WATCHING A CREEK DIE!  ONE MAN’S OBSERVATION


It isn't pretty but it's happening to the premier spring creek in Alberta. The North Raven River [Stauffer Creek] is internationally renowned. From when it was first stocked in the late 1920's or early 1930's it was largely ignored by most anglers and like a lot of streams in Alberta was severely abused by agribusiness. In the late 1960's the Red Deer Fish and Game funded  Fish and Wildlife [now Alberta Sustainable Resource Development  SRD] to do a fish population study. The study plus the availability of monies raised from the newly created Buck for Wildlife Fund resulted in tens of thousands of dollars spent on livestock exclusion fences, bank stabilization and land acquisition. The Fish and Wildlife Division efforts were augmented later by thousands of volunteer hours, plus further thousands of dollars from the Central Alberta Chapter of Trout Unlimited. As a result the fish populations exploded.

Way back about 2002 or so I had a gut feeling that Stauffer Creek was suffering some type of problem as the number of decent fish I and others were catching dropped dramatically. The drop was to the point that most anglers voted with their feet and didn't go there any more.
My gut feeling was reinforced by the Alberta Conservation Association's [ACA] Population study undertaken in 2005. It showed a marked drop in larger brown trout. The brown population peaked in 1985 at 770 fish/km decreasing to 400 in 1995 and falling further in 2005 to 270. 

In an effort to confirm what I "thought" was happening, over the past 6 years I have paid attention to the number of redds that I see and to that end  I've walked the upper reaches of Stauffer upwards of one-half dozen times each fall/winter looking for evidence of spawning trout demonstrated by the amount of redds. For example, in the  section just downstream of the Buck for Wildlife parking lot, the redd count dropped from 14>16 five years ago to 12  fours years ago to  9 three years ago and dropped again to 5 last year and finally to 2 this year. This is a 85% reduction in just the last five years. Other sections showed much the same decrease.

The number of redds are important for two reasons.

1] They show the amount of healthy mature fish within the population.

2] Lots of redds mean lots of fish for the future.

Have the browns moved to other locations to spawn. This is possible but highly unlikely. I have walked from east of the Stauffer Road [Secondary Road  #761] approximately 3.5 stream miles upstream many times over the past 40 years and there have  been only a few locations in that mileage that the brown trout have used for redd building. Certainly there were some with 2 to 5 redds here and there but only in four location widely separated was spawning activity occurring. Virtually all the spawning on Stauffer Creek exists from 400 yards east of the Buck for Wildlife Parking lot to Range road  #60 east of the Butte Community Hall. This mileage may add up to <>2 miles with the primary spawning happening in small stretches throughout.

The real question is why the reduction in brown trout. Certainly the stream habitats had to be getting better and better as more livestock exclusion fencing was installed covering all the stream up to the headsprings, the beaver populations were under as much control as reasonable, the regulation changes reduced or eliminated most of the springtime killing sprees and there seemed to be few encounters with poachers. What is curious is the amount of brook trout have actually increased from the 1995>2005 population runs. Some of the brook trout increase could be attributed to the extensive works that the Central Alberta Chapter  of Trout Unlimited did near the headsprings.

I attended a meeting with SRD/ACA in Rocky Mountain House  in 2007 attempting to get Government to respond to population drop in the creek.  During this meeting, I expressed my concerns with the decreasing brown trout numbers but was assured that the decrease was either normal fluctuations or an abnormality within the 1995 population run.
Although SRD was seemly unconcerned, they did request the ACA to do another population run in 2010. At this point in 2012, this has not been done. The SRD also arranged the Dept. of Environment to analyze the water quality which was done. The Dept. of Environment sampled at Highway #54/Stauffer Creek crossing and quoting from the letter received “the water temperatures and chemistry was within acceptable limits. However, nutrient concentrations were higher in 2007 relative to previous years, and could represent a risk to increased productivity and alteration of the aquatic ecosystem.  As development in the area continues, there is the increased risk of direct effects to the aquatic ecosystem.”


During the meeting  with SRD in 2007 several items were discussed:

1] Water Quality is always an issue when any stream can be impacted by agriculture/domestic usage or oil and gas. Physical  and chemical examination of the stream should be done.

2] Insect populations: Can fluctuate dramatically due to water temperature and quality resulting in poor fish health.

3] Water temperatures: Fish life is dependant on stream temperatures.

4] Predation: Any number of birds or animals can feed on trout.

5] Disease: There are a host of diseases that will effect fish health and survival.

6] Fish numbers. In order to determine a rough count of mature fish a redd count was done each fall.


Below is a discussion of each of the above items.

Water Quality

Physical Examination has been done a number of times over the past 40 years. One thing was very obvious, below the Carr Creek confluence, the amount of weeds in the stream increased by many factors whereas above Carr Creek, the weed growth on the bottom was quite sparse. This suggests that nutrient enrichment  was occurring. The Carr Creek confluence is somewhat defined, but during spring run-off or heavy summer rains Carr Creek will over-flow its banks and enter Stauffer Creek well above and below the normal confluence. There is also increasing presence of a green algae material. This green algae showed up <>20 + years ago and now is found from the headsprings on downstream. The algae is in small patches of less than dinner plate size.

