Dear John Tchir & Dave Park
When I saw how dismissive of the public, of the long-established fisheries management process and protocol, and how leading to a desired and pre-determined result the angler survey for the Ram River was… well… it is extremely difficult and disappointing to see. I’ve invested in a long line of lobbies, committees, projects, petitions, court cases, and various other processes to protect a few fish in the Ram River the past 25 years and the survey eliminates almost all of what I and a whole host of others have been trying to build upon. This reply is shared in 3 parts:
1. A Response to the Proposed Angling Regulations
2. A Future Vision
3. The History & How We Got Here
PART 1: THE PROPOSED ANGLING REGULATIONS CHANGES FOR THE RAM
1. Remove the catch & release regulations in order to allow harvest of two cutthroat trout a day per angler, 35cm minimum from Ram Falls to the chutes of the Ram (the set of falls approximately 2 km downstream of the forks of the Ram).
2. Close the Ram from the chutes falls @ the forks to its confluence with the N Saskatchewan River for 5 years, extending that closure to include a considerable section on the NSR above and below that confluence.
I was saddened at the survey as it breaks all fisheries management procedures and protocols, the discussion points within it are deliberately obfuscated with layers of misrepresentation, done in a leading manner through social media in order to manipulate to the desired end goal of changing the long-standing Fisheries Management Objective:
BY DEFINITION the current FISHERIES MGT OBJECTIVE (FMO) is set to conserving the river’s old, large cutthroat trout as well as preserving its high catch rates despite it not having a high population through much of its length. The tool used to do so is Catch & Release regulations. The river took 20 years to see a bounce back after collapse and it has been an excellent success story.
The recent survey put forth by the dept does not address any of the history of why the FMO came to be (see part #3 well below) nor how critical it is in preserving that population; does not so much as tell the public what the current FMO is; does not share the current regulations; does not share the need for the FMO to preserve 20+ year old fish. The survey arbitrarily seeks to CHANGE THE FISHERIES MGT OBJECTIVE TO GENERAL HARVEST of 2 fish per angler, per day at 35cm with no consultation, not even a head’s up, no dialogue. Stop and let that sink in. That river’s cutts took 20 years to recover yet they want to change the regs and allow harvest.
The direct, factual question the survey is asking as it pertains to the regulations on the Ram:
“Do you want the removal of C&R regulations from Ram Falls to the falls in the chutes of the Ram in order to ensure the absolute removal of long-lived, large cutthroat trout (to 22″ today) that has only recovered today, 20 years from the last time we allowed harvest, and replace them with a considerably lower population that will no doubt max out at 11″ within 2 or 3 years?“
When you have such a low population of slow-growing cutthroat trout that can live 22 to 24 years, and implement regulations whereby one angler alone could harvest every trout over 14″ in one season through an entire 20km length of water, that is poor management.
HOW THE RAM/NSR WATERSHED ANGLING REGULATIONS PROPOSALS CAME TO BE AS A RESULT OF A SHIFT IN PROVINCIAL FISHERIES MANAGEMENT POLICY
Before we react to the specific regulations, we have to understand what the AB government is trying to accomplish with the latest policy shift. And to do that we have to understand several simultaneous moving parts.
1. The move to Fisheries Management Objectives – that is, we have finally admitted that we are Gods to our fish, what we want to use fish for shall be their future based on the Dept’s values which are based on their interpretation of what we told them. Read more about that in the Fish Conservation & Management Strategy for Alberta.
2. Policy has determined that we have to have simplified regulations because even though there are severe and unique habitat limitations on carrying capacity for every piece of flowing trout water in Alberta, we’ve established ourselves as fish Gods and not all of us fish Gods with rods in our hands want to – nor can – appreciate those limitations to fish production. Therefore we have to move to a color coding of 4 classifications or “type” of fish populations and how we’re to manage them: every piece of water has to fit into one of 4 management / FMO color coded management type in the coming regulations overhaul.
3. The provincial government has moved firmly to recovery and restoration of our native species. They have done a lot of work in best-guessing the historical ranges and populations of our native species. Fisheries has established our Native Fish Sustainability Index Maps (more happy, lengthy reading here!) and in response policy at HQ in Edmonton has set in motion priority to attempt to restore and recover our native fisheries.
4. Their mandate is now to secure the native fish populations they have identified as vulnerable or collapsed. Given the forth-coming color coding management types, this red zone classification allows them to do whatever they want for management – including closures – without discussion with the angling public, without showing data, without presenting options of action to rectify the habitat & access issues. Keep in mind their dept cannot delve into land use nor access issues and can only manage angler interaction.
5. Under the new management, each water has to have a feature species it is managed to. This is critical to understand in so much as anglers have no say in that feature species. Managers have set these and therefore the entire watershed or reach is then managed to that species. This has massive ramifications to open seasons, emergency stream closure thresholds, and population status-driven regulations. Just because your favorite river has a vibrant cutthroat population, if that population isn’t native, it will not be managed to cutthroat, it will be managed based on the native bull trout. And that is the point of the lower Ram closure – fisheries has somehow determined that the bull trout have collapsed while not providing any data, and that the ONLY measure is to close it (though there are countless other recovery tools at the landbase level that would have far greater success in time). The obvious issue is that habitat and access has driven bull trout populations down yet Fisheries has no mandate and no desire to show leadership in taking corrective measures in those areas.
6. At the core is a mandate of trade-offs. In the case of our trout, if you look at a map of our rivers along the eastern slopes, there remains few places to harvest a wild trout. The gov is keenly aware that closures and further restrictions will eliminate a few more harvest opportunities. There have to be trade-offs presented that the department can sell – it literally becomes a deflection ad-campaign where we’re led to accept the regulations changes based on the shiny, new toy of opportunity “over here!” In the case of the Ram, that means leading the public down a path of removing catch & release regulations on a fragile bit of water while selling it as a great harvest opportunity location in order to sell the 5 year closure that truly isn’t needed, nor has there been any data to support it.
As a result of the above, directive to take action in preserving our native species came directly from headquarters to the regional bios: identify those waters where native fish are perceived or best-guessed to be in trouble and identify what the biologist deems to be the best, most appropriate tool to allow that population to recover. This list could include catch & release, seasonal restrictions, access restrictions in conjunction with other gov depts, long-term watershed habitat projects, or <2″ floating lure only (thus limiting our impact on the bull trout while keeping the cutthroat trout opportunity), among many other tools. But for political expediency to fit into their 4 classification boxes and color coding, the word CLOSED is employed. We can’t forget that in the same breath fisheries has a mandate to simplify regulations. Hence the arbitrary, uniform, 35cm regulation on the Bighorn, Ram, and N Saskatchewan Rivers in the proposals. Uniformity to appease government’s desire to make life simple, local carrying capacity issues be damned. And overnight we close one reach while sacrificing a low population of old fish.
A few years ago when the concept of simplifying the regulations in conjunction with Fisheries Mgt Objectives (FMO) at the Fisheries Round Table, my first question was “Who is setting the FMO and will there be a public involvement process on that?” The dismissive answer: “We are” followed by a discussion ending “no”. Right then and there I knew what that meant for the introduced cutthroat trout of the Ram drainage: a pencil pusher policy biologist trying to connect the dots between native species and simplification of angling regulations and paranoia to providing harvest opportunity is going to kill the catch & release regulations on the Ram R cutthroat.
In Alberta, in order to make angling regulations changes there needs to be political will, scientific data showing the need, and public support. I remind you that the following can be applied to the Clearwater, Berland, N Sask, Kakwa Rivers…
Step #1 – Government has the political will. They are government.
Step #2 – Data – About that 5 year lower Ram closure? They do not have data. Nowhere is there data that shows the annual population trend of bull trout in the lower Ram the past 40 years. Nowhere is there cold, hard data of what it was. Nowhere is there even data from the time catch & release regulations came in to now – they only have highly questionable, periodic data from the past 10 years – and the past two have seen severe drought which influences migration timing. And there are serious questions about their data collection methods precluding capture and measurement of all ages and sizes. Most importantly: they cannot show a straight line of cause and effect that catch & release has failed bull trout. That is extremely important. They cannot prove that the current angling regulations are not working. So why the direct jump straight to CLOSED?
