Recovering Fort McMurray

[Note: The following was first published in the June 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As I was writing my June column, the forest fires west of Fort McMurray flared and invaded the city. My daughter was living and working there and of course was part of the evacuation. Fortunately, she lived on the south side of town and did not have to endure much of what many had in order to leave the city—none-the-less, a very stressful time for all involved, including we outsiders who were waiting for word about loved ones caught in the crisis. As of this writing our daughter is safe with her family in our home, and for that we are grateful.

Over the last few days, we have been hearing many stories of courage and generosity on the part of so many people. What was particularly amazing to me was how 88,000 people were successfully evacuated from the city with no loss of life to the fire. As Albertans, we should be very proud of our fellow citizens, especially first responders, who stepped into the fray and ensured the safety of all. We should also thank the many people in communities across the province who opened their homes, businesses and community centres to the evacuees, ensuring everyone had a place to shelter and decompress. As well, the Alberta and federal governments deserve praise for not hesitating to bring the resources needed to safeguard citizens and fight a monumental fire. I have never been more proud to be an Albertan and Canadian.

Charles Lake

The author’s daughter Joanne with a northern pike she caught out of Charles Lake north of Fort Chipewyan.

As a result of all this, I lost my focus on the subject I had been writing about, and instead decided to discuss what Fort McMurray has meant to me over the years and why I think she will recover. While listening to CBC radio’s excellent and continuous coverage of the catastrophe (much appreciated by evacuees and their families) and waiting for Joanne’s text messages describing where she was in the long line of evacuees driving south on highway 63, my thoughts drifted to the many experiences I have had at Fort McMurray over the years.

The first time I visited was in the mid-1970s when I worked for a biological consulting firm on a major gas pipeline project in the Arctic. We had hired Contact Air, out of Fort McMurray, to provide us with planes and pilots to fly aerial surveys of caribou and muskoxen along the proposed pipeline route. I had the good fortune of flying with one of Contact’s owners, the legendary Jack Bergeron. Jack was quite a character and he made the many hours we spent in his airplane anything but boring. He taught me a lot about bush flying, and perhaps most important, navigating in the Arctic. We had many adventures I won’t forget.

Because our surveys were based out of Resolute Bay, NWT, I only visited Fort McMurray once during that time, and unfortunately didn’t see much more than Contact’s hangar at the airport. At that time, Fort McMurray was a town of just a few thousand people with oil sands development just getting underway.

I had a better look at that town several years later when I drove up with a group of fishing buddies to fly into some lakes on the Canadian Shield north of Fort Chipewyan. If memory serves, Contact Airways flew us into those lakes (although I believe Jack had moved on to other adventures flying wildlife surveys in Kenya). At that time, we spent a night at a hotel in town and were able to do a little looking around before our flight the next day. The town was obviously growing and thriving as more petroleum companies were realizing the oil sands’ potential. We visited the local sporting goods store and picked up some lures. I remember the affable owner regaling us with stories of the legendary fish we were going to catch. Sure enough, we indeed caught many large pike and lake trout, and saw some amazing country.

Heritage Park Shipyard, Ft. McMurray

Fort McMurray’s Heritage Park reminds visitors that the city is much more than petroleum development. It includes a shipyard museum where historic dredges and other river boats are on display from a time when the river was a major means of getting supplies to northern communities.

I returned to Fort McMurray over the next few years to fly-in to other lakes on the shield with various people interested in seeing what the north could provide in terms of adventure and excellent fishing. We either flew out of the Fort McMurray airport to Fort Chipewyan, where a floatplane waited to take us to our lake, or we flew from the floatplane base on the Snye waterway in Fort McMurray directly to our lake. Each trip was a special adventure that embedded many fine memories in my mind.

On one trip I took my young daughter Joanne along so that she could have a taste of northern Alberta. This too was a special trip, made even more so by seeing my daughter catch some really big pike and wrestle with them while waiting for her old man to take pictures. You can’t put a price on those memories.

Now, over the last couple of years, it was Joanne who showed her mother and me around the ever-growing Fort McMurray: the new state-of-the-art airport, the Oil Sands Discovery Centre with its oil-sands tour, Heritage Park with its displays showing visitors that the city has a long history; and where to eat, where to sample craft brews, where to walk dogs and hike trails. We came to know the city pretty well, and met some pretty interesting people along the way.

So, it was with a heavy heart that we watched Fort McMurray take the hit it did during the first few days of May. What many who haven’t visited the city do not understood is that Fort McMurray is so much more than just “an oil town,” where you come to make your fortune. It is also a gateway to some magnificent northern country and adventures, and a vibrant community of people who want to make social and cultural, as well as financial contributions to society.

That is why I got upset when I read about some recent, insensitive social-media postings about Fort McMurray “getting what it deserves” from the fire because of the contribution oil sands development makes to global warming. Anyone who regularly reads my writing knows that I’m a firm believer in man-caused climate change; and yes, the oil sands operations add to the problem. But so do we all! Every time we drive our vehicles, fly in airplanes, heat our homes, lubricate a hinge or buy something made of plastic, we emit carbon and create the demand that causes the oil sands to be developed. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions, the sooner the better. But until we do so without catastrophically upending our economy, we will be using oil and gas. As well, we will be challenged by more catastrophic wildfires and storms. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can learn to deal with them and reduce their consequences.

