On a summer’s day an unknown photographer focused his Kodak Brownie on four adults and a child, out for a day’s fishing on Trout Creek. The photograph, now in the Glenbow archives, is labelled “Fishermen with catch, Trout Creek, Alberta. July, 1902.”
And what a catch it was — a pile of native cutthroat trout, well over a hundred, and maybe 75 kilograms in total.
Native cutthroat trout lingered, though declining, over the next century or so in this tiny stream that flows off the east side of the Porcupine Hills in southwestern Alberta. They were still present in 2013 when Elliot Lindsay, a biologist with Trout Unlimited, caught his first cutthroat trout there. When Government of Alberta biologists sampled the stream in 2015 they recorded hundreds of trout.
By 2019, those hundreds had dwindled and Trout Unlimited caught only two from a subset of the same stream reaches. Unfortunately, contagion with genetic material from non-native rainbow trout was already well established.
Further investigations in 2021 by the Blackfoot Confederacy Tribal Council Native Trout Recovery Project, using environmental DNA, failed to find any strong evidence of pure-strain cutthroat trout in the watershed.
The population may not be functionally extirpated, but is teetering. If it falls off the edge, this is extirpation in real time, not ancient history, but virtually overnight, with a timeline of just yesterday. It might be like Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy: gradual, then sudden.
The loss of a native population of cutthroat trout calls for a post-mortem. How could this have happened, after the species was designated as threatened, a recovery strategy was implemented, and much fanfare was made of restoration efforts? Call it death by a thousand cuts, starting with the cruellest cut, timber harvest.
The Trout Creek watershed has been extensively logged, with large clear-cuts, a web of logging roads and inadequate streamside buffers. Roads begat more recreational traffic, with spirals of off-highway vehicle trails, adding to the linear density and sediment produced. Past cattle grazing may have reduced streamside willows, increasing bank instability.
Climate change brought persistent drought periods. Coupled with hydrologic shifts from logging, and the loss of beaver, the watershed has lost much of its ability to store moisture and stream sections periodically dry up. Recent protracted drought conditions, added to creeping hybridization, may be the last straw.
In the past, natural conditions may well have produced similar drought conditions and low or no surface flows. However, there would have been connections with other cutthroat populations in the wider watershed, allowing movement and replenishment under better flows. The problem is now there is no rescue option from downstream sources; cutthroat trout no longer exist in the lower watershed.
In the departmental and bureaucratic silos of land and resource management resides little chance for rescue, since few see (and are responsible) for the bigger picture — the additive, cumulative impacts. When no one is assigned to watch, no one seems responsible when the essential pieces of landscape and watershed integrity come unglued.
As Vic Adamowicz, a professor at the University of Alberta, observed, “Under Alberta’s public land management system, the cost of habitat loss is only considered after economics are accounted for, and there is no reason for resource sectors to co-ordinate activities, resulting in destructive cumulative effects.”
We inherit the world we allowed to happen; we find out, sometimes too late, the kind of world we create when things are allowed to proceed unhindered. And so, the native cutthroat population of Trout Creek, having persisted for at least a dozen millennia, comes to a whimpering end.
So ends a population intimately tied to the watershed, having been tested and evolved to deal with the considerable range of natural variation expressed over time beyond human imagination. This we do not mourn, either because we do not care to know, or we do not know to care.
Fortunately there are a few that do care. Organizations like Trout Unlimited and Cows and Fish plug away, increasing awareness about native trout and their plight. Bit by bit, metre and metre, mind by mind, they rebuild battered stream banks, close off excessive OHV trails, work with ranchers on riparian grazing management solutions, and help people see the trout for the trees.
Provincial fisheries biologists work on the development of a composite brood stock of pure-strain cutthroat trout. Once habitat conditions are stabilized and improved, this offers an opportunity to restock the stream and restore the cutthroat population.
To spell cutthroat trout you need only arrange 14 letters in the right order. But to make a trout you need a huge array of biotic and abiotic material and assemble it in precisely the right sequence.
Beyond water, both quantity and quality, intact forest and watershed, aquatic insects, a combination of stream characteristics, the right genetic code, population critical mass, movement ability, grappling with limiting factors, and the time to evolve to fit the stream environment, even knowing what the essential parts are and how they fit together may not be evident.
It is decidedly not like baking a cake. That is the challenge to restore native cutthroat trout to Trout Creek, now that they have largely gone missing.
In spite of the challenges, you can’t help but be impressed with the infectious optimism of people like Elliot Lindsay with Trout Unlimited, Amy McLeod with Cows and Fish, and many provincial fisheries biologists who will not give up on Trout Creek. They will need to think big, since real recovery can only happen at a watershed scale. It might require the equivalent of a moon shot to bring native cutthroat back to the stream.
While much work remains to deal with the proliferation of OHV trails and crossings, as well as riparian grazing management fixes, the fundamental task might be to restore the capability of the watershed to retain and store water.
This watershed once had dozens and dozens of beaver dams, effectively drought-proofing the system. When R.B. Miller, Alberta’s first fisheries biologist, initially surveyed the watershed in 1948, he commented on the number of beaver dams.
The Burke Creek Ranch has been situated in the Trout Creek watershed since 1890. Rick Burton, the third generation on the ranch, recalls the headwaters and tributaries being wetter and having more beaver dams in the 1960s and ’70s. Beaver activity is now spotty. But beavers still remain and that is a hopeful sign.
Restoration plans include the installation of multiple beaver dam analogues — structures designed to mimic the form and function of a natural beaver dam — in different reaches of the watershed. These structures are meant to jump-start the growth of woody shrubs and entice beavers to move in and take over.
As Elliot says, “Ultimately, the beaver are probably the ones who will be able to have the might and persistence to kick this watershed out of the rut that it’s currently in.”
Fingers crossed, I hope habitat restoration, coupled with the availability of pure-strain cutthroat trout for stocking, can someday bring trout back to Trout Creek. With a name like Trout Creek, it seems like the right thing to do.
At the same time, some receptivity needs to be built in the minds of those who contributed to the disappearance of cutthroat trout. If there is no shame in being party to the loss of an ancient element of a watershed, it will happen again, and again.
In an indeterminate future, if all the aquatic stars align, someone may take a picture of a group of anglers on Trout Creek, not with a large stringer of native trout, but with smiles indicating their satisfaction with a day of fishing on a stream brought back to life.
Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.