Fisheries data collection on the lower Ram, the reach that they are proposing to close for 5 years, shows a stable population that may be at carrying capacity. Which begs serious questions as to why the proposed 5 year angling closure?
Step #3 – And where is the public input & review? Traditionally this occurs through open houses with back ground information, data sharing, open discussion and dialogue with an eye to the why and how. The Facebook share of a web-based survey intends to collect the government required data set of public involvement for this process. That’s right – an entire shift of an entire watershed’s management done through Facebook.
Likewise, regarding the reach immediately upstream, let’s look at the required process:
They again have the political will based on changing the Fisheries Mgt objective due to a need to satisfy HQ’s directive to provide more harvest opportunnity. But in proposing to remove the C&R regs on the Ram from the chutes upstream to the FTR, the biologist by default is claiming that the parameters and conditions that led to the need for C&R have changed. When did the carrying capacity of this section of the Ram increase to the approximately triple value needed to allow harvest at today’s access and use levels? It hasn’t and can’t. Can your dept show any annual collected data that points to allowance of harvest? No. Has access and use of that population decreased? No. It has increased 3 or 4 fold. Has there been public outcry requesting to change the regs to allow harvest? None. Public desire remains for C&R. John Tchir knows this and so does everyone who knows the history of the Ram, its fisheries budget, and fish data collection in it.
The department is already sitting on a petition that is as valid today as it was 20 years ago for the reach of the Ram from Ram Falls to Falls Creek coming out of the collapse of the cutthroat population during the last time frame that there was any harvest allowed (5/day @ 12”) at a time that it had less than 1/4 the angling pressure as compared to today. The petition’s aim was to carry the population of cutthroat trout forward and into the future based on large trout sizes and high catch rates. That is exactly what has happened. It is a success. An ongoing success that I wrote about and praised the department for in the Alberta Fishing Guide’s To The Angler in 2016. We can argue management tools below the chutes’ Falls if you’d like but leave the upstream reach alone.
Policy and regulations cannot protect our specific, large, “pet” fish, but that is a reach that if you don’t, then you destroy the essence of what’s there.
But let’s be clear in the message being sent by the Ram’s biologist regarding how tightly his hands are tied through this process by the above policy changes, management parameters, and trade-offs:
Because of HQ driven policy I think I have to close the lower part of the Ram R that is so low productivity it can’t handle even C&R pressure – even though I haven’t provided the public any data to substantiate this nor have I held the necessary public meetings and consultations required during fisheries regulations process. Nor have I allowed input to what management tools are best suited to arrive at the pre-determined Fisheries Management Objective. I think I can substantiate Alberta government required public involvement data sets by having a survey promoted on Facebook. Further, as a HQ driven policy change I must provide the appearance of a new angling opportunity as an offset, which by the Department’s defacto standard of political expediency means allowing fish harvest. Yes, I know I am ignoring for today that specific trout population is unable to meet productivity to allow any harvest, which will lead to a likely collapse as it showed 20 years ago. I guess what I am saying here, Joe Public, is that as the trade-off to my highly debatable choice of management tools in closing that sensitive reach home to native bull trout, I am going to remove catch & release regulations on the adjacent sensitive reach in order to help me bridge through this difficult period of politics in fisheries management – at least I know that the population will only take 20 years to recover like the last time it wasn’t catch & release.
And that is where policy destroys fisheries. Policy is going to again collapse the Ram R cutthroat.
The first step of intelligent biology and Fisheries management is to recognize and accept that it is not fish that are being managed. Fish, without humans, would do very well on their own. Fisheries management, therefore, is nothing more than people management: baby-sitting grown adults by sometimes having to use tough love in order that we don’t eat/abuse ourselves out of what we have. It’s a lonely, frustrating thing to be the leader of a region or specific water’s fisheries management, especially while trying to manage the remnants of a population left over by other governmental departments’ over-allocation of resource extraction and the severe loss of fish habitat that causes, and yet another department’s ongoing refusal to deal with angler density and use of our fisheries via motorized use. Their future financing has come to roost.
John Tchir is currently the biologist charged with managing the Ram River’s fish. His job is eternally thankless and the only time anyone has something to say, it’s usually in a highly conflicting situation. Few are the people who call our bios to say “thank you, great job”.
But by the same measure of accepting that he or she is baby-sitting a group of adults, an intelligent Fisheries Manager does not alienate the very people who would otherwise support him or her if he actually showed leadership in voicing and leading corrections to the true causes of our fisheries’ collapse. When you cut the angling group out of inclusion of process, do not communicate with them, and make radical changes that place the onus of other impacts squarely on the people who have supported you and your predecessors for decades, you now have a massive PR problem. And no intelligent human places himself in a group of his supporters that have had their pitch forks in their hands for decades, ready for battle with loggers and oil & gas types, and changes his focus from habitat and access and tells that crowd that they are now the problem. Those pitch forks change their aim extremely quickly. And that is extremely difficult to come back from.
Trust that is long and hard to establish vaporizes in a heartbeat.
If you want to have your voice heard, please complete the NORTH-CENTRAL NATIVE TROUT SURVEY. Please keep a few things in mind:
The survey has little to do with native species, it has everything to do with process – and if we don’t tell them an absolute NO to how they’re doing this, then expect more of this in the future. Trust truly hangs in the balance. It is deliberately leading. It is deliberately not sharing key information. It is deliberately not sharing the full realm of information. It deliberately avoids the coming trade-offs and ramifications. It deliberately avoids public involvement, background, and future vision in the regional and larger scales.
Please fill out the survey and simply answer no to the questions and DEMAND PROPER PROCEDURES, POLICY, AND PROTOCOL ARE FOLLOWED in public involvement and review because if government wins this battle, we will not have a voice moving forward. We’ll be left to incomplete, leading social media surveys.
If you feel strongly, letters are always more impacting. But act quickly, they’re only taking submissions through October 20, 2017.
John Tchir Resource Manager, Alberta Environment and Parks
2nd fl. Provincial building, 4919 – 51 Street
Rocky Mountain House, AB T4T 1B3
Tel: 403 845-8353
PART 2 – FUTURE VISION
Barry Mitchell & I sat overlooking Nature Conservancy of Canada land SE of Red Deer and talked about making sure the Alberta Fishing Guide Magazine would continue, that Amelia & I would take it on, ensure its legacy and help ensure Ann and Matthew were taken care of. That man loved his family and friends.
That afternoon we long talked about things as we always did. He looked over that NatCon property. He was so satisfied that he was able to liaise and facilitate the Nature Conservancy’s land purchase in order that its ecological integrity was maintained.
“The only way to control what happens on a land is to own it, Davie”.
At the end, he considered it the only thing of value he gave to Albertans that had a lasting legacy.
I asked him at that stage, facing the certainty of mesothelioma, how he felt about his Order of the Bighorn Award. “Ah, it’s meaningless, Dave. It’s the government’s way of placating a man’s ego for his involvement in whatever projects, before government changes its mind or some new, young hotshot biologists decides he has the answers to all that ails our fisheries”. We go through stages in our lives, and while that wasn’t the absolute of it all for Barry, in the larger scale of things, that is how he saw it. A man has his pride in what he can accomplish, but given the rate at how government changes things in order to justify their own existence without addressing the tough, core issues, our efforts are so fleeting. And that is something we all need to accept before we begin our involvement in anything to do with government policy and process.
Every effort is a bridge to tomorrow’s bridge. And bridges always span the toughest parts, avoiding the rapids below. That’s government.
I asked him about his river, the Blackstone. “I’m worried about it, Dave. Everything is allocated to oil & gas, to logging. It’s a free-for-all for access and every pool has a quad trail to it. It simply can’t handle it. I’ve watched it collapse after some new biologist changed its management three times now, and it will keep on happening so long as the next biologist ignores its limitations of carrying capacity; so long as government allows us to continue to log it, drill it, and drive our quads to every pool. The simple solution is to create habitat sanctuaries from industry and to force people to get out of their 4x4s, off their quads, and walk. If you do that, even 50 years from now people simply won’t walk far enough to impact the whole and industry won’t destroy everything”.