Of course, the crisis in Fort McMurray is not over and there is much work to do. But it will be done. People will return and rebuild their lives. Fort McMurray will be different but I can’t help but feel it will be better. Its citizens will have a new unifying sense of themselves that will spur the city along. We are all facing challenges in this new world forming around us, and Fort McMurray will show us how to be resilient.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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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Finding Our Way

[Note: The following was first published in the May 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We shared Eskimo Tea under tarps wrapped around our two snowmobiles. We had boiled the tea on a small stove we’d hauled for the purpose. What made it “Eskimo Tea,” as described by my Inuk partner David Nanuk, was the two tablespoons of sugar spooned into each cup. David insisted there was no better way to have tea in the Arctic, and after the day we had had, I had to agree.

mapsuk

On the arctic tundra, Inuit experienced in traditional skills can find their way from the orientations of these hard-packed snow ridges (in this case, Mapsuk).

The early June day had started out nice enough, as we tracked a herd of caribou to its calving ground as part of a study of caribou movements in relation to a proposed gas pipeline. After a few hours spent watching the herd from a blind in some rocks, David interrupted my observations to inform me a storm was approaching and we should get back to camp. The approaching clouds from the west didn’t look too threatening; but after several weeks on the tundra with David, I had learned to respect his knowledge.

Sure enough, as we made our way back, following the faint traces of our morning tracks across the wind-blown, hard-packed snow, we suddenly found ourselves in a whiteout. Everywhere we looked all we could see was white — no distinction between sky, ground, or any sudden drops or hard objects ahead. Indeed, I nearly ran into David’s snowmobile as he stopped to suggest we wait out the storm.

So, we tied the tarps around us and boiled the tea. The wind and snow blew hard, shaking the tarps and making me realize how vulnerable we were, exposed to what nature could throw at us. Although we each wore parkas and insulated pants to keep warm (David in traditional caribou hide, me in modern down-filled cotton and nylon), it was obvious we needed to get to better shelter if we were going to survive.

Finally after a couple hours, the wind subsided, the land became distinct from the sky, and we decided to continue on our way. My problem was how we were going to navigate under the low overcast sky that obscured the sun and landmarks. David told me just to follow him, and of course I did.

Wrottsley River Camp

Our camp on the Boothia Peninsula in early June was often fog bound.

Now in those days (the 1970s) there was no GPS and a magnetic compass was useless because we were close to the magnetic pole. I carried a cumbersome solar compass that could determine direction from the position of the Sun in the sky, provided you knew the latitude and time of day. It was difficult to use but accurate. However, on a sunless day, it was also useless. I had no idea what David was using because our tracks from this morning were gone. He kept driving ahead and I followed. In a few hours our camp appeared out of the fog and cloud.

When I asked him that evening how he knew which direction to follow to find our camp, he said he was following what his father had taught him about the hard snow ridges we bounced across throughout the day. They indicated the direction of the prevailing wind or that of the hills and other obstructions redirecting that wind. I asked him how he could put all that together over the considerable distance we travelled. He said, “You have to live here.”

I was reminded of that experience when I read an article in the New York Times about some scientists trying to preserve “The Secrets of the Wave Pilots” (March 17, 2016). The piece described the legendary Polynesian sailors who first traversed the vast expanse of the Southern Pacific Ocean over 2,000 years ago. They did so without a compass or other instrument and very few landmarks. Yet, they regularly traveled over the horizon to the next island using techniques that have, until now, defied scientific explanation. Today, less than a handful of the people who occupy those islands have the knowledge of those “old ways” to navigate. These scientists sought out one such sailor to prove the validity of the technique and preserve it from extinction.

Much like David using the snow ridges, wave pilots use the complexity of ocean waves to determine the direction to be sailed and the proximity to land. They do so by sight and feeling the swells of more subtle waves through the hulls of their sailboats. To learn these techniques, the pilots have to serve long apprenticeships under elder master pilots. The scientists believe that such skills are a combination of learned and inherited elements.

Most wildlife species, especially those that migrate, have ways of orienting themselves with the planet to find their way back home or indeed fly thousands of kilometres to breeding or wintering grounds. The methods vary, depending on the species. Some use the earth’s magnetic field, others the position of the Sun or Milky Way. Whichever method they use, the information is used to calculate their position on mental maps handed down through the generations in their genes. For example, some populations of the monarch butterfly migrate from Mexico to Canada and back again over five generations. Each generation only lives long enough to make a portion of the trip but passes along the map of the trip to its offspring to complete the next portion, and so on.

Smoky River Valley

Until GPS units became commonplace, we depended upon our mental maps to orient ourselves with landmarks, the Sun or the direction North indicated by a magnetic compass.

We humans might have similar “dead-reckoning” capabilities handed down to us through our genes. For example, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost; i.e., not sure how to get back to my vehicle or camp. In all cases the Sun had been obscured and I had been involved in tracking an animal through the bush. Without the Sun I had been “momentarily confused” until I took out my compass and determined that the route I was following was a wrong one.

