Forestry Roads and Trout Fishing: A Love-Hate Relationship

Forestry Roads and Trout Fishing: A Love-Hate Relationship

Many anglers would agree that any good trout adventure begins the second the tires leave the smooth paved highway and start kicking up dust and gravel on a forestry road; one that promises to lead you to somewhere far and away, into the beautiful mountains and valleys, and closer to trout paradise.

Sure, there are exceptions. But are those days that start from the paved highway really ‘adventures?’ Unless significant foot travel commences immediately from the highway, then I don’t think they qualify as ‘adventures’, at least not in my books. My point: while there are great fishing spots right beneath major highways all over, almost all of our favorite go-to spots, secret honey-holes, and dream trips of the future will require the use of an unpaved gravel or dirt road to access.

Most of us forget that the primary reason we have access to so much pristine fishing water is because of the industrial activity occurring in the headwaters of our streams. Industrial access roads were built to allow forestry, oil and gas, and mining companies access to the resources located in the remote places of Alberta and BC’s crown land. Extensive networks of forestry roads were built throughout BC (FSR’s) and Alberta’s front ranges (FTR’s) that opened up the previously inaccessible crown land for industrial leases (aka $$ in the GOVNT’s pocket).

Road building became an essential aspect of forestry operations once all the easily accessible timber was harvested. No road = No harvest. Therefore, each new lease came with more roads; and each new road led to more land that could be accessible for lease. Forestry leases and their roads spread across our mountain landscapes with very little thought for ecology or anything else other than accessing profitable timber as cheaply as possible. And the switchbacks that ascend our mountainsides and twist through our river valleys show that there wasn’t many places they weren’t willing to go.

So that is where our relationship with Forestry roads gets complicated.

They provide us access to fishing opportunities that would be very, very difficult to access on our own. But at what cost to the fish and their habitat? At what cost to the future of these fish populations, that already face threats from a myriad of sources?

This is a topic I researched extensively recently as part of a school project at Selkirk College, which prompted this post about why you should feel guilty driving up the FSR taking you to your favorite stream. My research focused specifically on Native Westslope Cutthroat Trout, as their habitat closely corresponds to the areas where industrial activity occurs, and the areas I spend time fishing.

I’ve been aware since I took an interest in trout conservation that forestry, oil and gas, and mining all had their respective affects on trout habitat and were impacting streams in Alberta and BC. Forestry is commonly associated with sedimentation and increased surface run-off; mining is associated with toxic pollution and lowered water quality; oil and gas can impact groundwater and comes with the risk of pipeline failure. I always assumed it was the obvious thing- the swaths of clear-cut forests, the poisonous mining bi-products in the water, or the oil that spills out of a broken pipeline- that made these industries so detrimental to our fish. The truth is, however, that the largest impact from all three industries is from the exact same thing; the construction of roads.

Why do I say this?

Well first off, we often do not give enough credit to the resiliency of our Native trout to environmental changes (like those from industry ex. increased water temp, sedimentation, pollution). Despite having very specific habitat requirements, trout are remarkably persistent and a population can continue to persist with very few spawning fish, or limited spawning habitat. They employ various life strategies ranging from adfluvial (live in lakes), fluvial (migrate within larger watershed), or stream resident (live permanently in smaller tributaries) depending on the card they are dealt as a juvenile. They can withstand a large range of water temperatures (as low as 1 C in the winter to as high as 25 C in the summer), and can exist in watersheds with high amounts of sediment and dissolved ions or crystal clear spring fed waters. They will only grow as big as their food supply, but many can still reach spawning maturity without abundant food.

This is a result of trout evolving in the dynamic geographic environments of the post-glacial interior mountains. These environments have always been subject to large scale disturbance in the form of wildfires, landslides, and avalanches, and were frequently altered and fragmented from each other through shifting tectonic plates and glacial blockages and other earth processes. As trout evolved within this environment, so did their genetics, and fish segregated into genetically distinct populations that employed different life strategies, and became adapted to life in a specific watershed or tributary. Therefore different populations will respond differently to environmental changes, however all are genetically imprinted with the innate ability to adapt and persist when changes do occur. However, once a population has disappeared, this genetic partitioning makes recolonization very unlikely

But because of this innate resiliency, fish still will persist in areas even where conditions are not optimal. Nearly every unprotected valley in BC has been extensively logged; however, many still have abundant trout populations. The Elk River has significantly increased amounts of toxic metals from the numerous coal mines in watershed, yet hosts one of the best Cutthroat Trout fisheries in the world. I have often used natural gas well sites to access excellent fisheries in AB. These things will certainly have their effects on trout populations, but do not cause complete extirpation due to the adaptations available to trout.

What will cause extirpation of trout populations is the removal of the key physical habitat features that they rely on for survival.