We both looked at each other. He knew that wasn’t going to happen in his lifetime and there was nothing he could have done in his time to make it so. And in looking at me I simply said “not gonna happen in my lifetime either you know”. Agreeing, he closed his eyes and shook his head before I could finish my sentence.
We talked of the frustrations of what we’d both been through and the sanity of people like ourselves that bother trying. Knowing these things, knowing the vastness of hours and miles that we’d spent individually and together on projects, and make no mistake his compounded mine, we made a point that was the last time we’d delve into that discussion, choosing to shoot the remaining hours that year on greater aspects of life, of caring and loving. But it was in that time that he made one statement that he says he wishes he could have come to see decades earlier, and applied to his efforts, his life, in order to save himself the sanity-questioning years of trying to make a difference in the world of our fish habitat. And in sharing it Barry both cursed and froze me the past few years.
Talking and thinking that through together and accepting its ramifications, it truly forces you to accept the limits of what we can accomplish. Because there are hard limits. Especially in the definite boundary of time in one’s lifetime. That is the hardest thing to accept. We have to make the best of the time we have and hopefully ours positively impacts the next.
Barry, the proposed regulations changes rip the heart out of everything we worked together for, rip the core out of my why. They’re being done in a manner that is simply so disrespecting of so many people and so much involvement. I simply don’t know where to go from here. That new hotshot bio you warned me about just kicked us to the curb and I’m not sure if that’s better than being trampled by the herd.
We are at a critical juncture in several watersheds. Our trout need us more than ever. The system to ensure their longevity needs all our advocates working together – our bios & anglers together voicing what they’re seeing and talking through the best course of action, the habitat and access protection measures and how we can make small but impacting changes. Trout can no longer bear nor sustain the animosity created by the pervasive conflict born out of the autocratic, dismissive nature that our fisheries Dept continues to display through actions such as this most recent survey.
So many of us fish the Ram, love the canyon, the back country feel experienced the second we step into the tailouts of those stunning, deep pools.
It’s time to put today’s proposed angling regulations changes in the greater context, hold people to account to lead change that has lasting meaning and impact in order to maintain our angling and back country heritage. We’ve lost our wilderness but maybe we can hold on to that back country experience.
It’s time that we anglers of the Ram rise up and show leadership to a future vision by taking responsibility for our actions; to hold industry to improve their actions and give a little back and provide leadership in their right; push for better land use and access management; and we all need to push back against a Fisheries Department that only sees the barricades at present. We must prevent fishery management decisions that are done through directives from Headquarter that are compounded by the foggy glasses of flimsy modelling based upon weak data collection. We can’t allow that.
MY VISION & RECOMMENDATIONS: 5 SIMPLE, FAR MORE IMPACTING STEPS
20 years ago when I did the petition to get the C&R regs implemented, I longed for the following changes. I submitted (variations of) these to the provincial gov. They still hold true. It’s a short list of 5 items that, if each party stepped up, to could easily be achieved. And these would see our trout well into the future.
In the following, it is time for industry, several government departments, the ACA, ATV groups, conservation groups, environmental groups, anglers, and hunters to stop throwing darts of antagonism and blame-shifting, and lay the basic foundation for the future of our fisheries:
1. Immediately create a Ram or NSR watershed Fisheries/Land Use/ Access group. Include anglers and let them share and include their catch information and their observations in a database. Start dialogue. Make community involvement a job requirement of the local bio. Biology is a verb and includes fish, community, and landscape levels, among others. To this effect we can avoid any future biologist from hiding behind incomplete information packages and regulations change proposals done through social media survey.
2. Overhaul the EMERGENCY TROUT STREAM CLOSURES to the spirit of why I chased them several years through the Fisheries Round Table process (and everyone needs to scroll well down to understand what happened at committee level). The government bio leading the committee did the regional bios, the fish, and the anglers of Alberta a massive disservice through the committee level of the Emergency Stream Closures process when he literally dismissed every single suggestion and simply forged ahead with his plan. The Emergency Stream Closures determination process must include anglers, bios, techs, and yes, even a wilderness group to a committee. Allow them involvement, include them.
There is no need for an arbitrary and absolute 5 year rest period closure if you work with Mother Nature. The Ram is blown out 2 of every 10 years and added to this, if we use Emergency Trout Streams Closures properly as a tool to relieve trout during the severe stress and angling pressure during the twice-a-decade drought and use stream flow percentages for prolonged duration occurrence, that will lead to 4 or 5 of every 10 years where the fish are rested. It’s time to work with what Mother Nature is telling us, not what policy dictates: policy picks the wrong years as it has so often done in the past.
3. Work to create a spaghetti-like RAM RIVER BACK COUNTRY FLUZ OR PROVINCIAL PARK similar to Sundance Provincial Park, within 5 years. This is intended to only be 500m on either side of the river, a 1km width. Again, the FMA holder, O&G lease holders and other gov Departments need to step up and recognize their operations & approvals are causing our fisheries’ issues directly and indirectly and allow a 500m buffer either side of the canyon/river, in a 1km width Park. Ban helicopter fishing trips in creation of a PP/FLUZ similar to the headwaters. Allow motorized off-highway access to specific, designated staging spots. Stagger those designated staging locations at 5km spacing and heavily fine people not adhering to that and put the fine $ into further educational signs, educational hockey cards for COs to carry, etc. Encourage angler involvement. Make it a back country park in the middle of Alberta’s two major cities that allows hunting & fishing use, but focuses on maintaining ecological integrity and at least a partial back country experience once into the park. Buy out the grazing lease of the N Ram valley. Enforce all road dispositions, licenses, permits, etc where there is a no public access requirement – actually fine any company that is not enforcing their LoC requirement. Heavily sign each staging/major intersection that informs people of the Back Country Park and why it has come to this, and include maps of where they can access the water. Monitor trails and work with/empower clubs to ensure trails are adhered to and maintained, with start-up funding to place bridges over smaller waters accessing designated routes. Give us time to adjust and take ownership: there will be conflicts.
4. Do one of the following: Make all flowing waters inclusive of the north bank tributaries to the NSR through all waters inclusive of the south bank tributaries to the Clearwater River, bound by Banff National Park Bdy to the west, downstream to Hwy #22 at the east catch & release to avoid any confusion of fish species and management. If our fish are in such trouble that we are in a critical new era of Fisheries mgt, the Dept cannot afford to make any mistakes through ID errors induced by the Dept. OR Immediately put into place a mandatory Fish ID test for all anglers wishing to harvest fish as allowable. Make it a realistic test of 20 common feature images via app and scoring. Finally embrace the ample examples as shown through the Streamwatch fish ID tests below that anglers cannot ID our trout. In this emergency period it’s time to stop playing cute, ignoring the obvious. What the Dept has done to date is not working. We have to accept lay-angler ignorance to our trout species and manage around it while not precluding their enjoyment of the C&R sport.
That’s the great news about Mother Nature – start to give her a chance, work with her.
5. Why not open a designated back country harvest in the lower river below the falls in the chutes? Allow anglers to harvest one cutthroat 12 – 14″ per day from a reach that can sustain harvest. This is intended to be an on-site, back country experience, subsistence harvest for campers only.
It’s time for our regional biologist to do fish biology work, community biology work, land use/ecology biology work. It’s time to go to bat for anglers, to have our backs. Many of us have done so much work and had the backs of your predecessors. HQ needs to have the bios’ backs. If this truly is a new era in Fisheries Management in Alberta, that means we need a new way of doing things, finding new ways to accomplish the best by our fish. Folding your arms and just saying “it’s closed” is irresponsible. It’s time for Fisheries to lead us to find a new direction to that better future. Fisheries is telling us that the time is now. Get out from behind that Facebook survey, get involved in community, present options, network and see what you can do, include and facilitate discussions between the above hilited groups. Simply doing what every other fisheries tech and bio does – point out the problem areas and claim to not have the mandate to change anything to do with land use or access issues – is unacceptable.
If your department is telling us it’s a new age, let’s all get together and start acting like it: we need you right now, please don’t push us away any further.