When we have a point of reference, like the Sun, a landmark or a compass to point north, we can recalibrate our mental map and picture in our minds how to “get back to camp.” Each recalibration strengthens that map and our ability to use it. We most likely received the format of that map from our ancient ancestors who depended on such a map for their survival and indeed our own existence. Although we pass that map format from generation to generation, elders must teach each generation how to use it, or the knowledge of it could be lost. For example, David told me that much of the knowledge he had learned from his father about living off the land in the Arctic was not being passed to people younger than himself because they had been taken from their families to go to residential school in Yellowknife at the age their fathers would have passed that knowledge along.

Closer to home, many of us no longer carry or know how to use a magnetic compass or find north using the stars. We’ve come to depend upon mobile devices, like smartphones and GPS units to find our way. As a result, few of us get lost but we’re also not using our mental maps like we used to or passing on such knowledge to our children. That could be a problem if our devices or the systems that support them should fail. Perhaps we should be learning the old skills as well as the new.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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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Our Crowded Lakes

[Note: The following was first published in the April 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

You’ve had a long week at work and you’re looking forward to the coming weekend when you can take the family out on the lake to do some fishing and enjoy a summer day on the water. You rise on a beautiful Saturday morning, pack the gear and head out. Arriving at the boat launch you are surprised by the number of boats and trailers ahead of you. You realize it’s going to be an hour or more before you get on the lake. Once on the lake, your idyllic vision of what a day of fishing should be is marred by the noise from several oversize speed boats, wake action from those boats violently rocking your boat and the hijinks of a few who don’t respect the rights of others wanting to enjoy the lake peacefully.

Wabamun Boat Launch

The Village of Wabamun launch can be quite crowded on summer weekends.

Sadly, the above scenario is becoming more common on recreational lakes across the province. As more and more people poured into Alberta during the past economic boom, more and more boats were purchased and hauled to lakes. The problem is the number of lakes in Alberta is finite and more boats means more crowded lakes, at least on the weekends. Over the last few years, it has become an issue for many people who use lakes and for local municipalities who have to deal with the conflicts and attempt to mitigate them.

Wabamun Lake
For example, Wabamun is a very popular recreational lake less than an hour’s drive west from Edmonton. It is relatively large and has many amenities and services for people coming to enjoy the lake: a provincial park with day-use and campground, a year-round village with the usual visitor services (food and hardware stores, restaurants, accommodations), several summer villages, and about 20 boat launches of varying quality around the lake.

Wabamun Boat Launch

The Village of Wabamun manages its launch so that boats can be launched and loaded efficiently. The village is planning to expand the launch.

According to a 2013 Parkland County study of boat launches on the lake, the most popular launch was at the Village of Wabamun (49% of users responding to a survey) on the east end of the lake. This is a double-vehicle, concrete launch with pull-through parking for 14 vehicles with trailers, and overflow parking for another 50. There is an adjacent timber pier with floating boarding docks. The village charges a $15 a day ($300 a season) for use of the launch.

The second most popular launch was at the Summer Village of Seba Beach (19%) on the west end of the lake. The single launch consisted of gravel access to natural shoreline. Vehicles with trailers were banned from the adjacent parking lot, forcing boaters to park on the streets. Last year Seba Beach closed the launch because of the congestion and the conflict between residents and people parking in residential areas. The closure pushed boaters to less desirable launches around the lake, causing congestion and conflict at those locations.

Fallis Boat Launch

Many boat launches around Wabamun Lake are ad hoc on unstable shoreline going into shallow water.

Wabamun Lake Provincial Park at the east end of the lake was the third most popular launch site (12%) in the 2013 study. In light of the shutdown at Seba Beach, I assume the provincial park launch is now the second (or the first) most popular. It includes a double-vehicle concrete launch and an adjacent concrete hand launch, with associated floating docks. This site has the largest number of parking spaces for vehicles and trailers on the lake (140 pull-through stalls), plus a large day-use area. The park maintains the site and does not charge a fee for use.

On any given weekend in the summer with half-decent weather, it doesn’t take long for those 140 parking stalls at the provincial park and 64 stalls at the village to fill up. In Wabamun, vehicles with boats have on occasion lined-up nearly out to the highway. Because of the congestion, the village has employed monitors to direct traffic at the launch ensuring boats are launched efficiently. However, vehicles and trailers late to the game are parking on side streets, again creating conflict with residents.

Rich's Point Boat Launch

Some more established launches on Wabamun Lake have a few amenities but little parking.

This crowding on weekends prompted Parkland County’s 2013 boat launch study. It recommended the launches at Wabamun village and the provincial park be upgraded to better handle more boats and vehicles, and that an additional launch site be developed on the south shore of the lake. Although user surveys indicated an improved launch was needed on the west end of the lake, the report stated the Seba Beach site was not suitable because of poor shoreline conditions, shallow water depth and little space for future development (forecasting the launch’s closure). Although there are many other launch sites around the lake, most are ad hoc—not developed or with minimum facilities, few parking spaces, shallow water or unstable shoreline.

