First Nations are taking the lead in saving Alberta’s trout
Better known as the Rocky Mountains, Miistakis has been sacred to countless generations of Niitsitapi, the Blackfoot people. Extending from the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River south to Yellowstone country, the “backbone of the world” is the source of almost all the usable water in Canada’s prairies. It’s also home to some of the country’s best surviving stocks of westslope cutthroat and bull trout, two native fish species that are sought-after by anglers, but at increasing risk of extirpation.
It’s no accident the past 150 years have been rough for both the Niitsitapi and native trout. Bison were eradicated by the 1870s, and the signing of Treaty Seven in 1875 virtually ended the freedom of First Nations to live freely on the landscape. Soon after, Indian Act restrictions and residential schools made things even worse.
Meanwhile, the same aggressive culture that wiped out the bison also changed the land by damming rivers, ploughing up prairie, logging forests and mining the mountains. The pace of landscape change was completely unprecedented.
Trout live in streams. Streams are fed by groundwater. Groundwater comes from land. And the land that yields those streams has now been under constant assault for five human generations. Today, native cutthroat and bull trout are both listed as threatened species, mostly because of damaged streams. But help is on the way, with the Niitsitapi taking the lead.
Elliot Fox is a member of the Kainai First Nation, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy. We worked together in Waterton Lakes National Park in the 1990s, monitoring wolves and bull trout. One day, we hiked up a mountain creek to see if any migratory bulls still survived. To our wonder, we found several spawning redds tended by massive golden fish.
Good things, we learned that day, need not be left in a regretted past. If we work at it, they can be part of our tomorrows, too. Now the assistant project manager for the Blackfoot Confederacy’s Native Trout Recovery Project, Fox is working to help make those tomorrows happen.
Established in 2020, the international project has so far trained and employed 17 fisheries technicians from the confederacy’s four nations in Montana and Alberta. They are tasked with sampling DNA to identify genetically intact populations of cutthroat and bull trout. They also seek traditional information from Indigenous knowledge keepers, and monitor and evaluate threats to stream habitat.
The threats are many. Intensive clearcut logging and coal exploration drive increased runoff and erosion into trout streams, intensifying both spring floods and summer droughts. Motorized recreation also silts up streams and damages habitat. In 2022, for example, the only native cutthroats that Fox and biologist Matt Coombs found in Beaver Creek were trying to spawn in a badly silted vehicle crossing. Those last trout may soon be lost to such landscape damage.
By blocking spawning runs, meanwhile, dams on the Bow and other rivers wiped out the once-massive bull trout that used to inhabit the prairie reaches of those rivers. In 1989, the Oldman dam doomed Alberta’s last prairie-dwelling bull trout population by cutting of its spawning access. Or perhaps not.
In 2021, the Blackfoot Confederacy team found some large bull trout spawning in Pincher Creek, a badly degraded stream that joins the Oldman below the dam. If Pincher Creek can be restored to health, those prairie bull trout might also be rescued.
It’s such brief flashes of hope that motivate Fox and his colleagues. “We found two new populations of pure westslope cutthroats last year,” he says, the pleasure evident in his voice. “They’re hanging on in Beaver Creek. There’s still a chance.”
In fact, there may be even more than a chance. Last June, the Niitsitapi released 24 bison into the Blackfeet Reserve, just south of the Canadian border. Those animals will almost certainly spread into Alberta as the herd grows, in the process bringing many changes to lands that had nearly forgotten them. In response, the Native Trout Project will have a revised focus this year: assessing how streams and trout respond to the changes the bison bring.
If we work at it, our native trout can be recovered, just as the bison are coming back. And by renewing old relationships with both, the Niitsitapi are leading the way.
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