Where are the Trout at Trout Creek?

by | Mar 15, 2024 | Native Trout Recovery | 0 comments

Where is the Trout at Trout Creek?
Written by: Caitlyn Duncanson and Elliot Lindsay

Trout Creek is nestled in the Porcupine Hills of southern Alberta, a beautiful montane ecosystem where the foothills meet the Rocky Mountains. Historically, the headwater streams originating from the Porcupine Hills provided valuable coldwater habitat for Westslope Cutthroat Trout and Bull Trout, but in recent years the trout seem to have vanished.

Trout Creek is located within a Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ), where current and historic land uses in the area have been unfavourable to the long-term health of trout habitat. Forest harvest and road building, recreational off-highway vehicle use, and livestock grazing are some of the many land uses taking place within this area.

All land use activities contribute cumulatively to result in an array of potential impacts to streams in the area. When not appropriately managed, impacts of these land uses can create conditions ripe for erosion and delivery of silty water to streams, increasing sedimentation (murkiness) of streams, and changing the structure and quality of fish habitats. Alberta’s recent record-breaking heatwaves and drought have not helped the situation at Trout Creek, either. With periods of extremely high and low water flow, and a reduced resilience of stream habitats to buffer against this variation, these stressors have led to the loss of stream connectivity, healthy streambank vegetation, and most shockingly, the recent loss of fish.

OHV trail was deactivated and rerouted in the Trout Creek project area.

Once teeming with Westslope Cutthroat trout, portions of Trout Creek within the Forest Reserve are no longer home to any fish according to Trout Unlimited Canada’s most recent electrofishing surveys in August 2023. Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC) biologists planned to survey twelve sites on Trout Creek and its immediate tributaries (King Bolt Creek and two unnamed tributaries). Unfortunately, over half of the sites intended to be sampled were completely dry. Of the five sites sampled in 2023, no fish were observed. This is in stark contrast to previous watershed assessments carried out in 2015 in which over 600 fish were captured from the same sampling areas.

So, what do we do?
TUC has been working towards strategic restoration projects in the Trout Creek watershed since 2012. Some of the activities at Trout Creek implemented by TUC to date include:

•Trail decommissioning and reclamation
•Trail building and rerouting
•Installing bridges to prevent in-stream vehicle crossings
•Riparian vegetation planting
•Building beaver dam analogs (BDAs)

 

Volunteers and staff members building beaver dam analogs (BDAs) on King Bolt Creek, a tributary of Trout Creek.

IMITATING BEAVERS:
Beaver numbers have dwindled in the Trout Creek area, taking their dam-building, and water retention skills with them. Historically, the streams in the Porcupine Hills supported abundant beaver activity, and the gradual loss of beaver over time throughout the watershed has been a factor in the loss of the many benefits provided by this keystone species.

 

One of the most important benefits of beavers is their ability to build dams that retain water, creating deep pools that maintain cold water at the bottom of the pools, i.e. favourable trout habitat. Pools created by beaver dams also replenish groundwater and allow riparian vegetation to grow along streams. Beaver dams also force water out of stream channels onto the floodplain, saturating these soils and storing large quantities of water that are slowly released throughout the summer, helping buffer against extremes of flooding and drought. Beavers won’t return to an area unless there’s something to work with – food, building materials, and water. TUC biologists know this, and with the help of amazing volunteers, we built eleven of our best interpretations of beaver dams on King Bolt Creek, an important tributary of Trout Creek. The human-made beaver dams are called beaver dam analogs (BDAs). While we aren’t as skilled as beavers in stick and mud engineering, we hope that our BDAs will entice beavers to return to the project area and eventually reestablish a suitable coldwater habitat for trout. The BDAs merely start the recovery process, by forcing water onto floodplain surfaces and creating ponds, these structures raise the local groundwater table making it easier for beaver food to grow and providing ponds for them to use to get established. If all goes well, the beaver will move back into the area and take the restoration from there on their own.

A section of trail deactivated using woody debris, within the Trout Creek project area.

GRAZING:
Cattle grazing takes place in the Porcupine Hills PLUZ from June until late fall. Keeping livestock from spending too much time along streams is a challenge and an opportunity to work closely with Cattle Grazing Allotment Holders. Agriculture is an important part of Alberta’s identity and economy, and cattle can exist on a landscape in harmony with fish, beavers, and freshwater ecosystems if best management practices are applied. Since 2020 TUC has been working with the local grazing allotment holders to identify areas where we can assist with the implementation of best management practices such as new spring developments, changes in fencing, and installing new bridges and trails. Fortunately, TUC and the allotment holders both want these landscapes to be in the best health they can be to support and sustain

A new bridge was built in 2023 to replace an OHV stream crossing over Trout Creek.

BRIDGING THE GAP:
With the help of a contractor and some heavy equipment, TUC installed three new bridges for OHV users in the Porcupine Hills PLUZ in 2023. The bridges allow recreational and agricultural users to cross streams without further eroding stream banks and creating sedimentation of the streams. TUC also worked with the Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad who volunteered their time and equipment to build a new trail reroute, enabling TUC to decommission old trails to allow the old trails to revegetate.

 

While the trout are currently missing from Trout Creek, we hope that our efforts will lead toward the reintroduction of native fish into this beautiful ecosystem in the near future. More restoration work for Trout Creek and its tributaries is planned for the summer of 2024. Visit our Eventbrite page to find out how to volunteer and help the revitalization of Trout Creek!

Thank you to the Alberta Conservation Association and the provincial Watershed Restoration and Resiliency Program, administered by Alberta Environment and Protected Areas, for providing funding support for work at Trout Creek. TUC is grateful to volunteers from TC Energy, Alberta Junior Forest Rangers, Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad, the Oldman River Chapter, and the Municipal District of Ranchland No. 66, without whom this project would not be possible.

Trout Unlimited Canada is a nonprofit, charitable organization. Donations are tax deductible as allowed by law.