Boat Carrying Capacity
Crowding at launches is one thing but boat traffic on a lake itself can be a problem of its own. Just how many boats can a particular lake of a particular size sustain before such traffic starts affecting the health of the lake and everyone’s enjoyment of it? Good question that has been asked many times across North America but no universal answer has been provided. The boat “carrying capacity” of a lake is the maximum number of boats the lake can handle before damage to the health of the lake occurs. It can also be defined in terms of the different kinds of boating activities on the lake. For example, kayak and canoe use is generally incompatible in the same area of a lake where there are personal watercraft, speedboats towing water skiers, or fishing boats travelling to a fishing area. Likewise fast moving boats are incompatible in areas where fishing boats have stopped to fish.

The size of the lake, its depth and major use are also factors in measuring the boat carrying capacity. For example, a lake far from major cities might attract mostly fishing boats. Fishing boats are generally less obtrusive because they usually don’t speed and tend to be smaller in size than boats used for speed or towing skiers. Canoes, kayaks and rowboats are the least obtrusive but even they have a limit based on the fact that most users prefer some solitude.

The wake a boat or personal watercraft makes can also affect a lake. They have little affect in water over two metres in depth but in shallow water a boat’s prop wash and its wake can disturb sediment on the bottom that becomes suspended in the water and eventually settle on underwater plants (that supply food and habitat for fish) or fish spawning areas. Wakes can also disturb nesting birds, like grebes, which construct nests in the vegetation along the shore and cannot tolerate those nests being flooded from waves.

Water pollution is also an issue with boats. The pollution made by older, 2-cycle motors is well documented. Twenty-five to 30% of the fuel is not burned but injected into the water. Newer 2-cycle motors expel less fuel, but the much heavier 4-cyle motors are best at preventing this direct pollution.

Many lakes in the U.S. and Canada have had some success zoning lakes, where shallow water, sensitive wildlife areas, special fishing areas and approaches to launches are marked on the water (usually with buoys) and boats are required to slow down or not enter these areas. Perhaps it’s time to start zoning our lakes and enforcing regulations that control the boat speed in certain zones.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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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The Costs of Climate Change

[Note: The following was first published in the February 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

The Paris Climate Change Conference last year was indeed a milestone along the long road of nations becoming aware of their responsibilities to protect our environment and future. Many countries stepped up, but the big question remains: will it be enough? Only time will tell.

What we do know is that the changes to our climate coming in the next 30+ years are already cast in stone. Our carbon-emission reductions today will have little impact on the climate until about 2045. In the mean time we need to know what’s going to happen locally in the next 30 or 40 years, so we can adapt and hopefully mitigate the consequences. More specifically for the readers of this magazine, how is climate change going to affect our fish and wildlife, and the future of fishing, hunting and trapping?

2013-09 Meredith-LakeLandPark-2

Our changing climate will affect our recreational opportunities; we just aren’t hearing how much.

Although the Alberta government has published an extensive plan to reduce carbon emissions, there is little published on what our environment and economic outlook will be over the next 30+ years as a result of the coming changes to the climate. That is strange because there is a lot discussion in the carbon-reduction plan about the costs of implementing the reductions but nothing specific about the costs to the province if no reductions are made. Possibly studies are underway or being contemplated, but until they are published, we can turn to the work of one of our neighbors and perhaps extrapolate what they have found to Alberta’s situation.

Montana
In December of 2015 the Montana Wildlife Federation published “The Impact of Climate Change on Montana’s Outdoor Economy.” Power Consulting Inc. of Missoula conducted the study using detailed versions of the global climate models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to predict what will happen in Montana and its regions in the next 40 years. The following is a brief summary of some of the findings.

Temperature: The report predicts the average temperature in Montana will rise 2 to 3 degrees C (4-5º F) by 2055. The change will be greater in winter, rising 3.5 degrees C (6.5º F) in the northeast portion of the state. As well, the study predicts there will be 20 to 40 (depending on the region) fewer days when temperatures will be below freezing. On the other hand, the number of days when the temperature will be above 35 degrees C (95º F) in summer will increase by 5 to 15 days.

Precipitation: Montana is predicted to receive 3 to 6 percent more precipitation overall, with the northeast portion of the state receiving an additional 6 to 9 percent. More precipitation will fall in winter and less will fall in summer, with precipitation in western Montana being 10 to 15 percent higher in winter and 5 to 10 percent lower in summer.

As a result of Montana being warmer in winter, less of the precipitation will fall as snow, thus reducing the snowpack in the mountains. This will reduce water flow in streams in summer, with the runoff occurring much earlier in the spring. Snowmobilers, skiers and other winter recreationists will have to recreate in much shorter and warmer winters with far less snow.

Forests: Increased temperatures and changes in moisture regimes will put stress on many native trees. Diseases will increase, as will pests, such as bark beetles. Species compositions will change as tree and shrub species better able to handle the warmer and drier conditions replace those that can no longer compete, such as white bark pine.

Grasslands: The report states: “The grasslands of Montana will convert to sage brush and other scrub brush dominant species.” This will further push wildlife into the mountains and change movement patterns for species like elk and pronghorn antelope.

