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Timberwolf Wilderness Society




Timberwolf sues Fisheries Minister to release long- delayed action plan for threatened trout


Federal Court Application


Calgary — Acting for Timberwolf, lawyers with University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic are filing an application in Federal Court to force the Minister of Fisheries to release a long-overdue action plan for recovering Alberta’s native westslope cutthroat trout.

An action plan, required under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA), is urgently needed to provide legal protection for threatened critical habitat and to prevent further population extinctions. Repeated requests by Timberwolf and others to post the action plan for public comment, as required under SARA, have been unsuccessful. The action plan was originally scheduled to be published March 31, 2015.

Once widespread, abundant, and a mainstay of southwestern Alberta’s sport fishery, the native form of westslope cutthroat trout has declined severely. It is now restricted mainly to a few small, isolated headwaters. It has been listed as Threatened under SARA since 2013. A recovery strategy was issued in 2014, which was supposed to be followed by an action plan by the end of March 2015. Despite several missed deadlines, repeated warnings that many individual remaining populations are at grave risk, and that one crucially important stock had already gone extinct, the Minister has kept his draft action plan under wraps.


Dave Mayhood, M.Sc, Aquatic Ecologist & President, Timberwolf Wilderness Society:
“Most remaining populations are at severe risk. One has been driven extinct since 2015. Others are in decline. Several have had critical habitat destroyed by logging roads, off-highway vehicle trails,inadequate culverts and drought. Two are under threat from the proposed Grassy Mountain Mine. Long-term chances of survival for three-quarters of remaining populations is less than a coin toss.”


Drew Yewchuk, Lawyer, Public Interest Law Clinic, Faculty of Law, University of Calgary:
"The ongoing decline of westslope cutthroat trout is a symptom of federal officials continually undermining the Species at Risk Act. It is disappointing to see the government ignore their
legal obligations to take action to prevent extinctions."





Decline & Loss of SW Alberta's Signature Native Trout, the Westslope Cutthroat

The westslope cutthroat trout was once widespread and abundant in southwestern Alberta, primarily in mainstem rivers and their tributaries below barriers to upstream movement. Many of the populations existed as metapopulations; that is, populations composed of numerous subpopulations (stocks) exhibiting a variety of life-history forms. Stocks were genetically and often morphologically distinct. Their stock structure, each adapted to local conditions, allowed them to optimize their use of the available streams and lakes.

With settlement beginning in the late 1880s, westslope cutthroat trout populations declined rapidly from a combination of overfishing; habitat fragmentation, degradation and loss; introgressive hybridization with non-native trout; and replacement by non-native species introduced from elsewhere. Most westslope cutthroat stocks within the native range have been decimated, hybridized populations are widespread and less fit, and genetically-pure populations are rare. The very few true native stocks remaining are small and isolated. A single domesticated stock has been transplanted widely within and outside of the native
range. The habitats of most stocks outside of protected areas (and often inside of them) have been dramatically altered by human land-use and dams. Changing climate is irreversibly limiting usable habitat, especially in larger, lower elevation mainstems and tributaries.

In the existing state, the remaining native cutthroat populations are small, isolated, less fit, and likely use the habitat less efficiently or less completely than was the case under pristine conditions, making them highly vulnerable to local extinction. These weakened remnants are confronted with artificial habitats, changing climate, and other habitat changes that the native stocks have never encountered before, while having to contend with new predators and competitors. These habitat changes tend to favour hybridization, accelerating stock losses. The subspecies as a whole has lost much of its adaptive and evolutionary potential with the loss of so many locally adapted stocks.

— summarized & adapted from Mayhood, D. W. 2014. Conceptual framework and recovery guidelines for restoring westslope cutthroat trout populations in Alberta. FWR Technical Report 2014/03-1 prepared on behalf of Timberwolf Wilderness Society for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, and Species At Risk Division, Fisheries & Oceans Canada.

Dave Mayhood, M.Sc, an aquatic ecologist & President, FWR Freshwater Research Limited, has worked in the field for 50 years. He wrote the first conservation assessment of Alberta’s westslope cutthroat trout, and authored or co-authored several reports that formed the basis for Alberta’s recovery plan and the federal recovery strategy for the species. He is also President of Timberwolf Wilderness Society.


Alberta’s Westslope Cutthroat Trout and the

Species At Risk Act

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) is a federal law intended to provide legal protection for species at risk and meet Canada’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Biological Diversity. Central to the act is the identification and protection of 'critical habitat’ - habitat that is necessary for the survival and recovery of the species at risk.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada identified the westslope cutthroat trout as threatened in 2005, but the Canadian government took until 2013 to put the species on the list of legally identified at-risk species. SARA requires the minister to issue a recovery strategy that identifies the critical habitat of the species within one year of a species being put on the list. The recovery strategy was released in 2014, but it only partially identified the critical habitat of the westslope cutthroat trout and noted the identified habitat was insufficient to recover the species. In the recovery strategy, the minister said a second round of critical habitat sufficient to recover the species would be identified in an action plan by March 31, 2015.

SARA requires the Minister to issue an order protecting critical habitat within 180 days of critical habitat being identified in an action plan. However, the Minister did not do so until December 2015, after being sued by Timberwolf Wilderness Society and the Alberta Wilderness Association.

The legal protection of critical habitat sufficient to recover the species should have been done almost four years ago. Freedom of information requests for government records show critical habitat was identified by mid-2017, if not earlier. The records also raise concerns that Alberta Forestry and Agriculture has resisted expanded critical habitat that might interfere with logging operations around the habitat of the westslope cutthroat trout. Leaving critical habitat identification for action plans and then delaying them for years at a time cheats species at risk out of the habitat protection the act was supposed to provide them. Timberwolf Wilderness Society is suing the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to get the legal protection SARA promised for the westslope cutthroat trout.

Drew Yewchuk is staff lawyer with the University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic. He has worked extensively on the westslope cutthroat trout file in connection with the Species At Risk Act.





Castle Region

The Castle River region has been the subject of sometimes bitter conservation battles for more than 100 years.  Recent actions by Alberta's NDP to create a park and wildland region in the Castle have initiated resolution to conflicts that arose due to its former multi-use designation.  Ongoing efforts are needed however, to ensure the area is not disturbed by motorized vehicle access and random camping.


  Environmental Issues

  • Rare and At-Risk Species

There are over 250 rare and at-risk species including grizzly bears and native westslope cutthroat trout, both listed as threatened under Alberta's Wildlife Act.  Both species continue to be threatened by habitat fragmentation as a result of multi-use activities in the region.

  •  Watershed Hydrology

The foothills and Rocky Mountains act as water storage and recharge sites for the headwaters of many east  and northward flowing rivers including the Castle and the Carbondale rivers which feed into the Oldman and Crowsnest rivers.  These rivers and the groundwater flow that feeds them are subject to changes in the characteristics of surface runoff in the foothills and  mountains. Human impacts on the basins, including trail use, clear-cut logging and wildfires can significantly reduce the capacity of these basins to store water: an important consideration in light of the expected changes in the frequency of intense precipitation events that are expected from to global warming.  Soil erosion can limit the potential for the region to regenerate forest cover and restore wildlife  habitat.  In order to safeguard the Eastern Slopes for the enjoyment and health of future generations of wildlife and humans, as well as plant life and all manner of interconnected relationships to soils, microorganisms and insects that support them, these catchments need to be managed primarily for watershed protection.

  •  Forests

Forests are the living basis for the Castle ecosystem and need to be considered not just as renewable resources for human use (tree farms), but as integral components of the function of the Castle watershed for all manner of life forms along the Eastern Slopes.  Changes to the forest soils due to long-term deposition of atmospheric pollutants puts the soils and the future of the forests and their inhabitants at risk when clear-cut logging removes the overgrowth and exposes soils to erosion. Overgrowth as well as the diverse grasses and shrubs maintain a balance between organic and mineral materials within the soil structure that help the system to recover and restore native plants adapted to this environment.

  •  Wildlife

The Castle region is the site of dens as well as more than 500 known rub sites for threatened grizzly bears.  Logging takes place within critical winter habitat for ungulates during a period when the area is supposed to be closed to logging according to provincial government guidelines.  The Castle-Carbondale elk herd is one of the most robust and important in Alberta, yet is one that is under considerable pressure from habitat disturbance from logging roads and potentially the impacts of Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) use.  Elk seek habitat away from the influence of roads, to which they are surprisingly sensitive: OHV use as far away as a kilometer is known to cause a response in elk. Enforcement of limited or no motorized vehicle access to the area is a critical issue that requires concerted action.



Land Claim

Timberwolf Wilderness Society, a coalition acting in defense of wildlife and wilderness areas, initiated legal actions to protect the Castle Wilderness region.  Land claim proceedings were brought forward on behalf of rare and endangered plant and animal species living in the Castle region.

Mike Judd, a second-generation outfitter from Beaver Mines, Alberta, is a spokesperson for Timberwolf Wilderness Society. "As far as we know this is the first time in Canada anyone has filed a land claim on behalf of the resident wildlife.  Legal proceedings to date have failed to protect the Castle. Timberwolf is pursuing new and innovative legal strategies that will hold the Alberta Government accountable for the environmental devastation taking place in the Castle and require the Alberta Government to take action to protect the Castle."


Legal Protection and Species at Risk

Shaun Fluker, as Assistant Professor with the University of Calgary Faculty of Law, confirm the Alberta Government has an obligation to provide legal protection for the endangered and threatened species in the Castle and is not fulfilling this obligation. "Alberta is signatory to the 1996 National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk which obligates Alberta to establish legal protection for endangered and threatened species. The Wildlife Act (Alberta) provides no meaningful protection for endangered species in Alberta despite its legal status as an endangered species under the Wildlife Act is perhaps the clearest evidence foe this." Professor Fluker agrees that new legal strategies are needed to protect the Castle.

Dave Mayhood is an Aquatic Ecologist with Freshwater Research Limited: "Several of the very few remaining pure native Alberta cutthroat trout populations live in the Castle drainage.  These tiny but critical stocks are highly likely to go extinct if the land continues to be abused.  They must be protected if native cutthroats are to survive here. The Carbondale drainage in the Castle River Country has been almost denuded by decades of logging and wildfire. Its fish and wildlife are under severe threat from its dense network of roads. More logging and more roads in this basin are unconscionable."

Legal actions to hold the government accountable to the law regarding species at risk habitat are underway.



Timberwolf Wilderness Society provided input to the Provincial government opposing further development of the Castle Mountain Ski Resort.

Timberwolf Wilderness Society aims to help people to develop an appreciation and motivation to care for and protect wilderness regions along the eastern slopes in Alberta. We invite you to take part in our vision and activities that improve our appreciation for ecosystem functions that sustain us and wildlife around us.

Timberwolf Wilderness Society acts to protect and improve wild lands and wildlife habitat along the Eastern Slopes of Alberta, Canada, through legal, political and public action.