintain the economic engines that give us our good life, even if it is an unexamined one.

As a competent bureaucracy the Alberta government has forms for nearly everything, included the FIN 37. A FIN 37 allows one to write off an inventory item, squaring the books. So, let’s get on with finalizing the paperwork on caribou, completing the “write-off” forms, paving the way for expanded economic activity in caribou range.

Write-off forms can be quite simple to complete. A FIN 37 needs only the following information:

When inventory was acquired: Caribou were acquired, from the Federal government, in the Natural Resources Transfer Act (Alberta) of 1930. Described as An Act respecting the transfer of the natural resources of Alberta,” presumably the act included caribou, along with oil, gas, minerals, timber and the like.

How many received: The population numbers are unknown, but caribou were common from the US border to the Northwest Territory border, with the exception of the grassland and the aspen parkland.

Description: Caribou are medium sized members of the deer family, both sexes have antlers and have boreal and mountain ecotypes.” Caribou are featured on our 25-cent piece and are closely related to reindeer, known by many children as the species that pull Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.

Reason for write-off: Economic interests supersede ecological values; cumulative effects make maintenance of existing herds expensive, complicated and onerous; we have already gone too far with development (and commitments to industry) and the prognosis is that caribou will disappear shortly; and, not enough people care about caribou to matter.

Following this information on the form, there needs to be a signature, probably from the premier of Alberta and a copy must be sent to the prime minister of Canada. The paper work is done and business can get on without another impediment.

Imagine the money we will save by not having to control wolves, fence in pregnant caribou cows, fly inventories to catalogue the demise, hold meetings to discuss how little we need to do (and are doing), restore the linear footprint of old seismic trails, eliminate restrictive speed limits on resource roads, and employ biologists who have no hope, under the current economic regime, of saving caribou.

Economic moralists will tell us that to mourn the loss of caribou is just nostalgia. They would have disappeared anyway. Our lives will not be diminished with their demise. Put up a monument, with an image of a caribou in bronze. We could have a little hand-wringing ceremony at the monument’s unveiling, where the champions of industry and government could wipe away a few false tears over the caribou’s demise. It might seem momentarily hypocritical but then we could get on with the important things of converting our landscapes and natural resources into tangible, fungible symbols of prosperity.

Now, lest you think I’m serious, Jonathan Swift wrote about a similar seemingly intractable problem in Ireland in a pamphlet in 1729 entitled A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as “A Modest Proposal”. In it Swift suggests the poverty stricken Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their surplus children as food for purchase by the richer class of society. He points out that this “will not be liable to the least objection.”

Of course the proposition to raise children to feed rich people is (and was) morally reprehensible. Swift’s use of satire was meant to focus on why such stark poverty, reducing people to situations of basic survival, existed in the Ireland of the day. Swift recognized the utility of satire is to rock people out of their complacency and to get them mad enough to do something about a dire situation.

It is the same for Albertans and caribou. We continue to be deluded that all our problems will have solutions—that our pace of development will continue and we can salvage some vestiges of biodiversity. The mantra is we can have it all and it is simply a wait for the technology that will allow us to erase our footprint. This is just cynical public relations to calm the environmentalists.

What does “Species at Risk” mean to a species at risk?
It might be helpful to think of species at risk designated as “threatened” or “endangered” in the same context as a fire alarm signalling an impending disaster. The difference between the two in Alberta is that when the alarm is sounded for a species we don’t send out the fire truck. Instead we begin a glacially slow, ponderously bureaucratic, unnecessarily methodical process of deciding if the fire is really burning, how bright the flames are, whether we agree the fire is significant and if putting out the fire might unduly impact economic development.

By the time we respond, if we do at all, the fire consuming a species in trouble has become a conflagration, with limited control ability. Onto the blaze we bravely pile status reports, recovery plans, management plans and the minutes from endless meetings with “affected” parties, few of whom speak in favor of the imperiled species. Rarely does any water materialize from these delaying tactics to quell the fire.

The recipe for the species recovery planning “cake” can be disheartening: Take a province and all that province means, with communities and caring people with compassion and a habit of helping one another—ignore all this, add too much money, crank up the economy, manage through ideology, ignore science, forget local interests, develop a slavish devotion to corporate interests—then shake, stir, and bake until ruined.

For caribou there is a forest of paper, starting in the late 1970s, on management plans, status reports, designations (finally as “threatened”), operating guidelines for industry, restoration planning, conservation strategies, and recovery plans; all overseen by government, multi-stakeholder committees and task forces; and aided by predation studies, multiple population inventories, linear feature assessments, radio telemetry providing tracking of populations, and other research studies too numerous to mention.

To give credit where credit may be due, few other species in Alberta have had so much attention lavished on them. However, in the terse, clinical language of the last status report, “caribou range is continuing to recede.”

Caribou Recovery Efforts—Action, Inertia or Foot-Dragging?
Aldo Leopold observed, “It is important that the inventory [of imperilled species] represent not merely a protest of those privileged to think, but an agreement of those empowered to act.” It would seem we have considerable talent in talking about the issue, but examples of action are harder to discern.

To lose the abundance of biodiversity in Alberta, within a century of our tenure, to the demands of the corporate world (and to disconnected shareholders) is comparable to gathering all the books from every library for shredding to relieve a temporary paper shortage.

A close examination of the situation with caribou shows a progressive extirpation of caribou from southwestern Alberta northward, over a 70-year timespan. Some of this extirpation is now lost to the collective memory. Where it is remembered, the loss of caribou is alternately blamed on wolves, sometimes on hunting. If hunting was an issue, the season for caribou ended in 1981 and most First Nations have voluntarily stopped harvest. These are the only levers available to provincial biologists and First Nations peoples to deal with the plight of caribou.

Rarely does it register that hunting and predation are proximate causes, and not the ultimate causes related to roading, industrial-scale logging, oil and gas exploration and development and sometimes fire.

A caribou is a survivor, adapted to deep snow with large, crescent shaped hooves that act as snowshoes. A caribou does not fear deep snow; with its large hooves and long legs it floats over the stuff. It subsists, overwinter, on both terrestrial and arboreal lichens, themselves a product of old-growth forests.

Lichens grow slowly and so lose the race to gain enough living space to other plants, except in old-growth, undisturbed forests. As the bulk of winter fuel for caribou, a diet of lichens seems like a poor choice, but who are we to argue with the millennia of evolution and adaptive strategies? Selecting lichens allows caribou to spatially separate themselves from other ungulates, like moose and deer, reduce competition and, more importantly, avoid predation from wolves.

Most important to caribou survival is space, a mechanism to constantly provide habitat choice but also predator avoidance.

Our development footprint is extensive, pervasive and growing in caribou habitat. As it grows, habitat for caribou shrinks. Caribou, like most wildlife can shift ranges; but with fewer and fewer choices, the options are limited. Linear disturbances (e.g. roads, pipelines, powerlines, and seismic trails) and logged areas reduce habitat effectiveness substantially as caribou avoid them and these features also allow predators, especially wolves, to make inroads to previously “safe” areas.

Some, like an industry spokesman, have castigated the victim with, “Caribou are too dumb to adapt to changing conditions.” It is the start of a disturbing trend with imperilled species—blame the victim. If cutthroat trout weren’t so close to rainbows genetically they wouldn’t be “threatened” now. If caribou evolved faster to keep up with our footprint and wolves they would be prospering instead of disappearing.

I wonder how well that spokesman would adapt if his clothes were taken away and was dropped into a landscape without wheels, central heating and grocery stores, armed with only sharp sticks.

Our management and mitigation mechanisms are, on balance, somewhat half-hearted, given the dismal prognosis for caribou. At best they are designed to buy time for caribou; conversely, they may result in a waste of time and opportunity to deal with the overarching issues.

Predation became a problem with the creation of human-caused landscape changes; it is a response to industrial roading and habitat shifts from logging that favor deer and moose. The shifts in habitat conditions, with more roads and a younger forest gives predators like wolves an unnatural advantage over caribou.

The confinement of pregnant caribou cows behind a predator proof fence is an attempt to allow better recruitment to the population. It smacks of a desperate move, confining wild critters in a zoo-like enclosure. Rather than facilitating recovery, it distances us from allowing caribou to regain a self-sustaining status throughout their range. Like many mitigation techniques, it fails to deal with the ultimate cause of caribou declines, habitat loss from land use. It is the application of a band-aid to the limb of an amputee.

To deal with increased wolf predation we have engaged in a draconian wolf control program. To some the wolf control program of poison, trapping and aerial gunning is cruel, unethical and ineffective. It puts provincial wildlife biologists in an intractable position, of trying to solve a problem that is, at its roots, economic, not biological. Sifting through the ocean with a fork to catch fish might be easier.

The dilemma is viewed as a population problem, when, in reality, it is a habitat problem. The issue isn’t just about a population goal at a point in time; it’s whether there is enough habitat to sustain a population that is large enough to be viable into the future. If we give up on conserving the forests where caribou live, we give up on caribou.

Solving the complex issues of habitat fragmentation, cumulative effects, climate change, carrying capacity, amount of remaining, intact old-growth forest and the space requirements of caribou may have more to do with saving caribou than the stop-gap measure of wolf control.

It comes down to an economic question: Of the billions, trillions or gazillions of dollars of potential wealth in natural gas, oil and bitumen, less so in timber, are we, as a civilized society willing to forgo, delay or reduce our expectations of short term financial return in favor of caribou and their habitat?

Natural gas, oil and bitumen are not a commodity, like potatoes, that will go bad if left in the ground. Past administrations, especially the Klein government stepped aside from interfering in the industry, letting them set the tone for the pace and extent of extraction. The current Notley government seems more inclined toward the original Lougheed model, of government setting the tone and tenor for industry. Always the visionary, the late Peter Lougheed called for a slow and measured rate of resource extraction, not the gold-rush mentality of the past few decades. Caribou might have appreciated a slower rate of incursion into their habitat.

For forest management, the policy of Forest Management Agreements—giving control of the forest to multi-nationals—has come back to haunt us, caribou being but one example. Logging is based on mill capacity, not the needs of caribou. Forests are a commodity and that commodity needs to be harvested before it goes bad. Old-growth forests with ancient trees festooned with lichens, essential caribou habitat, are just dimensional lumber temporarily standing.

A government biologist, in a moment of candor, remarked, “Logging doesn’t allow for suitable amounts and spatial distribution of appropriate age classes to permit long-term conservation.” In effect, caribou have lost and continue to lose the necessary large tracts of old-growth forest, carpeted with lichens and constituting the moat of space to reduce predation. The end-game, or, the end-of-the-game for caribou is the continuation of current industrial scale logging. Without an aggressive forest conservation strategy there is no caribou habitat and hence, no caribou.

Only three of Alberta’s identified herds of caribou are deemed “stable,” whatever the term means. Some have winked out of existence, even in our national parks. Most herds are plummeting, with population graphs that resemble children’s slides, all downhill. Herds are now largely isolated from one another on diminishing islands of habitat. Where we are at, given all of the work on population status, with most herds, is a very strong sense caribou are in a slow race to oblivion in Alberta. Maintaining the land use status quo means the extirpation of caribou, in a relatively short time frame.

Where does this leave caribou, or how fast will caribou leave us? It is a matter of will and choice. If caribou matter, if enough Albertans say caribou should continue to exist, then the path is clear. We will surrender some of the economic engine operating in the foothills and boreal forest, or at least delay the payback period. But, we need to decide, not simply delay, defray and drag out the decision. For too long, with so many species the answer was more study, more monitoring, more stop gap measures.

As Winston Churchill observed, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.”

Alberta has to come clean because we can’t have it both ways, have our caribou and eat their habitat with industrial development too.

Choices for Caribou and a Test for Us?
The World’s Doomsday Clock is currently ticking at two and a half minutes to midnight, signalling our potential end in a blinding flash of nuclear explosions. Caribou in Alberta are closer yet to the chiming of midnight and the signal we have erased them and millennia of years of their existence.