Wildfires: The area burned by wildfires in Montana will double between 2015 and 2055 as a result of the stress placed on vegetation from higher summer temperatures and limited moisture. Indeed, the fires might well be the agents of change on the landscape as invading species out-compete the former native species to occupy the burned-over lands.

Fish: As a result of earlier snow melt and less runoff in late spring and summer, stream water temperatures will rise, putting stress on fish, especially cold-water fish, such as trout. This will open the streams to invasive species that can better handle the warm temperatures. Anglers will have to change their expectations with regard to what is caught and what can be harvested.

Wildlife: Migrating wildlife, such as elk and mountain sheep, will stay in the high country for longer periods of time as they seek cooler temperatures than what they are experiencing at lower elevations. They will be less likely to be pushed down by early winter snowfalls. Migration patterns for both big game and waterfowl will change as species adapt to the changing conditions. Hotter and drier summers will mean less forage. Hunters will have to change their habits and expect lower success rates. Although trapping was not mentioned in the report, one can assume that furbearers will likewise have to adapt to the changing conditions and generally move higher in elevation to follow their habitats.

Economic Costs: The majority of the report focused on the economic costs of these impacts on Montana’s outdoor economy, including outdoor recreation (tourism, wildlife watching, national park visits, fishing, hunting, winter sports), forest-based activities (wildfire control, forest loss) and the impact of wildfire on residences within the “urban-wildland” interface.

In Montana, the recreation-tourism sectors are responsible for over $2.3 billion in labour earnings per year and about 42,000 jobs. The report estimated a total of about 11,000 jobs would be lost in the next 40 years, with a loss of $281 million in earnings per year. Wildlife watching, hunting and fishing will lose some 6100 jobs, with a loss of $149 million in earnings. More specifically, the report estimated that 1800 jobs and $48 million in labour earnings would be lost as a result of reduced sport fishing activity and 1600 jobs and $39 million in labour earnings lost in big game hunting.

2010-04 Meredith-Jasper-AthabascaRiver

How will shorter, warmer winters affect the mountain snowpack and water flows in our rivers?

Alberta
Now, comparing Montana to Alberta is a bit of a stretch. Montana is a little over half the size of Alberta with a population of about 1 million people compared to Alberta’s 4.2 million. Our economies are similar except agriculture leads the economy in Montana, where oil and gas dominates Alberta’s economy. With the boreal forest, Alberta has a lot more forested land. We are north of and tend to be cooler than our southern neighbor, although climate models predict our temperature increases will be larger. As well, our public lands are managed much differently. So, we cannot make direct comparisons from the Montana report to what might happen here. But we can use the report to indicate, in a general sense, what we could be seeing in the near and distant future: changes on the landscape, loss of fishing and hunting opportunities, and loss of jobs and income in certain sectors of the economy.

We are already seeing changes on our landscapes: increases in the number and severity of wildfires and extreme weather events, warming of lakes and streams. Shouldn’t we know more specific information about what’s coming so we can plan our futures and mitigate the consequences of the changes where possible?

Comments are always welcome (below).

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, Alberta Outdoorsmen, Climate Change, Conservation, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Shifting Baseline

[Note: The following was first published in the January 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

People of my age and older can remember (if barely) when a cup of coffee cost only five cents. Of course, in those days a person could also make a good living earning $5,000 or less a year. On the other hand, if you were born in the 1970s, you probably remember a cup of coffee costing as little as $0.50 and the idea of a nickel cup of coffee might seem absurd and perhaps a myth. However, that nickel coffee is part of the baseline information I use when evaluating the ever-increasing cost of living. Yours might be that $0.50 or a $1.00 cup of coffee. We both have seen the loss of a dollar’s purchasing power but from different perspectives.

2014-09 Meredith-BeaverPond-1

Is our shifting information baseline threatening landscapes outside provincial parks?

Similarly, someone born in the 1940s or ‘50s most likely assesses the extent of the degradation of our environment differently than someone born in the ‘80s or ‘90s. For example, I grew up when the only reasons for releasing a fish back into the water were because it was too small or otherwise undesirable. Going fishing just to catch and release fish and not eat them was a foreign concept. Indeed, when catch-and-release regulations were first proposed, I had a difficult time understanding the concept. If you weren’t going to eat the fish, why catch them? Perhaps it’s better just to close the water body to fishing, and wait until the fish populations improve…? But working in the business, I soon realized it was important anglers be allowed to catch fish, even if they can’t keep them or we would soon lose many supporters of the resource. And as the years and decades passed, it became obvious that many of our dwindling fisheries resources could not sustain consumption harvests.

Now, as an angler born in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s you might have assumed that catch-and-release fishing has always been around. If so then you might conclude that stressed fisheries have always been the case and things today aren’t much different. Well yes, stressed fisheries have been around for a long time but not to the extent they are today. Many of the lakes and streams I used to fish back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s had abundant populations of popular game fish. In Alberta in those days, northern pike were considered by many to be trash fish because they got in the way of catching the more desirable walleye or perch. Today, of course, pike are considered a most desirable sport fish because they put up a good fight and, depending on the water body and size limits, you can actually take one home to eat once in a while.