There is one habitat feature that is unequivocally essential to the existence of Cutthroat Trout, so much that without them they simply could not survive in watershed. And it happens to be something most of us are very familiar with.

I’m talking about deep pools. Honey-holes. Hog-zones. Whatever you want to call them. You know what I’m talking about.

Turns out their importance goes well beyond being great places to fish. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife Species (COSEWIC) states that the abundance of pools is a limiting factor for Cutthroat Trout, meaning a population could never grow larger than the amount of pool habitat it’s watershed provided. Why? Pools are the only features of most small mountain streams that do not completely freeze in winter, and the only option available to survive winter for almost all juveniles.

Almost all of our Cutthroat Trout would have spent the first parts of their life in a small tributary stream, usually where they emerged as fry or immediately fled to for refuge following emergence. These juvenile fish must survive several winters in the smaller stream before they head to the main river to grow and mature into spawning adults. Therefore, the tributaries must also have pools, or else juveniles will not survive their first years of life, and will never make it to the big river to become a grown up.

Once a fish has made it to the big river and grown to be mature it’s options for surviving winter increase. It still requires pool habitat, however, it can travel further to find pools, can defend itself from predators, or, in the absence of pools in the main stem, can displace juvenile fish to utilize the pools located in tributaries. But a fish must first survive and grow to be mature.

Now, tell me if this sounds familiar.

It’s late summer, you are walking along a small stream that runs along a logging road, and you come to a long stretch of flat, shallow water, where the stream channel seems too wide for the amount of water flowing. There are a few riffles and runs, but they just aren’t quite pools, and just not quite deep enough to entice you to cast. You keep walking in search of better water.

Then, the road veers away from the creek to switch back over a hillside. As the road gets further and further away, the river begins to twist and turn once again and the pools become more defined, more diverse, and more frequent.

It no coincidence. It’s the result of point sources of coarse sediments (aka crushed rock/gravel) from forestry roads constantly entering and accumulating in the stream. Every time it rains, every time a logging truck charges by, or everytime you drift a corner at full speed, coarse sediment gets dislodged from the road and eventually makes its way into the stream channel.

Once in the stream, it gets deposited in the places where shallow, fast and turbulent water transitions to deep, slow water. AKA pools.

This stretch of stream did not have a single pool in over 2 km of hiking.

This is known as the riffle-pool sequence. As coarse sediments accumulate downstream of point sources, the pools are slowly filled in and become shallower and riffle-pool sequences become less defined, while the overall variability decreases. The amount of material entering a stream and being subsequently deposited is referred to as stream load. As load increases, the capacity of the stream to move material (velocity) decreases, leading to accumulation of material and widening, shallow river channels; as load decreases, the capacity (velocity) of the stream to move material increases, leading to down cutting and the stream channel becoming deeper and narrower.

Through these processes, Forestry Roads have slowly but surely been compromising stream reaches throughout our headwaters by decreasing the frequency and quality of the pools required to sustain Cutthroat Trout populations. The smaller the stream, the less material required to fill in pools.

The majority of active logging activity occurs in these small drainage’s, and the tributaries of small streams are usually considered non-fish bearing and can be logged. The material that enters those small turbulent class 1 streams usually ends up directly in the first deep slow pool of the larger fish-bearing tributary that will likely provide winter refuge for dozens of juvenile Cutthroat that one day will replenish the populations in the main stem. And for that reason, I believe Forestry Roads are the biggest threat to populations of Native Cutthroat Trout.

But the imagery from Google Earth really shows more than words ever could. Check it out.

A very channelized section of the Goat River I encountered last summer...
A rare example of headwater strems w/ no roads nearby
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Coal Mines in near Proximity on Elk River
Oil and Gas Activity in Alberta's Front Ranges
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I did plan on hitting you with the facts, and not just my long-winded speculative rationale behind this theory.

I have come across studies that show A) pool frequency decreases with road abundance, B) trout abundance decreases with road abundance, C) roads associated with logging are the single biggest source of sedimentation from forestry, and D) pool formation can be promoted by treatments to compromised stream reaches.

This post however has grown to long, so I will elaborate on the ‘scientific’ part that actually uses fact’s in PT:II. I will introduce you to an interesting study that took place on tributaries of the upper Kootenay River in 2010 that documented the relationship between forestry roads and Cutthroat Trout and also share the link to my literature review on the same topic that I will be submitting to academic journals for peer review; for those that want the opinions of fish biologists, and not some trout bum like myself.

I hope this gave you something to consider as you observe the stream around you this summer. I urge you all to think… Is this what this stream is supposed to look like? Is it what it used to look like? Is there a reason there is no fish here?

It’s amazing how few areas have not been penetrated by man. And it’s the only reason we have access to some of the best trout fishing in the world… So remember that our access comes with it’s costs to the fish. Let’s not make the problem worse, and do everything we can to promote conservation of our native Trout!

Click here to continue reading part 2….

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