Summer drought puts Alberta's westslope cutthroat trout 'in crisis,' wildlife groups warn

Hot, dry weather and low water flows have left Alberta’s westslope cutthroat trout on the brink of extinction, according to local wildlife groups.

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) and Timberwolf Wilderness Society say Thursday that some populations of the already threatened species are “in crisis” due to dropping water levels in critical habitats.

“We believe there’s at least three populations that may become extinct within the calendar year,” said Joanna Skrajny with AWA.

“These populations are small and isolated and these populations are critical to the future survival of the species because they have genetic traits that make them important for survival.”

Westslope cutthroat trout

The Alberta Wilderness Association say an action plan to save the westslope cutthroat trout from the federal government is currently two years overdue. (Pete Zimowsky/The Idaho Statesman/AP)

Skrajny said an action plan to save the trout from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is currently two years overdue.

“So we’re currently in an emergency crisis situation and the government really needs to assess what it could possibly do,” Skrajny said. 

“So without this action plan we don’t know what steps need to be taken to actually recover this fish, not just keep it surviving as it is.”

Fisheries says action plan is ‘in progress’

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the federal ministry responsible for the action plan, told CBC News that an action plan is in the works.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada is aware of the water and weather conditions in southern Alberta and will continue to work with the Alberta Environment and Parks to ensure that appropriate actions are taken to conserve westslope cutthroat trout populations. Alberta Environment and Parks has jurisdiction over the management of fish populations in the province,” the ministry said in part in the statement.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada has established a successful partnership with the Parks Canada Agency, Alberta Environment and Parks, and other partners and stakeholders that has resulted in the Joint Provincial-Federal Recovery Team for westslope cutthroat trout. The action plan for the westslope cutthroat trout is in progress. …Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently working with the Province of Alberta on a coordinated approach for the recovery of the westslope cutthroat trout in Alberta.‎”

‘There needs to be a review’

Westslope cutthroat trout live in the Bow and Oldman river drainages.

Skrajny said the species used to swim freely in both rivers but there are only about 50 populations left in the province, adding only about 12 are “pure” and have not bred with other species of trout.

The westslope cutthroat trout population is also at a high risk for whirling disease, a parasitic disease that affects some fish species but doesn’t effect humans.

AWA says that, in the absence of an action plan from the federal government, it is working with an aquatic ecologist to figure out how to save the westslope cutthroat trout.

Skrajny said AWA has made a proposal to relocate threatened populations stranded in warm pools to other locations for the winter, adding the government needs to assess the situation before they move forward.

“There needs to be a review conducted and determining what’s the best course of action right now,” Skrajny said. “But these fish will not survive if there’s no water, or if the freeze happens and they get frozen in the small pools of water.”

Skrajny said extreme weather puts threatened species at greater risk, adding AWA believes one population of westslope cutthroat trout became extinct during the Alberta floods in 2013.

Logging, off-highway vehicle use and construction are compounding the threat to the endangered species, according to Skrajny — adding “any activities” that threaten the fish should be stopped.

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