BACK TO THAT PROVINCIAL PARK / FLUZ CONCEPT
The best example that brings forth concepts many have sought the past 4 decades is likely Sundance Provincial Park established in 1999, the same year that the Ram angling regulations changed to catch & release. At first blush it’s rather pathetic as a tiny, narrow, spaghetti string on a map. But it is exactly what the Ram drainage needs as a starting point today. It’s time for resource companies to step up and say “Yes, we can leave buffers of 500m from those sandstone & shale cliffs. Yes, we can directional drill and leave that surface alone. And we can agree to a construction and maintenance plan of designated roads and roll back the others to reduce stream crossing issues and reduce access points”.
At the same time it’s time for anglers to adhere to access regulations, to not trespass or use roads that are closed to public. Our fish will teeter on being in trouble for the rest of our time and complacency will see them disappear. I’ve seen it once on the Ram already, Barry Mitchell saw it on the Blackstone 3 times in his life and had to fight like hell each time to see the return, the odds of that less as we carve the landscape into the future. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
ATV ACCESS MGT ATV use within this 1km wide strip has to be limited to specific trails and access points along the river, that’s literally all our trout need. So many environmentalists want you to know how bad your ATV is, how much habitat is destroyed by their sheer existence. And they do impact fisheries at least a little, we can’t argue that because everything humans do does. But as internet discussions go, we can all blow holes in that simply by comparing an atv trail to a cutblock – to all those oil road and pipelines… ok, both sides, let’s shelve the arguments about habitat destruction.
Let’s agree right here that we won’t argue about that.
But, let’s all own that we all want what we want when we want it, how we want it. That’s human nature. That’s anglers. And collectively we are all so used to having a free-for-all access on our ATVs that it is ingrained as our right. That is the problem when it comes to ATV access to the fragile trout in the Ram. There are far too many people wanting the same thing, right now, as fast as possible, for us to stop and think of how badly we have our trout on the ropes. Trout simply do not have a chance up against a human populace that simply wants what it wants. I, you, we… are the problem. Fish, left to their own devices, would do very well.
We do not have to eliminate ATVs.
Controlling our impact on fish can only be done by controlling access to our rivers, and that simply points to limiting the number of motorized access points and keeping them a short distance away from the river as to force us to walk. Do that and our impacts will never be able to affect the whole because if these accesses are set at 5km intervals, the use and impact of C&R will never affect the whole given human’s propensity to laziness and our time constraints. We all simply have to look each other in the eye and be honest: it’s time to reign ourselves in. If, after 5 or 10 years there’s room to allow a little more access, great. If we have to cut them in 1/2 to do right by our fish, great. We have to put the fish ahead of ourselves. Designated access/ATV parking points at 5km intervals would be a good starting point and easy to set up. Remember, this is only for 500m either side of the river.
PART 3 – THE HISTORY & HOW WE GOT HERE: A LOOSE TIMELINE OF LANDSCAPE, LOBBY, & FISHERIES MGT SINCE THE LATE 1970s
I’m sharing what I know or today’s perspective of what I have been involved with in order to keep a few trout in the Ram since I began fishing it in the late ’70s. For anyone concerned about the Ram River watershed in central Alberta, I ask that if you are only scrolling through the following, pay attention to the green hilites. But, I ask John Tchir and the forthcoming line-up of biologists who haven’t been around to know the history of involvement and what happened to read the following.
1970s INTEGRATED RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PLAN (IRMP) ERA
IRMPs were the big buzz word back in the early 80s. Lots of fun reading to see the history behind these. The general idea was that there was a push to identify things like critical watershed protection, fish & wildlife protection, while identifying areas of opportunity for appropriate industrial use in the landbase. Long lost and forgotten today are the efforts of hundreds of people who lobbied the government to ensure that there was protection of our landbase and fish & wildlife values. There was a lot of media coverage, petitions, letter writing. It all culminated with a retracing of the voyageur route by a multi-canoe party from Ft Rocky Mountain House to Ft Edmonton, featured on the news in Edmonton through that time frame. The result? Loosely, the majority of land west of the Forestry Trunk Road in Alberta was deemed prime protection for watershed and fish & wildlife values and off-limits to industry. From the late stages of Don Getty’s time as premier, Klein was environment minister. A famous quote dealt with there being a Forest Ranger behind every tree and that he’d take care of that when he became premier. And that’s exactly what he did. His goal was less government and found ways to contract work to the private sector and found ways to allocate management of Alberta’s forests to various companies around Alberta in large Forest Management Agreements.
When I first worked for LAFS (Land & Forest Service) in Rocky Mountain House in 93-94, I saw first hand Sunpine’s logging plans in the early years of their Forest Management Agreement. It covered the entirety of the Ram drainage in its 3 pass layout, and didn’t leave many match sticks vertical. I knew what it meant. Roads, access, atvs everywhere, and no fish. I asked Fisheries Tech Steve Herman how we could make sure that the fishery didn’t collapse. I was told that pro-active vision isn’t the government’s strong suit and that, sadly, we’d have to wait until something happened somewhere in the drainage that connected the dots, showed the need to make changes so government could show cause and effect and in order to show that they were showing leadership. Simple translation: “Keep doing what you are doing Dave and wait for a section to collapse due to access and over fishing. When it does, we’ll use your information and passion to push regulation changes through. Track your catches and sizes”. I began doing exactly that.
SUNPINE MAINLINE ROAD
Of interest, west of the mainline road and the forks are the Chutes of the Ram (about 2km downstream of the confluence of the N & S Ram – denoted at the image’s SW where the blue dot is located). It’s my understanding that when David Thompson and his crew were trying to find their route west to the Pacific they spent a miserable winter in that location and they lost several members that winter before doubling back to the fort at Rocky Mountain House. I mention this simply for sense of time-scale perspective.
When the Sunpine FMA was approved, the company immediately claimed need to build an access road through the heart of operations. Before full provincial and federal approval was granted, construction on the mainline road began – and that statement bore the conflict: was there need for federal approval? Nearly a decade after it was constructed, through Supreme Court decision, the mainline road was deemed to have needed an Environmental Impact Assessment based on its impact and influence of Cumulative Impacts to the whole of the region it would influence. Impact on fish & wildlife habitat as well as opening large swaths of land to access and industrial developments – not just to do with logging but providing access for all uses over the lifetime of that road – were some of the factors that led to it needing an EIA. But you try to do that retroactively and get any government to force tens of millions of dollars in rolling back that road and potentially bankrupting a logging company. Done is done.
One of the approval conditions of the Sunpine mainline road is that the FMA holder is required to ensure that the public does not use it, that they have to ensure controlled access. It’s my understanding and observation that didn’t happen stringently until the past few years and people are finally being kicked off of the road or threatened with trespassing. I know many anglers who have driven it to fish the Ram and they’ve used it to float to the North Fork Rd bridge. Each one I specifically tell they are trespassing and have no right to be in there, that they then can’t complain if it ever hits the fan because they, specifically them, are the reason. Uncomfortable yet, guys? Do you now realize, when threatened with the closure of angling, the need to play by the rules in order that we don’t lose something because of those that willfully skirt those rules?
FALLS CR & LYNX CR ROADS
When I worked for the Forest Service out of Rocky Mountain House, my long-time Forest Officer supervisor told me the story several times of why both the Falls Cr & Lynx Cr access roads were the disaster they were. Keep in mind those discussions happened in the early to mid-1990s. His position was that the officer simply didn’t uphold reclamation requirements in their project approval, that those roads shouldn’t have existed by that point.
In concert with the above and through my few years working for the Forest Service, I ran into many instances that made me shake my head, the least of which was showing up to timber cruise the north side of a TWP line. Except there weren’t any trees to cruise. Instead there was a giant cutblock. I asked another FO what was going on and he told me that the logging company had screwed up their layout and that he would ensure that the company traded wood in another block or two to make up for it. That, in a nutshell, was how things have been audited and enforced.
CUTTHROAT TROUT COLLAPSE 1995 – 97
That Lynx Cr Road that I wrote about above, the one that should have been rolled back beyond use but wasn’t enforced by the Forest Officer? Well, that road was re-opened and improved for seasonal wood hauling. The area around Lynx Cr went from a virtually unfished reach to a virtual highway by the late 1990s. It was in the first couple of years that Sunpine opened it that saw the contractors and employees really get in there and fish. Sunpine’s Access Mgt Plan from that era has one of their Foresters proudly holding an impressive stringer of large cutthroat.
