I slip into my chest waders again, the ones with the carbide tips for traction. The water of Hidden Creek is cold in late September, a medium you do not want to fall into. But to bull trout the water is a stimulating bath, one to put them in the mood. For millennia this stream in the upper Oldman watershed has been the major bedroom for bull trout migrating from a busier area. The stream valley gushes with groundwater springs and has been the epicentre for spawning.
A bull trout is guided-missile grey, utilitarian and lethal. They resemble baseball bats with fins and gills. Stepping into Hidden Creek every year creates anticipation, the chance to observe a large female being attended by her suitors, an ancient drama of survival. It takes me back to being 10 years old and seeing my first bull trout, beneath an immense log jam I had clambered out on.
I initiated spawning surveys for bull trout in the 1990s and have come back, as a volunteer, for the past 12 years to monitor spawning success. Why slog up a stream, slipping and sliding on slick rocks, year after year? Because watching, measuring and recording is one way an individual can ensure things, like our provincial fish, don’t slip through the cracks in an ecologically unconscious world. Consistent observations over a long time provide a sense of the trend in populations—are they stable, increasing or decreasing?
In Hidden Creek I’ve observed spawning—measured by the number of redds (depressions in stream gravels created by female trout to lay their eggs)—decline from over 100 redds in 2008 to just one in 2019. What happened? The precipitous decline started after the catastrophic floods of 2013 and coincident clear-cut logging.
With no one watching, this would have gone unnoticed. Did bull trout decide to go elsewhere? Maybe. But other streams are impacted by a combination of logging and unregulated off-highway vehicle use. Both of these activities add sediment to the stream gravels, cementing them so a bull trout would have to use a pickaxe to create a redd.
Routine things like redd counts aren’t done by provincial agencies anymore. This creates a void for effective decisions about land use such as additional logging, coal development, motorized recreational use, random camping, well sites, pipelines and road developments. It’s easier to make decisions about land uses if there isn’t information available on the status of fish and wildlife populations. Out of sight becomes out of mind.
The excuses are we can’t afford to measure everything, and not everything measured counts. But I argue everything that counts isn’t being measured, such as water quality, stream flow, the footprint of land use, the number of native trout. I can measure bull trout redds and watch the decreasing trend over time. Native trout abundance and distribution are a good measure of watershed health—something fish and humans alike depend on.
University students occasionally accompany me—an opportunity to create additional advocates for watersheds and bull trout. My waders, with secret weapon traction, enable me to outpace them, a guilty pleasure. Focusing on staying upright is also a chance to get into the zen of a stream course—the inexorable power of flowing water carving a channel amid boulders, fallen logs and the old-growth spruce and willow of the banks, in a sinuous, endlessly repeating but constantly varied pattern.
In a context of government inaction, my efforts can motivate, energize and perhaps goad people to act. So next September I’ll again be wading up Hidden Creek, bearing witness for bull trout.
Lorne Fitch is a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist in Alberta with 50 years experience.