A bridge being built by Spray Lake Sawmills across the Highwood River to access logging operations in the Upper Highwood area of Kananaskis Country. PHOTO COURTESY OF CANADIAN PARKS AND WILDERNESS SOCIETY

A Cochrane-based logging company is under scrutiny for building an unauthorized bridge over a river in Kananaskis Country vital to at-risk trout species, including Alberta’s official fish.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is investigating Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) building a bridge to access logging areas in Kananaskis after it failed to obtain a permit to build the crossing, aware of the presence of threatened bull trout and Westslope cutthroat trout in the Highwood River below.

“The risk is that activities like the bridge-building and road construction around it can produce a lot of sediment that goes into the streams and rivers,” said Josh Killeen, conservation science and program manager at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta.

“That sediment silts up the streambeds and prevents those fish species from being able to find their food and hatch their eggs.”

The Highwood River and adjacent riparian zone is identified as potential critical habitat for bull trout. SLS plans to clearcut 1,100 hectares of forest in the Upper Highwood area, including 26 kilometres along the river, and near Loomis and McPhail creeks.

When activities and infrastructure building are planned that could damage critical habitat for a threatened species – federally listed and subject to protections and recovery strategies under the Species at Risk Act – a company must apply to the DFO for a permit.

In an email response to the Outlook, a spokesperson from the DFO – the federal agency tasked with protecting Canada’s water bodies, fisheries and marine resources – said SLS did not request a permit and an investigation into the bridge is underway.

“Construction of infrastructure near water may require review to ensure compliance with relevant provisions under the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act,” said communications advisor Robert Rombouts. “Where applicable, DFO reviews proposed works, undertakings and activities that may impact fish and fish habitat.

“As this is an active investigation, we are unable to provide further details at this time,” he added.

Independent aquatic ecologist Dave Mayhood, who is also president of Calgary-based Freshwater Research Limited, specializes in the ecology and conservation biology of western Canadian fish, with a focus on mountain trout.

Mayhood said increased sediment in streambeds from nearby logging traffic can significantly harm bull trout populations due to their sensitivity to spawning locations.

The timing of the bridge and road work also aligns with bull trout spawning season, which typically runs from late August to early October. Bull trout grow slowly in preferred cold waters and spawn at around five to seven years old, later than other trout species.

“Even a small, fractional increase in sediment delivery and deposition into their spawning redds will significantly increase mortality and reduce the emergence and success of these fish,” said Mayhood. “Logging roads in particular deliver a lot of sediment in that way.”

Additional impacts from logging in riparian zones include reducing shade, increasing water temperatures and exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Elevated water temperatures can disrupt biological processes in fish and other aquatic life, and heightened sunlight exposure can trigger greater algae growth in streams.

The drainages of Alberta’s eastern slopes provide habitat for several native trout species, including bull trout, Westslope cutthroat trout and Athabasca rainbow trout, all of which are listed as threatened under both provincial and federal legislation.

Bull trout were once abundant in at least 60 mountain and foothill watersheds in Alberta, with large fish reported downstream of the mountains and foothills in most major Alberta rivers, according to provincial data.

By 2014, however, just seven watersheds – all within national or provincial parks – supported healthy bull trout populations characterized by low-risk adult density.

Bull trout populations have disappeared from at least 20 watersheds, in addition to those that seasonally inhabited lower river reaches such as the Peace, Athabasca, North Saskatchewan, Red Deer, and Bow rivers.

The Highwood River is categorized as one of about 50 core habitat areas for bull trout in Alberta. Most of those are ranked as highly vulnerable to encroachment, according to a 2012 provincial conservation management plan for the species..

Mayhood said the Highwood River is an ecologically important place to protect and restore bull trout because, while it is a popular recreation area, it’s “relatively untouched.”

“There’s some cattle grazing in the area, there’s the Highway [40], of course, and there’s the odd, little – mostly – abandoned logging road for vehicles, which people use for hiking all the time,” he said.

“Plus, there’s a decent population in there. It’s about the fourth largest population [of bull trout], according to available population estimates.”

Mayhood said SLS’ plans to log the area, including a large portion of the Loomis Creek drainage and around McPhail Creek, shows the forestry company is either “unaware or unwilling” to comply with existing laws protecting waters and fish.

“This is the impression that’s given when they go out and throw a bridge across a major, very important river for recreation and conservation, without a permit,” he said.

“It’s not like they don’t know they should have permits. They’re supposed to check all that.”

VP of Woodlands with SLS, Ed Kulcsar, said the company is unable to comment on the Highwood River bridge installation while the DFO is investigating but said in an email statement to the Outlook that “in general, DFO permits are only required if a project proponent is unable to protect fish and fish habitat while conducting their works.”

“What I can say is we follow all approval processes and implement all measures and best management practices to ensure the protection of fish and fish habitat on all our bridge installations,” said Kulcsar.

Mayhood, who has studied Kananaskis Country’s Silvester Creek and its population of Westslope cutthroat trout for over a decade, said he finds SLS’ commitment to at-risk species legislation questionable based on past experiences.

In April 2018, a logging road that traverses Silvester Creek, owned and operated by SLS, blew out from runoff as snow began to melt in the Rockies. The runoff ultimately washed out the road, muddying the clean waters on which Westslope cutthroat trout rely, Mayhood said.

Alberta’s Forest Act requires forestry and road leaseholders to maintain roads to standard, including preventing damage to critical species habitat. Contravention of the act can hold individuals and companies accountable, however, there was no resulting investigation or charges laid on the forestry company after the incident.

Mayhood said his biggest concern is the DFO may issue permits allowing SLS to continue its clear-cutting operations in the Upper Highwood, despite concerns for at-risk species.

“That would allow them to damage or destroy critical habitats and to damage or destroy redds, or individual fish,” he said. “All those things are very specifically, explicitly forbidden under the Species at Risk Act.

“There is no way, particularly in the case of critical habitat, which is absolutely protected … You’re not allowed to destroy any of it and there is no loophole that allows DFO to give out a permit to do that.”

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 01, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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