Spring isn’t just a time for birds and bees; it is also one of the most sensitive times for native fish as they start to lay their eggs in our streams and lakes. Of particular concern are westslope cutthroat trout. These threatened fish lay their eggs on the bottom of cold, clean streams in Alberta between May and July. It is important that the streambeds have course, unsilted gravel bottoms, trees and shrubs beside the stream to keep it cool and lots of large logs, boulders or bedrock to act as cover for the eggs.
In Alberta, westslope cutthroat trout are currently down to only five percent of their historic range and to protect them, the federal government recently issued a critical habitat order for these fish. This order makes it unlawful to undertake activities in and around the fish habitat that would destroy any part of it. There is a lot of work to do to implement and enforce this order.
May is also the time when many people start using our forests and foothills for recreation and this can be a major problem for westslope cutthroat trout. Past and current industrial activities, forestry and recreation have created a spiderweb of cuttlines, clear-cuts, roads and trails throughout the upper headwater forests where cutthroat trout live. These land uses all affect the survival of cutthroat trout even though they are not all directly in the stream.
Roads and trails create bare areas where water runs quickly off the land into streams, dirtying the bottom of streambeds and this makes it difficult for trout to lay their eggs since they need clean gravel. Motorized recreation on these trails exacerbates the issue by removing vegetation from stream banks, deepening ruts on trails and creating more areas for dirt to enter the stream, especially after spring rains. There are also huge problems with unregulated off-highway vehicle users driving straight through streams, messing up the banks and stirring up dirt into the water. This puts our native fish at great risk. Fish are not the only species at risk, species like cutthroat trout act as indicators of healthy headwaters and clean water that runs downstream into our communities. What is bad for cutthroat trout is also bad for us.
In order for westslope cutthroat trout to survive, and our headwaters streams to stay healthy, we need to reclaim many of the trails and other disturbances to natural vegetation by restricting motorized recreation from areas where it can damage fish habitat and pollute our precious waterways. Implementing the critical habitat order is not only our legal obligation it is also necessary to keep this species in our mountain streams.
We have an opportunity to protect westslope cutthroat trout and their eggs from the current damage of off-highway vehicles and poorly designed logging roads and that is through the linear disturbance and recreation planning processes that the Government of Alberta is currently piloting in the Porcupine Hills and Livingstone areas. CPAWS is working with government and other stakeholders to ensure these plans prioritize headwaters health, biodiversity and wildlife connectivity by using science as a base for planning, restoring key watersheds and restricting motorized use to only a few well-designed trails that avoid sensitive areas.
It is time we made the right decisions to make sure our native trout have places to live, lay their eggs, grow and thrive.
The scoop on birding
A great way to connect with nature is to try a new form of outdoor recreation. It can be something physically challenging or it can be something a little more relaxing like birding, a hobby Naturalist Gus Yaki says is the best in the world.
Gus Yaki has been hooked on birding for more than 75 years. As a child, he had a three-mile walk to school each day giving him lots of time to observe nature. Gus was allowed to peruse his schoolteachers’ bird identification book over the lunch hour, and soon he spent the walk to and from school looking for new species of birds.
“Birding is a versatile hobby as you can observe birds anywhere under any weather conditions since birds are out 24/7, “says Gus.
“I love it, because you get to enjoy a nice walk. Anyone can go birding and it’s not expensive since no membership is required.”
Many birders use binoculars to spot birds, but digital cameras are popular too as they have powerful lenses and the birds can be photographed and identified later.
How should one get started in birding? Gus suggests picking up an identification guide, joining a knowledgeable friend, or better yet, taking a course.
Gus currently works with the Friends of Fishcreek to offer birding courses.
“We have 280 people enrolled in a 12-week course. This is a popular past time!”
When Gus takes a group out birding in Fish Creek Park they stroll along pathways to many diverse locations such as meadows, forests and wetlands for approximately three hours. The group often sees upwards of 50 bird species depending on the day. As they walk along, group members are listening for birds as much as looking for them.
“The trees are leafing out early this year so it makes it more difficult to see the birds. Identifying them by sound becomes more important.”
“When we hear a bird, we stop and look for it. Going with a group is fun and it makes it easier to find the bird when you have many eyes on the lookout.”
“Often we see other species too such as muskrat, squirrels and deer.”
Gus carries a book to identify the various birds, but mainly he uses it to show the other birders what to look for. He usually knows exactly what he’s looking at and what he is hearing. He also shares his knowledge about the history of the area, about the local plants and other tidbits about birds.
A long-time birder, Dave, who often goes out with Gus says,
“Gus has forgotten more about birding and other things than I will ever know!”
Bird Tidbits from Gus
• Alberta has recorded 400+ species of birds
• Usually it’s the male birds that sing to either attract a mate or to claim their territory
We teach junior high and high school students the importance of bears mixing their genes and avoiding inbreeding – all in the name of education and conservation.