I could give similar examples of loss of wildlife and habitat. However, in terms of big game, the reverse is true. Back in the early 20th century, populations of elk and deer in the province had collapsed. The tireless work of concerned hunters—who lobbied the government for better laws, regulations and enforcement—led to better fish and wildlife management and the creation of the Fish and Wildlife Division. As a result, we have enjoyed quality hunting in this province for most of the latter part of the 20th century into the 21st century.

Much of that success in the early to mid 1900s was the result of many legislators also being hunters and anglers. They too saw the deteriorating habitats and loss of big game and didn’t take too much convincing that something needed to be done about it. In other words the lobbyists and legislators worked from the same baseline of information.

2015-10 Meredith-GhostMain-2

Are devastated landscapes the new norm?

Sadly, that is no longer the case. I don’t have information about the hunting and fishing habits of our Members of the Legislative Assembly but based on their actions in the last many years I would speculate that few hunt and fish. Yes, some—especially government ministers—have stated they do so, but their actions in support of fish and wildlife conservation have left a lot to be desired.

AEP Business Plan
The new NDP government appears to be working from the same baseline of information their predecessors used as evidenced in the Alberta Environment and Parks Business Plan 2015-18 (PDF, published as part of the 2015 budget process,). In that document fish and wildlife are barely mentioned, then only as a revenue item where it is noted that in 2013-14 fishing licence sales dropped by 1.1% and hunting licence sales increased by 6.5% (sales targets for the following years will be based on “Rolling average of last five years’ results”…?). Yes, there are mentions of invasive species, biodiversity and species-at-risk, but nothing to indicate anything that might support fishing, hunting or trapping. Except of course for “Desired Outcome One: Environment and ecosystem health and integrity,” where, “fish and wildlife harvest limits” are listed as one of the many factors essential “To protect Alberta’s environment and ecosystem.” There is no mention of habitat, except perhaps in the Priority Initiatives that mention completing and implementing regional plans—and of course, Parks.

Alberta Parks
As part of the department’s reorganization after the election, Alberta Parks was added, changing the name of the department to Alberta Environment and Parks. As such, Parks was given divisional status—the same status that Fish and Wildlife use to have (Fish and Wildlife as an entity is found as one of the many branches in the Policy and Planning Division—Fish and Wildlife Policy Branch). Personally, I’m glad to see Parks retain such status. Provincial Parks have too long been neglected in this province and they provide the opportunity to retain and improve wildlife habitat; and in terms of wildland parks, quality hunting and fishing experiences. However, as I’ve stated here before, Fish and Wildlife’s loss of divisional status and a seat in the executive board room is a slap in the face to the conservationists who fought so hard over the decades to keep fish and wildlife conservation on the government’s agenda.

Fish and Wildlife
The closest things to fish and wildlife conservation mentioned in the business plan are the vague references to biodiversity and species-at-risk. Now biodiversity is important; our ecosystems require the widest diversity of species to keep them healthy. Likewise, species-at-risk are the proverbial “canaries in the cold mine,” their distress telling us much about the health of our environment. But the management of game species populations also tells us much about our environment, and includes the involvement of citizens who actually spend time in field and stream, and not just experience their wildlife and wild areas on a TV screen or an annual trip to the mountains. Good fish and wildlife management requires the support of people committed to the resource through their connections and experiences with pieces of the landscape.

I fear what we see today—stressed fisheries, deteriorating wildlife habitat, and dwindling public support—will become the new baseline from which future generations will judge fish and wildlife management in this province. As such, are hunters and anglers just a minor revenue source for the government, a footnote to the history of conservation in this province? I hope that’s not the case, because if it is true then we have lost a lot, including the will to bring it back.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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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A Year of Change

[Note: The following was first published in the December 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Another election, another upset. Change seems to be the watchword for 2015 in both Alberta and Canada.

New Federal Government
Change is upsetting to some people and the election of Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals to a majority government this October caused many to predict dire consequences. But fortunately we live in a democracy and bureaucracies ensure that the smooth transitioning of governments respect the realities of the day. Life goes on.

Slave Lake perch

The federal Fisheries and Navigable Waters Acts ensured our fisheries were protected.

Of course there will be change. That is what the majority of voting citizens wanted. As anyone who reads this column would suspect, I was glad to see the Harper Conservatives go. Almost from the beginning of their rein, they set back the environmental safeguards that protected the ecosystems providing life’s essentials, including what sustains our fish and wildlife. They also short-circuited parliamentary democracy with their omnibus bills and robotic ministers reading from texts prepared by unelected Prime Minister Office staff—just to name two examples.

