Creek Repairs

A report from the field.

By Kevin Van Tighem

This past September I signed up for a volunteer work bee with Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC) and spent a day with about a dozen people I had never met before, including an oil engineer, a banker, a couple of retired guys and some young biologists. They were good folks—the kind who give back rather than simply keep taking.

Our worksite was seven kilometres up Hidden Creek from its confluence with the Oldman River. We started with a bracing ford of a very cold river, emerging onto an abandoned logging road on the opposite bank. Back in dry footwear, we followed the road up into a huge clear-cut.

The Oldman watershed was once one of the most beautiful places in Alberta, and it’s still spectacular. It’s all public land. But it was immediately obvious, as we tramped our way through the stump-filled barrens left behind by a logging company, that we haven’t treated it well. The clear-cuts at the mouth of Hidden Creek are immense.

And it isn’t just loggers who use the Oldman hard. Cattle mismanagement on the public land grazing allotments was all too evident. Good range managers leave at least 40 per cent of the grass standing at the end of each grazing season to keep vegetation healthy, protect the soil and provide winter forage for wildlife. But the upper Oldman’s meadows looked like putting greens. They had been grazed almost to the roots.

The road curved up into a forested valley and started to hug the edge of the creek just downhill from more recent clear-cuts. Deeply gullied creeks drained out of those 2012 cutblocks where heavy rains had spilled off of the barren ground instead of soaking into forest soils like they formerly would have done. A fisheries biologist friend tells me that farther upstream, where loggers haven’t yet stripped the trees away, similar creeks still have intact channels.

Good range managers leave at least 40 per cent of the grass standing at the end of each grazing season. But the upper Oldman’s meadows look like putting greens.

Recent rains had soaked the road and left it full of silty ponds that were gradually releasing mud into the otherwise pristine Hidden Creek. Why, I asked one of the TUC biologists, was this road still here? The loggers were finished, after all. Couldn’t they have reclaimed it? He explained that although the area’s land use plan calls for an end to motorized use in the valley, the owners of those cattle wanted the road left in place so it would be easier to tend their cows and fences. That seemed a bit strange to me—the ranchers pay a pittance for their grazing permits. They have no property rights that would trump approved conservation plans for our public land.

Halfway in, the biologists pointed out where the stream gravel had been scoured out of a hollow about the size of a suitcase and piled up in a mound just downstream. It was a bull trout redd, or spawning nest. Until recently about 80 per cent of the surviving bull trout in the Oldman drainage spawned in Hidden Creek. A threatened species, the bull trout is also Alberta’s official provincial fish.

Bull trout only spawn where cold groundwater wells up into clean gravel. That groundwater keeps their eggs from freezing in the winter and supplies eggs and fry with oxygen. Most of the Oldman headwaters have been logged so extensively and grazed so hard that their former spawning beds are choked with silt and their groundwater flows disrupted. Hidden Creek was the last truly healthy trout stream surviving.

But flood waters draining from recent clear-cuts and surrounding landscape have collapsed Hidden Creek’s banks in several places. Mud now continually erodes into the spawning gravels. Research shows that the number of bull trout redds has dropped by 70 per cent since the 2013 spring flood. An estimated five females spawned this year.

Our work site, when we arrived, was part of the problem. Off-highway vehicle use had kept the logging road bare and muddy. That road should have been reclaimed when the logging was finished, but the grazing permit holder wanted it kept open. When the 2013 flood found a compacted road with no live vegetation to hold the soil together, it scoured part of it away. My (and your) tax money was then used to reroute the road so that cattle interests could continue using motorized vehicles in an area closed to motorized vehicles. The resulting mess was left for us volunteers to fix.

It was encouraging to see that other volunteers had already repaired half the site and their work had held up. We spent our day pounding live willow stakes into the mud and using willow and poplar stems to create small retaining walls on the rest of the site. It was hard work but it felt good to help restore a wounded creek. We got it done.

Still, it seemed strange that our group included not one logger, off-roader or grazing permit holder.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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