Our interactive education programs use games and activities to demonstrate environmental and conservation topics to students. The Grizzly Bears Forever program brings grizzly bear biology into the classrooms of Grade 7 to 12 students. Grizzly bears are an essential part of a healthy, fully functioning environment in Alberta. Their large home ranges make grizzlies an “umbrella” species for land use planning and management. This means that managing the landscape for grizzly bear populations also provides habitat for many other species, helps maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems and fisheries, and protects clean and abundant supplies of water for downstream users. This is why we choose to educate students about grizzlies.
One of our signature grizzly bear games, Bears of Banff, teaches youth about the importance of dispersing: when an animal travels long distances from their birthplace to mate with individuals from other families. This activity is all about breeding! Students assume the role of grizzly bears as they try to survive and pass on their genes in Banff National Park. The students discover how human activities can sometimes “get in the way” of a bear’s procreation opportunities.
Students are invited into a large area simulating Banff and are given five differently coloured Popsicle sticks, representing their genes. Long-term sustainability of the grizzly population requires the mixing of genes to keep the population healthy. Normally, individuals ensure proper genetic mixing by dispersing. To mimic this, students have to trade sticks with other bears from across the room until they have five identical sticks. Most students achieve the task; however, a few may not. These unfortunate individuals are the victims of inbreeding, a genetic phenomenon in which mating with related animals results in not enough genetic mixing. Inbreeding may result in the appearance of harmful recessive traits or body asymmetry. Any bears who suffer from inbreeding in three successive rounds of the game will be diagnosed as suffering from so much inbreeding depression that they can no longer reproduce, or even survive long enough to reproduce. These bears will be forced to leave the game. Inbreeding depression is one of the more obvious reasons our human society has taboos against incest and inbreeding.
During successive rounds of the game, human influences are added to the park. Large sheets of fabric represent areas such as Banff town, golf courses and air fields. Bears are not allowed to enter these areas. We add ropes that represent Highway #1 and the railroad. Any bear caught trying to cross the road or track may be killed. Bears are unable to disperse and get stuck in small areas of the park. The Bears of Banff game demonstrates how incremental development in the park makes genetic mixing more difficult. Scientists have noticed signs of inbreeding depression in the park’s grizzly populations, which might eventually lead to the extirpation of the species within and south of Banff.
This game leads into a discussion about the objective of parks in Canada: to provide recreation for people or to protect the ecosystem. Many of our youth participants are inspired to join our Fight for your Parks campaign.
Ten short months ago, Maryam Eghbal Doost began volunteering with the CPAWS education department and already this dedicated volunteer has reached 100 volunteer hours.
Maryam first moved to Calgary from Iran in 2013 and she wanted to find a volunteer opportunity to improve her English, learn about the culture and gain Canadian work experience. Through a search on the volunteer website Propellus, Maryam saw a volunteer posting for an education assistant with CPAWS. With an engineering background, she was ready to try something new and thought education would be a good fit since she enjoys working with people.
Maryam is a good match for the education department as she helps with administrative duties and workshops for new immigrants to Canada. She understands the wonder of seeing the abundant nature here for the first time. She assists by passing out demonstration pieces such as fur, claws, plants and models of bear skulls.
“Seeing and touching a little bit of nature improves the experience for participants,” says Maryam.
Maryam’s favourite part of the job is learning about the Calgary area and the different plants, animals and parks. She also enjoys sharing what she learns with her family and friends.
Her favourite nature experience so far has been a day trip to Lake Louise. She loved the beauty of the lake. She also loves to spend time at Calgary’s rivers and parks, especially in the Glenmore area.
Maryam enjoys the challenge of gaining new skills, and she loves to meet new people, but most of all she wants to continue to learn more about nature in this beautiful province.
To volunteer with CPAWS, visit our volunteer section.
Thank you RBC! Through their Blue Water Project, RBC supports CPAWS Water Rangers education programs for kids and water education for new immigrants to Canada. On Blue Water Day, June 2, RBC presented the CPAWS education department with a cheque for $35,000 to support water conservation education through the next year.
Celebrations seemed an apt title for these works. This river is so clear. There is no sediment. Fish need this clarity to survive. We need this clarity to be celebrated. This remarkable beauty is disappearing quickly. Where a forest is logged the sediment clouds the waters.
It suffocates the fish. We need to protect these clear rivers from damage.
Barbara Amos is a visual artist who has been involved with regional, national and international public art projects. She has worked in diverse materials including steel, photography, video and paint, creating projects for specific locations and communities. She graduated from the University of Waterloo and has maintained an active studio practice for over 20 years. To learn more about Barbara, visit her website.
CBC News: The province says it will step up its enforcement of careless ATV users in high-use areas this summer on public lands and in provincial parks.
The goal is to keep riders from going off marked trails and tearing up and down streams, says Alberta Parks spokesman Tim Chamberlin.
"We'll have fish and wildlife officers, our conservation officers in concert with some other law enforcement groups that will be making a concentrated effort to not only promote awareness but to enforce the rules and regulations," he said.
Gary Clark, president of the Quad Squad — a recreational club in the Crowsnest Pass — says while more officers are welcome, the way offences are prosecuted needs to change.
The province should first set specified penalties and then allow conservation officers to issue them like traffic tickets, he said.
"Once that happened a few times it wouldn't take long for everybody to realize they shouldn't be going through the water," he said.