John Steinbeck wrote the following and although he didn’t mention caribou they are implicit in his description:

We in the United States have done so much to destroy our own resources, our timber, our land, our fishes that we should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough to envision a continuing economy. With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity.

Northrup Frye made a similar observation, that Canada is a land of ruins. Harsh examination, but our history is a procession of leave takings. We find a place, use it up and move on. This is no more evident than is shown in an examination of biodiversity resources, both nationally and provincially. If we acknowledge our history, of prioritizing economic development and reflect on the cost of that choice, there is an alternate future to the modest proposal for caribou.

Caribou are like canaries with antlers. They are the flag ship species of the boreal forest and the northern foothills, serving as sentinels marking the changes brought about by the pace and expanding footprint of our economic aspirations.

Death is the name for a landscape or a creature ignored; the future existence of caribou is a test of our commitment to maintaining our biodiversity inventory. For the protection and recovery of caribou, hard but not impossible choices await.

Saving caribou is more than a political decision, one that corporate interests also have to make, and one in which we Albertans have to share. We are all responsible for caribou, through legislation, policy commitment and the ethics of responsible stewardship. No default to a FIN 37 is permissible.

We can neither agree to write off the species, either directly or through benign neglect any more than Jonathan Swift would have agreed to the implementation of his modest proposal. At the heart of this, we are the trustees of a living thing.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Note: Although the AEP deadline for comment on the caribou management process is July 27, 2017, the department is still taking input on specific plans. Go to Alberta’s Action on Caribou: Caribou Range Planning

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

Posted in Alberta, Conservation, Environment, General, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wabamun Lake Fishery Update

[Note: The following was first published in the June 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

It has been a while since I wrote a column about what is happening with the Wabamun Lake fishery. Wabamun is a very popular recreation lake located 70 km west of Edmonton. At one time it was one of the most productive fisheries in the province. My last column on the lake appeared in October of 2012 and was a general overview of the situation at that time. As many remember, the lake suffered a train derailment and catastrophic oil spill in 2005, and people were wondering how the fishery was doing as a result.

Wabamun commercial fishery

Not that long ago, Wabamun was one of the most productive commercial fisheries in the province.

In that column I reported that most mature fish had survived the spill but the lake whitefish population had taken a hit because the pollutants from the oil had affected the survivability of whitefish eggs. Although Alberta Health had found low levels of petroleum pollutants in the flesh of fish shortly after the spill, tests several months later confirmed those chemicals had not persisted and most fish were O.K. to consume. The one exception to consuming fish was the ongoing issue of mercury in older fish, especially pike. However, the mercury pollution is not related to the oil spill but comes from the air as a result of the burning of fossil fuels and forests.

Officers checking net

Officers checking commercial fishing nets on Wabamun Lake in 1982.

Although most fish could be eaten, Alberta Fish and Wildlife imposed a catch-and-release (C&R) regulation for all species in the lake in 2008 to allow fish stocks to recover. As a result, within a few years, anglers were catching trophy-size northern pike that normally are only found in northern fly-in lakes. This fostered the idea that perhaps Wabamun should be developed as a trophy pike fishery, unique to a lake so close to a major metropolitan area.

Walleye Restoration

As I related in 2012, the Alberta Government has long tried to reintroduce walleye to the lake. However, the introductions were not successful. This was most likely because the Wabamun power plant used the lake as its cooling pond since 1956, raising lake water temperature and causing walleye eggs to hatch too early in the spring for the fry to survive. The power plant ceased operations in 2010, so the government decided once again to introduce walleye in 2011. This introduction appears to have been successful, as there is evidence the walleye are spawning and the young are surviving. No further introductions have been made since 2014.

Were Walleye Native to Wabamun?
There is some debate whether walleye ever naturally occurred in Wabamun Lake. Several former government biologists, who at various times were fisheries managers of the lake, say walleye were never in the lake, referencing commercial fishing reports dating back to the 19th century that show no evidence of walleye ever being caught. On the other hand, current Wabamun fisheries biologist, Stephen Spencer, found a commercial fishing record dated 1912-13 that lists 18,000 lbs. (8200 kg) of pickerel (misnomer for walleye) being caught in that year. Nevertheless, the former managers point out that records for other years around that time do not corroborate this finding, and the 1912-13 record might be in error as so-called pickerel were often confused with pike…? The debate continues.

