Girardi Creek Habitat Restoration

by | Jan 18, 2023 | Reconnecting Canada | 0 comments

Girardi Creek is a small mountain stream located just west of Coleman, in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. It originates from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and tumbles down a steep mountain valley before meeting the Crowsnest River, downstream of Crowsnest Lake. Girardi Creek contains critical habitat for Westslope Cutthroat Trout, listed as Threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). According to the provincial Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan, the Girardi Creek population is one of only an estimated 51 populations of genetically pure Westslope Cutthroat Trout left in Alberta. Historically there had been up to 274 streams and rivers which contained populations of Westslope Cutthroat Trout. Therefore, the conservation and protection of these populations is of the upmost importance to the continued persistence of Westslope Cutthroat Trout here in the province.

One of the primary threats to this isolated population was sedimentation. Sediment is a natural part of any stream ecosystem, but too much of it for too long or too frequently can smother incubating trout eggs and change the aquatic food web. Check out this article for a good primer on sediment and fish habitat. In the Girardi Creek watershed, most of the “problem” sediments were coming from a series of undesignated off-highway vehicle trails and unbridged stream crossings, which had been used for many years. Following the establishment of the Livingstone Public Land Use Zone, recreational motorized use is no longer permitted in the watershed. However, it was determined that motorized access was still necessary to effectively manage livestock within the watershed’s grazing allotment. To resolve the sedimentation issue, TUC needed to engage with the local grazing allotment holder and the provincial Public Lands department, to determine alternative routes for motorized access, while eliminating as much of the existing floodplain and in-stream trail segments and crossings as possible.


Girardi Creek

Girardi before and after


During several site visits, an alternate route was identified and mapped out, and plans were set in place to remove all but one of the existing low-level crossings of Girardi Creek, and to remove all the floodplain and in-stream trails. During 2021 and 2022, all the relevant permits were acquired, and after many years of planning, the work at Girardi Creek finally kicked off in late September 2022. A small excavator and a chainsaw crew from Vitae Environmental arrived on site and began work on clearing a new access route for managing livestock, while the excavator worked its way in to the furthest upstream sites and began decommissioning the existing trail features. Prior to crossing the mainstem of Girardi Creek, a fish salvage was completed, and four Westslope Cutthroat Trout were captured and relocated outside the work area. At most of the trail sites, the existing trail was decommissioned by decompacting (digging up) the hard soils and distributing extensive large and small woody debris. This ensures that surface runoff cannot travel over the top of the trails, it has to soak into the ground, mitigating the potential for erosion.


Girardi Creek

Girardi Westslope Cutthroat Trout


The most significant sites were two pieces of trail where tributary streams (one permanent, one ephemeral) were running down the trail surface into Girardi Creek. At these sites, the trail was decompacted and a meandering channel was excavated to allow for reformation of a natural stream channel. Both of the new channels were surrounded by extensive small and large woody debris and forest litter, to speed up the recovery of natural stream forms and habitats (pools, riffles, and runs), and to create microclimates where a wide diversity of plants can re-establish themselves. At the lowermost end of the project area, the 300 meters or so of former off-highway vehicle (OHV) trail was transformed into a meandering game trail, to ensure that livestock can be herded out of the watershed effectively, and to encourage them to move along the stream corridor, but away from the creek. At the former “entrance” point to the OHV trail network, a row of large limestone boulders was installed to keep vehicles out of the area. All in all, the project resulted in approximately 1060 meters of trail being decommissioned and reclaimed, and 250 meters of stream habitat rebuilt.


Girardi Creek

Girardi Construction


Once the construction work was completed, a hard-working crew of volunteers chipped in for three big days of hand-tool work – planting willows and distributing loads of woody debris on all of the closed trail features and newly built stream banks. We were very fortunate to have amazing volunteers this year including folks from the TUC Oldman River Chapter, local community members, and staff from the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass, and the Oldman Watershed Council. All of the willows we used for replanting were harvested from the nearby Frayn Conservation area, in Blairmore, managed by Alberta Conservation Association.


Girardi Creek

Volunteer Work


The 2022 work added to previous efforts that TUC has completed in this small watershed. In September 2018, a large slumping bank along Girardi Creek was stabilized using live willow brush layers and tree revetments. Revisiting the site in 2022 gave us a good opportunity to see how that work was holding up. Since work at this site was completed, it has become a thriving streambank willow stand, with the tree revetments and large woody debris placed at the bottom of the slope doing its job of preventing erosion and further slumping, but also in snagging additional woody debris, creating a great overwintering pool right at the former project site! Overwintering habitat is one of the limiting features in Girardi Creek, because of how steep and rocky this watershed is. Almost all overwintering habitats here are created by woody debris, underscoring how important this material is in creating and maintaining healthy fish habitats.


Girardi Creek

2018 Project Site


TUC will be back in the watershed in spring 2023 to check on all the work that was done this year, and to complete any needed follow-up work or maintenance. After a lot of planning and coordination, things are finally looking up for this small watershed!

This work was possible thanks to funding from the Oldman River Chapter of TUC, Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), and Alberta Conservation Association’s Conservation, Community and Education Grants program. Components of this project were also funded by Alberta Transportation related to an approved fish habitat offset.

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