How Western Canada coal interests continue to threaten trout and beyond


Last summer was a scorcher along southern Alberta’s trout streams as the latest prairie drought stretched into its third year. Although fishing was prohibited when streams reached near-lethal temperatures for trout, conscientious anglers opted not to wet their lines, even when allowed, rather than stress the fish further.

Historically, native cutthroat and bull trout, both now threatened species, have always weathered droughts. They hold at the bottoms of pools where cold groundwater seeps in, feed in the cooler hours, and wait for relief. It’s getting harder for them to survive during today’s droughts, however, and the Alberta government’s ongoing flirtation with coal companies may soon make it impossible.


“The westslope cutthroat is my favourite fish,” says Katie Morrison (pictured above), an Alberta conservation advocate and avid angler. “Not only are they beautiful, cool fish, but the places where they live are so special.” Unfortunately, those places tend to hold untapped coal deposits. And strip-mining that coal from the high country will not only ruin the streams for native trout, it will also risk the water economy of prairie Canada.


It’s not that the Alberta government doesn’t know there’s already a problem. It imposed drought-related angling restrictions in 2022 and 2023, after all, and is now in stage four of a five-stage water restrictions plan.  And things are only getting worse, with one climate scientist describing 2023’s record-high temperatures as “absolutely gob-smackingly bananas.”


Alberta’s headwater streams could offer cold-water refuges for trout in a changing world, as high elevations heat up less than lower valleys. With good snow accumulation and shade from adjacent slopes, those streams could retain cold-dependent native trout long after they disappear elsewhere, which has already started. In 2023, biologists confirmed the likely extirpation of native cutthroats from lower-elevation Trout Creek.

Cutthroat trout are at risk (photo: Katie Morrison)

Mountain streams can only sustain trout, however, if the surrounding landscapes are well-cared for. That’s not assured. Indeed, clear-cutting, coal exploration roads and eroding off-highway vehicle trails already impair groundwater flows to the trout streams that feed water to the southern prairies.  Such ongoing damage from misguided land use was already well advanced when Alberta announced in 2020 it was opening most of the Eastern Slopes for coal mining—and nothing wreaks more havoc with groundwater-fed streams than stripping the land for coal.


Signs of that are already evident on the Livingstone River, where tiny streams and seeps coming out of the mountains are important both for nutrient discharge and keeping the river cold. But recent coal exploration has carved roads into the mountains that yield those precious flows. “You can see where those little seeps hit the roads and get diverted,” says Katie Morrison, who fishes the Livingstone. “The water picks up sediment, it gets warmer, and some of it doesn’t even reach the river anymore.”

As fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch observes, “Alberta can have coal, or it can have trout. It’s as simple as that.”


In 2022, public uproar led Alberta to restore protections that had previously kept coal mines out of most of trout country, stating, “With the exception of lands subject to an advanced coal project or an active approval for a coal mine…no new applications will be accepted .”

Anglers and conservation groups were delighted, believing the threat was over. There were no advanced coal projects in trout country, after all, and only one proposal, to reopen an abandoned mine on Grassy Mountain, had made it into the regulatory process. A federal-provincial review panel killed that project in 2021, however, ruling it would cause unacceptable environmental damage.

The celebrations, sadly, proved premature. During the dry, sweltering fall of 2023, the Grassy Mountain proposal came back from the dead. Foreign-owned Northback Holdings requested water-withdrawal approvals for a major coal exploration program, a plan that would exploit already-shrunken headwater streams.  One of those streams, Gold Creek, is aptly named. It sustains a small population of genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout—conservation gold.

The Alberta Energy Regulator should have turned the project down. Instead, it agreed to review it. Energy Minister Brian Jean insists the ban on coal mines remains intact, but given his government’s track record, few trust his assurances. The AER’s pending decision on Grassy Mountain—a zombie mine that should stay dead—will finally tell drought-stricken Albertans how much their government values clean, cold water and the threatened trout species that, like us, depend on it.

Western view is an opinion column. We invite constructive discussion of the various issues raised here.