As the water test done by the Dept. of Environment  didn't look at all of the chemicals that could/might be causing fish kills it became apparent that a series of water tests were required to see if a chemical was the issue. The Edmonton Trout Unlimited Chapter funded the testing. I attempted to solicit help from the Alberta Dept. of Environment, Federal Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, various universities and a host of professionals on what tests should be done. Frankly, they collectively were a complete waste of time and effort. It is obvious that one of the tests required was for hydrocarbons specifically  Benzene, as benzene is typically part of gas/oil well effluent and in even relatively low concentrations can kill fish.. As Carr Creek supplies nutrient load, some testing was done for agricultural chemicals. A local  Agrologist from the County of Clearwater pointed out the chemicals that may be in the water.
The testing was done four times. A background sample was done in early April before any run-off had occurred, another was taken during the run-off and two more tests were done after heavy rains. All of the test samples were taken four hundred yards downstream of the Carr Creek/Stauffer Creek Confluence to capture the chance the chemicals were coming from Carr Creek.  While I would have liked to do more testing, the costs were quite high. Unfortunately, the test didn't reveal any chemical issues. What is critical to remember - just because I didn't find any chemical issues that does not mean that they do not occur.

Insect Populations:

Examination of the number and distribution of the types of insects can reveal a lot about the water quality in the stream. To that end, three members of the Central Alberta Chapter of Trout Unlimited sampled the insect life in three areas of the stream June 4, 2007. This sample date was chosen in an attempt to maximize the numbers and sizes of the insect nymphs. The furthest upstream sample point was on the Stainbrooke Property. Sample point #1 at  52 10 52.28N 114 41 07.68W was located just immediately upstream of the spring in a riffle area. The sample point #2 was in a similar riffle area downstream of the Carr Creek/Stauffer Creek Confluence at 52 10 28.16N 114 39 46.07W  with the  sample point #3 again in a riffle area was located directly downstream of the bridge at the Buck for Wildlife Parking Lot at 52 09 56.18N 114 38 38.46W.
Sample point #1 yielded 701 mayflies, 21 caddis, 72 stoneflies and 86 midges = 880 insects
Sample point #2 yielded 382 mayflies, 12 caddis, 0 stoneflies and 71 midges = 465 insects
Sample point #3 yielded 183 mayflies, 39 caddis, 0 stoneflies and 120 midges = 342 insects

Two things become readily apparent:
1]  Stoneflies decrease of "0" in the sample and midges increase dramatically.
2] The number of insects decreases the further downstream the samples were taken.

Stoneflies require well oxygenated water with clean bottoms and midges tend to increase in population as water quality decreases and nutrient load increases.

Water Temperature of the Stream

No effort was made to take water temperatures. As the brook trout are increasing in population as per the 2005 count and brook trout require colder water to thrive, I felt that water temperature wasn't likely to be an issue with the brown trout as they are least effected by high water temperatures of all the trout species.

Predation

In personal observations, I didn't see any of the fish eating mammals such as mink or otters. Others apparently did not see them either. While that does not mean that they do not exist, they seem to exist in low numbers. Pike are present however and in the 40+ years of fishing Stauffer Creek, I have seen 2, making pike an unlikely issue. One caveat - otters are now an issue on most streams and lakes in Central Alberta but otters were rarely seen on Stauffer previously. I have been told of a single sighting  from 1970>2004.

Fish Diseases

There are a host of fish diseases that could effect this stream. I have neither the expertise to identify or the money to hired professionals to see if any disease is occurring. One thing is apparent - the brook trout are doing OK.


Brown Trout Redd Count

The Redd Count areas are listed below. Each area is walked at least once per year and several of the areas two to five times. I've done the redd count for the past 6 years but have watched the number of redds in each location over the past 40+ years. I only started counting redds when it became apparent, at least to me, that there was a major problem.

Section #1 52 09 57.71N  114 38 23.6w > 52 09 55N 114 38 39W downstream of B for W parking lot typically 14>16 redds - dropped to 9 in 2010>5 in
2011>2 this year.

Section #2 52 10 13N 114 39 21W > 52 10 24N 114 39 42W from Lazy M Buildings > bridge directly upstream to bridge. Typically it has >30 - last year it was 26 - this year 20

Section #3 52 10 24N 114 39 42.7 W > 52 10 33N 114 40 4.9W from the
bridge above to the 1/4 line. This section has produced greater than 50
redds. Last year it was <>20 and this year 13

Section #4 located @ 52 10 54N 114 41 05.78W east of Stainbrooke east
property line <> 600 yards. - last year there was one redd - typically 6>8. Found 2 redds this year.

Section #5 52 11 23.9N 114 42 11.6W On the east property line of Leavitt
Springs downstream of culvert. Usually 3 redds - none this year or last.

In conclusion, I have done all that I can to identify the problem. Clearly the issue must be dealt with or we will lose the  brown trout from this stream.


Regards,

Don Andersen

Addendum:


1] For those wishing to see the ACA report on trout abundance, see :

http://www.ab-conservation.com/go/default/custom/uploads/reportseries2/Abun-Sprt-Fish-N-Raven-Rvr,AB-2005.pdf

I suggest that you pay attention to the following figures:

Page #21 - Figure # 2 Weighted mean estimate of brook trout abundance &  #3 Weighted mean estimate of brown trout abundance.

2] Communication with SRD:

       I emailed the insect study report to the Rocky Mountain House office of  SRD in 2007

        As the Trout Unlimited representative on a joint management team for the Leavitt and Stainbrooke  Properties, in 2011 I expressed my concerns about the lack of trout in the springs area in an to both the ACA and AF&G  representatives and as well CCed the non-voting member from SRD.

       as a result of the SRD did a “snap shot” population of the springs. Identified as an issue was the lack of  bottom structure @ the springs.

         In 2012, I organized and the Central Alberta Chapter of Trout Unlimited funded  the installation of <>25 instream willow bundles to aid in the survival of the trout.

        In December 2011, I communicated my observations to the Regional Manager of Fish and Wildlife in Rocky.

        In December 2012, I sent the first draft of this report to the Director of Fisheries for Alberta.

3] Digital copies of the insect study,  the report of water quality done by the Dept of Environment,  copies of the water analysis and the report on the instream work done in 2012 are available by contacting myself.