The regulations that allowed the collapse to occur: 5 a day @ 30cm at a time very few fished the river. 30 or 35cm is irrelevant: any harvest today, at 4 or 5 times the angler use through the canyon will simply collapse it again.
The particular water several km upstream and downstream of Lynx Cr has wintering habitat limitations. There are pools but many of them have flat rock bottom, which limits how many trout can hold over winter. There are pools with excellent wintering habitat, but those are relatively few and far between. Hence, it has always been a lower population of cutthroat with some of the larger, more robust individuals in the entire canyon. I caught several 2-foot cutts in there before that road saw use. At the time the regulations were 5 cutts a day minimum 12″. Those first two summers I saw my catch rates go from about 35 trout a day to 23″ to 7 fish a day to 9 or 10″. That specific reach simply could not handle any harvest – it still can’t. If you recall my discussion with Steve Herman back in 93-94? Now we had what we needed and it was time to act. And we all caught a lucky break:
BUD, SKIP, GUS, & MO
It was my second season of guiding when Fisheries ADM, Morley Barrett, and 3 of his friends came on a helicopter trip to the Ram with me. Yes, I seized the day. I spoke to him about the upper reach of river that had collapsed, about the coming logging, about the oil roads. It was about that second that his friend Gus hooked and landed a big, old, gorgeous male cutthroat from a beautiful run. The timing was incredible. The essence of things coming out of that trip was that yes, something has to be done to protect the river’s cutthroat because there was no way that population could handle what was coming re: access and industry. We had a gentleman’s agreement of sorts, that he would do what he could and I would follow through the process that fisheries management/ angling regulations changes had to follow.
So, back to Steve Herman in Rocky Mountain House. We had traction and an opportunity. The plan was to use this new thing called the internet to get in touch with fishing clubs from Calgary to Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge. Boy you sure could reach people right across the province with this internet thing. It wasn’t like today where you could type anything into Google and everything came up on a silver platter. You had to network, get creative in searches, send actual emails to suss out who was who and then await reply before finding out you had the wrong person. Sometimes you got help, others, not so much. It wasn’t like today’s hit a button, scroll, send your opinion. No, this took time. But Steve essentially wrote the petition for me, cutting to the core of what was needed, why, by when. Then Lee Henkey, conservation officer at the time, stepped up and insisted that the petition not just be from Ram Falls to the forks of the N & S Ram, rather, it needed to go to the mouth of Falls Creek as the Falls Creek Road (remember that from above?) hadn’t been rolled back as it was supposed to have been and the ATV crowd was pounding the fish through that reach. We had 5 weeks in order to get the regulations changed in a piggy back variance order. In those 5 weeks we garnered just over 600 signatures and another 30 letters of support. When the Dept put out the notice of proposed regulations changes in the media, only 2 or 3 people voiced opposition. That petition clearly stated, and it’s as clear and supported today as it was in 1998, that the angling public want high catch rates and large average sizes. Nothing has changed today except 3 or 4 times the anglers use it and far more people would come forth and support the same – fairly presented – given how fragile that reach is. That cannot be questioned.
We had the political will and public on our side. The missing link in the three-step process was showing biological data to support the change. Enter my personal notes and catch rates. It was black & white. All I could do was show my personal data and photos. In that case, in that era, that was deemed enough because that’s all the data that existed. Truthfully, there isn’t much better data today. And that data was used.
BY DEFINITION the petition and change of regulations set the FISHERIES MGT OBJECTIVE to conserving the river’s old, large cutthroat trout as well as preserving its high catch rates.
That petition was the start of me being the face of conflict in several fisheries issues. In this instance it essentially came down to this: I was a young, go-getting, cocky outsider. Any time there is change, someone is the face of conflict. If that comes from an outsider, that’s the face to bear it. If that change is coming due to a series of environmental issues, it is better to focus on the face of change rather than the issues themselves.
I met Martin only once, at the time I was in Edmonton at a Trout Unlimited meeting that discussed the Ram River situation. Martin was the man who put cutts into he Ram and spoke of stocking it, how in awe of the Ram canyon he was when he stocked it back in the 1950s. You could see the twinkle in his eye light up as an older man as we talked. There was an obvious connection there for him, though I never got to delve that way in conversation. But he was so worried about its future and was thrilled to meet me as I was doing the petition and just wanted to encourage me at every moment. Now, you might think that an ego-driven statement. You see, “me” refers to the fact that I, or anyone else, was simply filling the roll of a needed chess board piece that is needed in order that the game of Fisheries Mgt can be played. He and others were thrilled that someone was volunteering themselves to that role. These are critical roles and we need more people to play the parts if only for the season that such opportunity exists.
TAY RIVER COURT CASE
The short of it: the MD did a major realignment of hwy #752, widening and grading it from the narrow, snaking, blind-spot filled gravel road it was to essentially a gravel highway. Trouble was that at the Tay R crossing the road was moved from the hillside to right up the middle of a valley that a small, spring tributary to the Tay flowed – today that creek flows in the ditch. The Tay saw heavy sedimentation. This was an era where DFO and the province were in a tenuous relationship and just like both levels of government being unwilling to get involved in the Sunpine mainline road, neither took action, though the disruption and alteration of fisheries habitat was “obvious”. I put my name to the court proceedings and laid Fisheries Act charges. I was funneled information from gov types in a couple of departments – their hands tied but they wanted to have impact. I had municipal, provincial, and federal folks calling, had to appear in court in RMH, Red Deer, Calgary and there were so many, endless meetings. For those 3 years I didn’t sleep too peacefully, it was a stressful period. The question: “why go through all that?” The purpose was not only to ensure that mitigation work was done on that project but to serve notice to various Counties & Municipal Districts and the provincial government that they had to adhere to operating rules that are fish friendly. It was hoped that we’d save a few more fish in other areas by pro-actively dealing with sedimentation issues.
It has always bothered me that the Ram drainage opens June 16 annually. Most years there are still spawning fish in tributaries or the main stem. It’s a cold, northern watershed that really, shouldn’t be open until July 1. I’ve said this to a few government types through the years and the answer is always the same: the provincial guidelines for cutthroat trout are June 16, so that’s how it has to be. Well, because of provincial guidelines, we aren’t giving those fish their due rest period. I first noticed this in Lynx Cr above the Trunk Road in the 80s and saw it in the main stem Ram in the early 90s and every year that I have fished prior the July long weekend since. A July long weekend opener would also allow bull trout a greater rest period and further dispersal through the watershed.
BIG MAMMA & FRIENDS
When I first worked for the Forest Service, all I did on evenings and days off was fish. Though tempted, I never took my fishing gear on shift with me though my union allowed an hour lunch break. Instead, I geared my shifts to 10-4 instead of 5-2, so I could disappear into the Ram every 2 weeks. It was in this time that I started taking photos of fish a little more earnestly. And there were a couple of pools mid-distance between the two major accesses that had a few 14″ fish. They were the only larger fish I could ever find. I took photos of their heads and body.
Being that I wanted to catch larger fish, I kept going to the same pools. Fast-forward a few years and I noticed in my photos that by looking at the spotting and head shots I was catching the same, specific fish each time I fished that water. Because I was one of incredibly few fishing that reach I kept going and got to know 3 dozen cutts during the next 15 years. I watched them from when I typically started noticing them at about that 14″ range. Long story short: Big Mamma was photographed more than 45 times over 11 years, since I first saw her at 16″. She used the exact same 3 runs during the open angling season. At the peak of summer for 5 years running she would always be surfing the big pool side by side the larger male. I would always target her and land her at the rock shelf at the tail out of the pool. Once released I’d always put her back in a notch in that rock shelf. The big male would always drop out to that rock shelf after a few minutes and sidled beside her and the two would then swim back to the heart of the pool together. Amelia & I would always marvel at that.
Last seen, she was 22″ and had lost weight. Somewhere around 19″ someone had caught her on a big hook and ripped her face. That was rare on those fish back then and it was instantly an affront to “my river”. Boy things have changed. While those fish are all pin cushions today, at least they are there.
I could go on with more examples, but the point is rather obvious: there is considerable KM of river from Ram Falls downstream to the confluence with the N Ram that have a serious wintering habitat limitation to carrying capacity. While there are excellent wintering pools there are also many pools and runs of large, flat slabs of rock. This forces several km of summer trout into a wintering pool, and that alone will keep your populations in check. You’ll have robust, thick fish but you won’t have many. To allow any harvest in that instance is sheer insanity.
BIGHORN COUNTRY WILDLAND COALITION
About 1999 the Alberta Wilderness Association hired me to host the first Bighorn Country Wildland Coalition BCWC; let me be clear that they actually hired me to suss out the eco-tourism operators in the Rocky-Nordegg-Caroline-Sundre region to see if there was interest enough to support a coalition that based itself on ecological values of the west country – the prime protection areas of the IRMP. A workshop was held to kick it off and subsequent meetings were held to identify the group, enter BCWC. The concept was a Wilmore Wilderness Society in hopes of creating a Wildland Park of non-motorized and non-industrial use. Far more involved in conversation, the ATV issue was front and center; there were those interested in having fewer, designated trails but the folks that wanted non-motorized use only wouldn’t bend; they pointed to the now meaningless (in the eyes of present day government and allocations) IRMP designations provided. Yes, the ATV issue was that divisive 20 years ago too. Fast-forward to today and there are FLUZ zones through most of what we discussed, which sheds some encouragement: efforts do bring attention to issues no matter how much we think they are dismissed at the time. However, logging and oil & gas expanded massively in that area: while so focused on ATV use, pipelines and compressor stations were built and a lot of clear-cutting has occurred along the Trunk Road corridor. I’d like to think we’re getting a little smarter, but then I look at the present day Castle Wilderness situation and the coming 2019 Alberta election.
HELICOPTERS & GUIDES
I made a massive mistake in my guiding life. I aligned myself with the wrong helicopter company for a few years. I put a lot of trust into that company’s owner and showed him all the wonderful fly fishing opportunities west of Rocky Mountain House. I simply assumed that by being aligned with us, he would adhere to the same policies of catch & release and low impact and also to respect our verbal agreement that he wouldn’t take anglers to all the places we’d shown him. The day he began asking me questions like “how many groups a day do you think we can have in the Ram/Michele Lakes/Coral Lake/Landslide Lake?” and “I know we have a verbal agreement but I’m not getting enough business through you to justify flying helicopters for fly fishing, do you mind if we approach other guides and outfitters?” I knew that it was all over.
Then came the day that I was emailed a photo from someone who had flown in to the Ram. I was sent a photo of the giant male cutthroat he took home for supper even though he knew it was C&R. I’m not sure why he thought it important to let me know. It was one of our pet fish that we caught each year for many years. One of my favorite fly fishing memories came when I took a friend in to catch that fish during a green drake hatch (Dale Cameron at right). That giant, white mouth coming out of that black water pocket was so magnificent. I asked the helicopter company owner why he wasn’t ensuring guests were all catch & release. His answer “We’re here to provide an air taxi service only. We’ve been asked by F&W only to report what we see and we can’t go rummaging through people’s bags”. I made a mistake and the Ram and other waters are still paying the price for it. But again, if it wasn’t me someone else would have played the role. The Ram blows up to chocolate milk too easily, it’s unpredictable all season. While a nice add-on to industrial operations and fire protection, you simply cannot finance a helicopter based upon trips to the Ram canyon. And no fly fishing guide can make a living on the few trips a year that are possible between rain storms. I do a quick Google search annually to see who the poor bugger is trying to make a living guiding on the Ram that year and a few have managed to do it 3 or 4 years but inevitably come to the same conclusion: cutthroat trout of that size are common elsewhere and for as dramatic and stunning a location it is, it is far too unpredictable to base a business upon.
FLY FISH ALBERTA FORUM
This really seems out-of-place, especially now in the era of social media, but for 10 years I hosted Canada’s busiest fly fishing forum (’96 through 2006). It topped out at just over 11M hits a month. Why did I do that? Well, first, a young man’s ego. Second, business. And lost on that young man’s mind at the time: community. And it struck a community and engaged them beyond fishing at a time that there was no other outlet. I know that I was seen as a controversial person – but that was the point, to keep discussions moving, to jog people’s minds, to hopefully either inspire people to get involved or to piss them off enough to get them to take action or at least lend support as needed. When I had to create a section dedicated to “Issues & Hot Topics” to host discussion on things like jet boats, atv, and oil & gas/logging industry – discussions simply went off the rails and I knew I couldn’t host that forum forever. But that forum was important as it really brought some neat online discussion to action. Specifically entered…
Streamwatch came as a result of the Ram petition as well as Barry Mitchell’s hope to get anglers to abide by the regulations on the Blackstone, having watched the cutts and bulls come and go through the decades. The Blackstone teeters every year on having its young of year wiped out due to spring to early summer flushing; juvenile recruitment can be poor compared to other rivers. I suspect that once a certain flow rate hits, if you look on Google Earth zoomed out just far enough, that the river essentially sets up like a fast-paced, canyon causeway that flushes fish out. The cutthroat population is always in tough. The lower river’s wintering is much like the poor pools on the Ram – while there are some big, deep pools, they aren’t all built the same and some of the best looking summer water is either not deep enough come winter or the same rock slabs that limit the Ram in reaches also limit the Blackstone. Sorry, I’m chasing one of Barry’s bobcats off the page here.
Out of frustration of finding bait hooks and hearing of fish kills in the C&R section on the Ram, one day I posted an idea for a sign that I was thinking of printing and hanging. I posted it to the forum and asked “would it work?” Barry saw it and called me immediately. We lived a block apart and he was over right away. The ideas swirled and that sign would simply say “Stop! Attention Anglers! This stream is Catch & Release. There is a bait ban and it has Seasonal Closures. Please consult your regulations.” Our idea was that if we hung them every km of river that the old excuse “I didn’t know it was catch & release” that COs heard all the time was no longer valid.
The signs went up in 2001 and 2002 – and even this summer, 2017, a few of them at favorite places are still in place.
Barry was dead-set to having dedicated enforcement officers for each the Ram & Blackstone. The plan was to do fund-raising in order to hire a summer student through Trout Unlimited, to observe anglers and call in all infractions to John Day out of Nordegg via the RAP line. That first year we also did a couple of days where we had angling groups get together on the weekends and simply fish through a section and collect fisheries data (much like we’d planned years earlier on the Ram) but also engage any other anglers.
After the first couple of years, it was clear Barry wanted to go solidly down the path of ensuring there were officers with powers of authority for each the Ram and Blackstone. He pursued it hard and was able to not only get that accomplished but he was able to work relationships with people like Kevin Stalker, who was heading the enforcement branch out west, to hire them as government employees. Barry was able to funnel fund-raised $ through government specifically to the Streamwatch program.
Where Barry wanted authoritative, I hoped for inclusionist values with Streamwatch. I wanted to see weekend fish-outs where we had mini-conclaves for people to come to, have signage that invited folks to stop in, meet the COs and maybe a bio or fish tech, and collect Fish “Hockey Cards” that essentially had ID images on the front and all their bio information on the back. I was hoping to use Streamwatch and the internet to get people involved, to database fish information, habitat stuff, and really get the community going. Without including others and duplicating our efforts, it simply wouldn’t last and would just be the Barry & Dave show.
At the same time that was happening, Tom Wiseman came on, piggy-backing these efforts and was instrumental in not just spear-heading the first true reclamation efforts of the Falls Cr Road along Falls Cr to the Ram confluence, but he was able to work with the creative sentencing program through the judicial system, and was able to secure considerable funding to do so. Streamwatch was established.
The sheer volume of hours and days spent on Streamwatch was insane. Hiring those officers ourselves, driving to Lethbridge to do the interviews on those iced-up winter roads – I won’t forget that 10 hr, 40kmh drive that took us through Vulcan because Barry loved the countryside: we sure saw a lot of it, slowly, that day, though it was mostly snow and fence posts. Then we had to make sure the officers had a place to live, a truck, an atv. The time spent co-ordinating fishing get-togethers, the time replying to inquiries on our forum of what was happening, how it worked, all those countless hours of trying to take the time to involve people.
Except there was a problem eating at me. What were we about? What were the guiding principles? What decision-making process and checks and balances did we have? What liabilities were there? Just what was our definition? And to that, once I started asking those questions, I presented conflict because I simply saw no way our efforts would amount to anything lasting in the long-term if we didn’t take the time to make definitions. Barry and Tom didn’t see it that way, wanted to avoid all that legalese, so I simply removed myself. I quit Streamwatch after 4 years. Now, it went onward to do some great things and had some impact not just on the Ram and Blackstone, but many waters to the north and south.
But it soon fell apart. Once the officers became government employees and got its hands on the program, all it took was someone in policy at HQ to get involved and recognize it for the government policy & procedure skirting program that it was, and killed it. That was it. From the moment we started it we knew that there were officers and government policy types and the union that took great offense to the program’s focus on enforcement, that we were undermining process and established channels. Of course, we weren’t saying anything negative about those with our efforts, we simply wanted to add to those channels on the streams we wanted them. But Streamwatch died because of policy; because we didn’t identify what it was; didn’t keep it what it was for who it was for; we didn’t properly set it up with those founding principles and instead trusted the government to do right by it. Barry was tired of doing all that work year in and out. Its downfall was on us, and Barry knew it. Barry was Barry and the one time I saw him ashamed was the day he came over and told me what had happened. He felt stupid for letting it happen, not doing what I tried to get us to do in setting up our guiding principles. He said “Dave, you get to tell me I told you so. I’m sorry Dave”. I never held anything against him but for a moment, nor he me even if one of us was upset at other about anything. We recognized our failings – my biggest was that I was simply too young, brash, and aggressive to know how to persuade and influence people to what I saw was an obvious end goal and I irked people the wrong way. I still do, in case you haven’t noticed.
The biggest part of it for me was to get other anglers involved, to allow their passion to come through, to take on parts of a project, to take ownership and help expand our collective reach. That never fully matured and certainly hasn’t continued. But the most valuable, living aspect of Streamwatch was the one community outreach that did happen. The conservation officers asked the anglers and back country users of the Blackstone to do a quick, idiot-proof fish ID test that showed our trout, grayling, and whitefish and just asked what it was via multiple choice.
85% couldn’t get 70%. 1/2 couldn’t ID a grayling from a bull trout. 1/3 quit because it was too hard, they were too frustrated. There was something like 1500 tests in the Blackstone drainage and it is clear – many anglers can’t tell the difference between a bull and a cutthroat, let alone a bull trout and a brookie.
It is time the Department stopped talking out of both sides of its mouth: if our fisheries are in such critical shape rivers are being targeted for closures, yet we know that most anglers can’t ID our fish, it’s time to do community outreach as well as pre-enforcement work and institute a fish ID test for anyone wanting to harvest fish where allowed.
O&G / LOGGING
The first thing we have to accept is our Alberta society is supported through natural resources and the name of any specific company is irrelevant because oil & gas, forestry, and agriculture were and are going to happen in order to put Albertans to work. That has how it has been for decades and will remain for some time yet.
The clearcuts featured in the Google Earth shot below occurred in 2 logging seasons. They don’t show the additional, massive clearcuts that have happened the last year or two. Reality is that these are hundreds of hectares of land – and again, there were hundreds more logged this and last year. The depth of the Ram canyon is on the left side of the image – that’s 1000+ feet of sandstone and shale they are logging right up to. The small ephemeral draws and feeder creeks are also of sandstone and shale and when you log those, you simply allow over land flow and sedimentation and open the entire landbase to thermal heating – I dare you to compare the ground and air temperatures in a 300Ha cutblock with black shale vs the temperatures in the adjacent forest. Also note the white lines of access roads and seismic lines, as well as brown lines of the oil roads that punched in for exploratory wells. You already know how many hundreds of atvs/dirt bikes are using those each year. The watershed is starting to look just like this. Granted the FMA holder is doing a good job of rolling back seasonal roads, but it’s still open, it’s still access.
Industry types may dispute and dismiss my claim of sedimentation and super-heating, but F&W has determined that our bull trout populations are endangered because of habitat issues and access – and those point directly at this. How are you arguing any longer when our watershed looks like this? You simply can’t hide from Google Earth. We’re not asking you to give up leases and FMA approvals, we’re asking for minor allocations of buffers and reserve areas.
I can close my eyes and walk every run and crossing from the Trunk Road to the N Ram. For the numbers of times I’ve walked and rafted it, it’s like my neighbourhood sidewalk. One of the biggest reasons I don’t have to fish the Ram nearly as often as I used to is Instagram. I see the photos people post. I know exactly where they are. I know that the fish they are holding for the hero shots are in the exact same micro-locations that I caught my fish 20 – 35 years ago, taking almost the exact same photo. I know what it took to get to that pool. I know how old that fish is.
The disconnect, of course, is the dark decade that those fish didn’t exist. I know how devoid of fish that pool was in the dark period when the river got hammered after access opened up thanks to that logging road. I know how thrilling and satisfying it was to see the river slowly fill back in with fish.
And I look at these people, specific people who are using those fish to promote their guide company, their fly tying company, their website and social media following, and I think, if you only had a clue what it took to watch that pool collapse, be literally devoid of anything bigger than 9″. If you only knew that the spring-back fish from our C&R efforts are those exact few fish that re-colonized that pool and that’s why there are 18 – 21″ fish swimming in there. If you only knew how old that fish is – that 19 or 20″ fish is 14 to 16 years old. If you knew what effort that all required, you wouldn’t be so quick to rip its mouth with 8″ streamers, to rip its face with spoons and spinner-blades because that mouth is the same ripped up, torn up mouth that you’ll be looking at for the next 5 to 8 years in that pool. Those fish live in the exact same spots year in and out, moving between two or three pools. So, go ahead and beat them up, but they are easily eradicated. If the regs go ahead, once the 18 – 20″ fish of the pool is killed, the two 14 or 15″ cutts in that pool will take its place and slowly grow to fill the void. But if the next guy eats the (and I mean “the”) two 14 or 15″ fish in the pool, now we’re a stone’s throw away from you getting to watch what I watched. So, go ahead and use the river, its fish, but know your impact. I don’t fish it because I know what those fish go through. I can see they’re there. I know that if I go, I know how to catch them and will. Do I need another data point in my cutthroat trout set? My ego can handle not having it if it saves those fish another go ’round and a notch in its lips. But if this proposal of regulations changes occurs and 2 fish a day over 13″ goes through, your Instagram shots will disappear within 2 or 3 years. And even after all I’m sharing here there are those that don’t believe me. Inaction to block this will lead to that in 2 or 3 years.
DEATH THREATS – Through the petition and court case, I was constantly bombarded with anonymous emails and forum messages threatening me, essentially telling me they’d never find my body. I haven’t shared this with anyone previously but these threats were so unnerving, the reason I started weight lifting. Who would I meet on the river that wanted me dead? By the time I was 33, I was bench-pressing 405lbs, leg pressing 1300 at repetitions. I know in hindsight I was a little bit of a cocky, arrogant 25-year-old boy, but the point was the fish. Having a contrary view to industry leads to personal attacks and intimidation, that’s been real since the dawn of wanting to protect a few fish and remains so today. This isn’t encouraging but it is real and if you are going to get involved, head’s up, this stuff happens. I’ve since chosen to focus more on policy in the background.
FISHERIES ROUND TABLE
The provincial Fisheries Round Table was supposed to be a place where the community of fisheries in Alberta got together with government and discussed policy that influenced a wide array of items. It got bogged down by process and inaction that has eliminated its effectiveness. The past 3 years has essentially seen the government do anything and everything to ensure they don’t have to sit through the twice a year meetings. Last fall it was “we just discovered whirling disease and even though this is a policy meeting we can’t find the time” followed by this spring’s “hey, you guys didn’t mass RSVP, even though we’ve never insisted on RSVP before, so we’re cancelling the meeting”. I think you get the sentiment.
EMERGENCY TROUT STREAM CLOSURES COMMITTEE (ETSC)
This one is actually the most important of this list – for me it had the greatest opportunity to accomplish what John Tchir is presently proposing with his 5 year rest period closure.
Spring of 2016, the exact quote at the Fisheries Round Table Meeting, after much prior discussion of why we need to discuss Emergency Closures was “who else will join Dave Jensen on this committee?” Thankfully I had made sure Nancy Storwick of Fish Tales Fly Shop and the Angling Outfitters Association of Alberta was there to be included. Through the Fisheries Round Table process we had discussed items to be looked in the ETSC that included not just flow rates and water temperatures during drought, but also measures that protected our trout from the heavy angling pressure that comes when flows drop and trout move to the only deep water and are sitting ducks, stacked like chordwood and easily, heavily targeted. We also discussed a need to look at trout condition and population conditions after flood events in order to establish parameters for a rest period coming out of big flood events. Given how skinny many of our trout have been immediately after large-scale floods, this would allow them to stabilize condition for a few weeks before angling resumed. These were all things I had been pushing for over several years and made a point to chase it to completion.
Then we went to the committee level. To say that it was a railroad job would be positive. It was all done via email, with painfully slow response times from the bio spearheading the committee. If the discussion had anything to do with anything other than flow rates specifically tied to water temperatures in regards to setting up a template to trigger a closure, it was dismissed. That meant angling pressure in regard to low flows was off the table. That meant any discussion of post-flood rest period was off the table. And I mean not even registered as points of discussion kind of dismissal.
Then we got into discussion regarding the trigger data to closures based on the habitat requirements of various species, be it bull trout, grayling, cutthroat, and rocky mountain whitefish vs rainbows, then browns. My suggestions were strong: develop a system by which the angling public could easily identify the triggers by using the readily, easily available data from the internet. Use the flow rates as a % of normal flows; have anglers feel empowered to take their own temperature readings or develop a system that helped anglers decide where to fish before heading out by incorporating flow rates with daytime highs and overnight flows. Include & empower anglers. Instead, this all was dismissed and we were given a flow chart that another jurisdiction uses, that “this works pretty good over there, so we’ll use it”. There was simply not even a recognition of suggestion. And of course the chosen process is involved and ultimately comes down to a bio feathering a personal feel into things, which is important because that bio then has to go to through the Departmental channels in order to get approval by the Minister, and at that level you do not want a single word of negativity from any one in the angling public because Ministers do not want to have to deal with any perceived negativity. It has to be all good news story. Full stop.
The real crux of it all for me, personally, was my suggestion that the Dept not take sole responsibility for the process of Emergency Trout Stream Closures. I put forth the concept that there needs to be a committee that is easily reached, that is active at all times of the angling season. This means the guide association on the Bow; Trout Unlimited; specific people such as myself that are dedicated to fishing 100+ days a year and can be relied upon to be timely and professional in their reporting. My idea was born out of a desire to take the cross-hairs off our techs & bios, to recognize the only time that the public hears from them is bad news. Why not include the public, avoid painting gov types in negativity, and allow the angling community to take personal ownership of our actions at critical times? Not so much as a thank you for that suggestion. Dismissed. We were informed that the bios and techs were in the field non-stop and that they were most in touch with these waters. Does anyone believe that bios are in the field often at all given the regulatory and administrative issues they are perpetually bombarded with? Ok, message received.
And the so-called rest periods would be so much more palatable, so much more angler-inclusive. Anglers would have had the bios backs – and have been happy with themselves for being included on the Emergency Stream Closures Committee. This could have been perceived as a good news story and we anglers would have volunteered to be so manipulated to the rest period goal with smiles on our faces. Instead, we get threatened with 5 year closures and now we’re in serious conflict with our bios.
The further irony in the planned 5 year rest period closure is that if you embrace the above parameters for low flow closures to avoid heavy, intensive angling pressure, is that the Ram flows chocolate-brown 1/3 to 1/2 of every season, and two years a decade is not fishable until mid to late August. Some years it is not fishable at all.
Add this to the above and you have 4 of 10 years essentially as a rest period if we work with what Mother Nature is pointing us to without autocratically doing it through an absolute system: we can allow Mother Nature do it for us.
The trouble? You have to have a system that works with anglers, includes anglers. But it also has to be a system with teeth. It cannot be voluntary. Why can’t it be voluntary?
Well, this summer, 2017, we saw a voluntary peak of day restriction for most of the season for trout streams from the Bow-southward to the US border. I paid keen attention to guide & fly shop as well as angler social media pages. Not only were few anglers and most guides not adhering to the voluntary restrictions – thank you to those that did – the sheer volume of photos and promotional hype of our fisheries that flew in the face of the voluntary restrictions was incredible. I wanted to ask every single one why they weren’t adhering to them, but I can’t take on the government’s responsibilities. You can bet that government is watching the same thing as I.
And when it comes to the Fisheries use allocations in Alberta, commercial use is DEAD LAST. Ask how the commercial netters fared when push came to shove – the guides & outfitters that aren’t adhering to these restrictions are only focusing the attention on your industry. Commercial use will be the very first user group to be eliminated from our streams and rivers, and that points directly at guides & outfitters.
Voluntary restrictions have not worked and cannot be used in fisheries management where critical populations of native fish are concerned.
WHIRLING DISEASE COMMITTEE
You probably heard that Whirling Disease is now in Alberta as of fall, 2017. I do say that tongue in cheek because, honestly, what else have you heard? Legitimately, the message is to clean our gear, especially as we move between waters – but what waters? Watershed or creek level? The mixed message is that the reporting system has essentially identified that WD is in almost all of our trout watersheds south of Hwy 16. There has been no real messaging of how this discovery is going to affect angling regulations nor restrictions and given the tall foreheads on the committee, we should be extremely wary of that.
From where I sit, a silent committee member (likely kicked off once this hits), the one and only member not involved in either government or the consulting & field study realm, the entire committee is composed of people who look at this stuff from a scientific level. And while great, at what point does the ‘applicable to our angling populace’ kick in? At what point does the connection between a policy established by a high-brow committee hit the road saying that this or that river is closed or that guiding is not allowed on that water, that ATV use is now forbidden in this or that watershed? Where does the common person fit in, practically, with a group such as this that is taking forever in establishing so many things as to forget to take action? And will government look at alternative options to the given governmental options which usually defaults to “CLOSED”. Again, I’ve tried to raise these kinds of practical discussions a couple of times via email but, much like the Emergency Trout Streams Closures process, I’d be happy if I heard crickets chirping back.
FLY FUSION TV, JIM MCLENNAN
In August of this year, Fly Fusion flew in to the Ram canyon to film. I’m not sure the angle of their upcoming tv show that will feature the Ram and its cutthroat trout. Knowing the tv series it was likely not centered about fish habitat and access issues. Hopefully Jim can encourage the shows producers to reconsider some of the footage and do a voice over or two to discuss exactly what’s happening – dedicate a few minutes to this stuff in order to properly represent the issues, the fish, the history, and the people involved. The Ram isn’t just a nice place to fish, it’s a wilderness fishery in the middle of millions of people who all want a part of it, and that makes it a treasure into the future. PLEASE use opportunity to step up to the plate and have a say.
I get an email every year from a fellow in government that is worried about mining exploration in the headwaters of the Ram. There certainly are coal seems worthy of exploration. We all know that when there is a need, those will be extracted. And again, that will have massive impact. Access roads will be built for those massive trucks, a pit will be dug, and much like the efforts up the Forestry Trunk Road at Robb and Hinton, we’ll likely see one of Canary, Oinion, Hummingbird, etc Creeks moved aside to a new channel in order industry can operate. And government will insist on a trade-off, so we’ll get a new series of pit lakes stocked with rainbow trout. In the meantime, we’ll also then see the remnant streams around the mine be closed to angling to protect these fish populations. And while the government fish techs and biologists will tell you how bad the situation is, will they stand up, say no, and lead the public in how to block this all from happening? So what’s the answer there? Don’t believe me about Coal Mining? This is the link to what’s likely coming. And despite what the Alberta Government will say, this is what typically happens with coal mines and trout.