That’s not to say the Liberals will be any better. Although I supported the ousting of the Conservatives, I wasn’t sure whom I should vote for. Regardless, the Liberals won the day and made many promises, several of which will be difficult to fulfill. Here is my list of top environmental priorities I would like to see acted upon:

  • Climate Change—the federal government needs to work with the provinces to develop and implement a carbon reduction plan that catches Canada up with the rest of the world and perhaps take a leadership role in developing new technologies. We will be using fossil fuels for quite a while but we need a plan to reduce that use as soon as possible, our future depends on it.
  • Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Act—these federal acts used to be the backstops for protecting our fisheries from habitat destruction. If provinces wouldn’t step up, the feds would. Corporations did not like having to comply with the regulations and lobbied successive governments to reduce what was required. Governments acquiesced, first cutting staff and ignoring regulation violations. The Conservatives took it to the next level and gutted most provisions that protected fisheries habitat from destructive activities. Suddenly there was no protection for populations of fish that used to be an important part of our heritage. The federal government needs to bring those provisions back and provide the manpower to enforce them.
  • Science and Scientists—much has been written about how the federal Conservatives muzzled government scientists, especially when their research results didn’t bolster conservative ideology. Science is about finding the truth of things, not reinforcing political ideology. Above all, government decisions should be based on good scientific knowledge. And Canadians need to hear from those scientists so they too are better informed about the world around them and the decisions that need to be made.
  • Species at Risk—the federal government and the provinces need to get together and discuss how they intend to protect the wildlife species that are at risk of extinction. It’s not enough to pay lip service to how important these species are while not do anything to protect them or their habitats. Species, such as the woodland caribou, can be brought back but crucial habitat must be preserved, habitat that is also important for many other species, including fish and game.

Firearms
One of the scare tactics used by some supporters of the federal Conservatives during the election was that the Liberals would bring back the dreaded long-gun registry. It wasn’t the Liberals but the New Democrats that promised to do that. The Liberal platform makes it clear that the registry is not on the table, and we should hold the government to that promise. It must always be remembered that the anti-gun lobby is strong and concerned firearm owners should keep a wary eye. The following are some of what the Liberals have promised to do with regard to firearms:

  • enhance background checks for people seeking to purchase restricted weapons;
  • reinstate the permit to transport restricted and prohibited weapons;
  • implement gun marking regulations for imported firearms;
  • provide $100 million each year to the provinces and territories to support police in fighting gangs and the use of illegal weapons; and
  • enhance technology at border crossings to detect and seize illegal weapons.

If any of these adversely affect your use of firearms, you should let your respective Member of Parliament and Judy Wilson Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, know your concerns.

Wabamun Gun Range

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a place to shoot.

Gun Ranges
2015 has also been a tough year of change for those of us who use gun ranges. As I reported here in October of last year, the Spruce Grove Gun Club (SGGC, west of Edmonton) has been having issues with residents of nearby acreage developments with regard to noise and errant bullets allegedly coming from the range. In the fall of 2014, the club successively defended the renewal of its annual development permit before Parkland County’s Subdivision Development Appeal Board (SDAB) after making some changes to the range to increase safety and reduce noise.

That permit came up for renewal again this fall, and again the residents appealed the county’s decision to approve it. Much to the surprise of both the club and the residents, the SDAB sided with the residents this time and denied the SGGC a permit, citing noise and safety concerns. The club shut down operations on November 9th and is contemplating whether to appeal the SDAB decision to the Alberta Court of Appeal. The closing of the range puts 900 people out of a place to shoot and puts a lot of pressure on the remaining ranges in the Edmonton area.

Shooters in southern Alberta were not immune to range closures. In late October the Alberta Provincial Rifle Association announced it will close the public rifle and shotgun ranges located at its Homestead Shooting Facility in Kananaskis Country on December 31, 2015. The Homestead Facility is on land leased from the province and is a complex of several ranges, most for club members only. The public ranges were created, as part of the lease agreement, to allow the public to have a place to sight-in firearms and otherwise enjoy shooting without having to join a club. Unfortunately, many people abused this privilege and the range became unsafe and a depository for garbage. In consultation with the Alberta Chief Firearms Officer, the club decided the public ranges had become too dangerous and should be closed.

These range closures illustrate an ongoing issue that’s not going to get any better. If you want to legally shoot your firearm, you’re going to have to pay significantly for the privilege, most likely travelling a good distance from your home. Many people can’t or won’t go to such ranges, and some might resort to illegal firearm use, which won’t help anybody and could lead to more restrictions. If you are concerned about having a place to shoot, you should make your concerns known to your local government representatives. As well, join and support your local fish and game or firearms club that lobbies government on your behalf.

2015 has indeed been a year of change on many fronts. 2016 promises to be no different. Here’s hoping some of those changes are for the better for you and your family.
Happy Holidays all!

Comments are always welcome (below).

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, Alberta Outdoorsmen, Canada, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Firearms and Shooting, Fishing, Hunting, Politics, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Draining the Battery

[Note: The following was first published in the November 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

OWCSecond Place, Magazine Column
Outdoor Writers of Canada
2016 National Communications Awards

 
We all know what happens when a battery runs out of power or discharges. Some device (e.g., flashlight, GPS, smartphone) ceases to work. The fix is simple: replace the spent battery with a fully charged one. But what if you don’t have a replacement battery or the ability to recharge the spent one? Obviously, you can’t use that particular device. Now, what if that “device” is the planet we live on?

forest clearing

The wholesale clearing of forests further discharges the earth-space battery.