Management Update

In March of 2017 Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) issued a long-awaited “Wabamun Lake Fisheries Management Update”. The document lists the fisheries management objectives for the lake and the status of the fish populations based on a 2015 Fall Index Netting (FIN) study (PDF), where standardized multi-mesh nets are placed at random locations around the lake for about 24 hours. The number of fish of each species caught over that time is used to determine that species’ Fish Sustainability Index, where the risk to the sustainability of the population is rated as either Very Low, Low, Moderate, High or Very High Risk. The following are highlights from the update.

Walleye: The restoration continues. Although it was predicted back in 2012 that a harvestable population of walleye might be possible within three to five years (about now), the government now predicts a sustainable harvest will not be available until five to seven years from now. Then it is hoped the walleye now being produced in the lake will reach maturity in sufficient numbers to produce a harvestable surplus. For these reasons and a low FIN catch rate, walleye are classified as Very High Risk, and the no-harvest regulation continues.

Northern Pike: Trophy status for this species is confirmed for the lake. The status is based on the large pike being caught and a 2013 survey of anglers coming off the lake, in which more than 80% supported having opportunities to catch trophy pike. However, a low FIN catch rate places the pike at High Risk, and all pike caught must be released.

Lake Whitefish: Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this update is the status of the lake whitefish population. For much of the 20th century, Wabamun was one of the biggest commercial producers of whitefish in the province. In some years, commercial fishers caught from 200,000 to near 500,000 kg (440,000 to 1.1 million lbs.) of whitefish. It was also a popular sport fish, especially in the winter. However, since the oil spill of 2005, the FIN catch rate for whitefish has been on steady decline. Thus, the population remains in recovery and the no harvest regulation continues.

There was no mention of yellow perch in the update, but the FIN summary reports only one perch caught. So, the lake remains C&R for all species for the next few years. The status of the fishery will not be revisited until 2020 when another FIN study will be undertaken. In the meantime, the government intends to consult with a wider range of anglers about what they would like to see on the lake: continue all C&R, trophy pike, harvestable walleye, whitefish and perch…?

Issues

Meanwhile, anglers are catching many healthy walleye they must release. They are also catching some thin and seemingly unhealthy pike, and very few whitefish and yellow perch. As a result, many believe the walleye are negatively affecting the pike, whitefish and perch.

During a meeting with members of the Wabamun Watershed Management Council in April, government fisheries biologists Stephen Spencer and John Tchir stated that the low numbers and poor quality pike, whitefish and perch being reported are natural fluctuations of populations as a result of a new top predator (walleye) being introduced to the lake. Once the populations adjust to the new situation, numbers should improve.

Catch-and-Release Mortality: Tchir also mentioned that foul hooking or rough handling by anglers—damaging gills and internal organs—could cause the thin pike being observed. He mentioned there is a large “recycling” of fish in a C&R fishery close to a city. The chances of a fish surviving several handlings by anglers are reduced each time the fish is caught.

If that is the case and C&R is necessary to produce trophy pike, perhaps a trophy pike lake so close to a city is not possible or desirable…? Or perhaps there needs to be more strenuous rules regarding C&R fishing, such as banning the use of bait and treble hooks…? Fish tend to swallow baited hooks more readily than non-baited ones, and treble hooks are harder to dislodge from a fish’s mouth, increasing the chance of injury while handling.

And I would be remiss not to mention that a group of former government fisheries biologists believe that the growing population of walleye in Wabamun needs to have a limited harvest to control the population growth and allow the other species to better adapt to the new predator. Many also question why walleye were introduced in the first place, when the lake 1) was recovering from a catastrophic oil spill, 2) was being groomed as a trophy pike lake, and 3) was seeing its whitefish population plummeting? Perhaps walleye were not meant to be in Wabamun at this time…?

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