That is the metaphor three U.S. scientists used in a recent paper published in the prestigious science journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (August 4, 2015). The title of the paper, “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind,” suggests it should be read by more people than normally visit a scientific journal. However, as reported by Andrew Nikiforuk in The Tyee (August 10, 2015), although the paper made headlines in such countries as China, India and Russia, it didn’t get much attention from the news media in North America. That’s a shame because the message presented and backed by considerable basic science is very informative about why climate change and resource conservation are such major issues affecting our future as a species.

The premise is simple. All the energy our biological systems and we humans use on this planet ultimately comes from the sun. Light energy is converted into biological energy through the process of photosynthesis in green plants. This energy is stored in the plant, some of which the plant uses to grow and reproduce. When the plant is eaten or decays in the soil, some of the stored energy is used by other organisms, which also store some in their own bodies. Not all the stored energy is consumed and some accumulates on the ground, mixing with minerals to form the soils that nourish plants. It can take hundreds to thousands of years to build a good soil layer. Over millions of years, some of that energy is locked in sediments and concentrated into what we humans call fossil fuels, energy that takes a very long time to store and accumulate.

forest waste

Waste in forest practices reduces the trickle-charge of the earth-space battery.

This laying down of energy stores—in the form of the living biomass found in forests, fields and oceans and in fossil form (coal, oil, gas)—is in effect the sun trickle charging the earth-space battery. Until humans came along, the charge slowly built, maintaining a diversity of life with the excess bio-energy being buried and fossilized into coal, oil and gas. As humans learned to exploit energy resources beyond what we used for food, we began to use more of that stored energy. For example, the discovery of how to start and control fire allowed us to cook and warm ourselves, using energy stored in dead plants. Because our population was small these changes were easily accommodated by the ecosystems in which we lived. In other words, what bio-energy we consumed building fires was replaced by other plants.

Then we learned to domesticate plants and animals for food, and cleared forests for our crops and pastures. This dipped further into the biomass portion of the planet’s battery but again it was modest and easily accommodated, mainly because there were not many of us.

When we figured out how to mine and smelt metals—like tin, copper and iron—to create tools and weapons, we dug deeper into the planet’s bio-energy stores. Smelting metals requires a lot of energy. Forests were cleared to provide the fuel needed for the process. All these advancements allowed us food security, resulting in more of our children surviving to adulthood and producing children of their own. Thus, our population grew more rapidly and so did our demand for fuel sources.

forests and climate

Forests play a key role in regulating climate.

Compared to today, our population growth in those early days was modest. It took over 10,000 years for the number of humans to grow from a few million to one billion people in the latter half of the 19th century. Then the industrial revolution arrived with the mining of coal as a consistent supply of cheap energy. Steam engines revolutionised transportation and industry while dipping deeper into the fossil-fuel energy store. The cheap energy provided opportunities for technology to improve such things as health care and hygiene. Food was produced evermore cheaply. More children survived to produce more children. As a result, over the last 150 years our human population has increased exponentially from one billion to over seven billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed and shelter. It’s also a tremendous drain on the planet’s biomass that supplies the energy all living things need.

We’ve seen the results of this depletion: worldwide fisheries collapses, wholesale clearing of forests and topsoil, air and water pollution, and the steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The latter is causing the climate to change rapidly, creating extreme weather and fire events, raising sea level and changing landscapes.

What is obvious to those who wish to address the issue is that this situation is not sustainable. Eventually batteries run out of power and the only way to recharge the earth’s battery is through that trickle charge coming from the sun. However before that battery fully runs out, humanity will be facing crises that determine our future. For example, it has been argued that the series of disasters in the Middle East—from “Arab spring” through the rise of terrorism to the exodus of refugees and economic migrants—is related to crop failures in that region as a result of prolonged drought in an already arid climate. Hungry people become angry people who want change.

Climate-change scenarios predict that many places, especially in and near the tropical regions, will suffer crop failures in the not-too-distant future. Many people in those regions will be looking for a new place to live. Countries in more temperate climates, like Canada, will be pressured to take more of these migrants. How many migrants can a country absorb before its own ability to cope with crises is compromised? For example, how many people could Canada feed if food imports from other countries ceased because those countries had no food to spare?

We are certainly not immune to these issues here in Alberta. All you have to do is look at how fast we are exploiting our petroleum and forestry resources to know we are part of the problem. During a recent hunting trip to northern Alberta, we couldn’t help but notice the large tracts of forest cleared to provide lumber and pulp as well as space for oil/gas field developments. Those trees stored a lot of carbon taken from the air. They aren’t doing that anymore. Likewise, much fish and wildlife habitat has been removed or compromised. It will take decades for those forests and habitats to come back and provide the environmental services they used to provide, including storing the sun’s energy.

Of course, we cannot stop our dependence on fossil-fuel energy overnight. However, we have to make and implement plans to reduce it, sooner than later. Although many of us don’t yet see (or wish to see) the energy in our battery fading here in the first world, many are seeing it dim in their portion of the world and are wondering what’s going to be done about it.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, General | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments