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Saving Fish Habitat

By Katie Stewart, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


Let me begin by saying I do not know anything about angling or, for that matter, how to catch fish, except for jigging cod. Although I did "sports-gillnet", as a friend so aptly described it, in the early 1970s on the Fraser River out of Steveston. That was an interesting interlude in my life, gillnetting by hand among the "real" fishboats. I was taken aback by some names of the commercial fish boats such as " Count the Cash" and "Pacific Marauder."

I do know, however, the organization I am involved in as a volunteer director — TLC, The Land Conservancy of British Columbia, which formed two years ago.

We are a provincial land trust. Our primary mandate is the protection of natural ecological communities critical to maintaining biodiversity. We do that by working with landowners through stewardship programs and holding conservation covenants on land and by outright acquisition of property, often in partnership(s).

So far, in our two years of existence, we have purchased -- but have not finished paying for — six properties and are negotiating several more. The properties vary, from South Winchelsea Island with its rare, endangered Garry oak ecosystems, to Reynolds Ranch, with its also endangered bluebunch wheatgrass-grasslands to a heritage house in Victoria.

On October 31, 1998 we finalized our third purchase, 800+ acres (313.1 ha) of the 1227-acre Black Creek Ranch, about 55 kilometres east of Williams Lake on the Horsefly River, containing critical fish-rearing habitat. According to the federal Department of Fisheries, the Horsefly is home to a prolific race of sockeye salmon -- the river accounted for half the 1993 Fraser River catch -- as well as coho and chinook. The spawning reach from McKinley Creek to Black Creek (within the Black Creek Ranch) supported approximately 270,000 spawners in 1997.

The river is also used for juvenile rearing of the trophy-sized rainbow trout, which are second largest in the world. These migrate from Quesnel Lake "to forage on salmon spawn and other invertebrates," says Rob Dolighan, Zone Supervisor, Horsefly and Chilcotin Forest Districts, Ministry of Environment, Fisheries Branch. The rainbow trout have been successfully used for brood stock in programs to create small lake trophy fishing opportunities elsewhere.

The impetus to protect the river habitat began two years ago and gained the support of many parties. The land had been identified as a high priority for federal and provincial fisheries protection, management and renewal, for both trout and sockeye salmon. Biologists from both levels of government had noted the significance of the spawning areas from McKinley Creek to Black Creek.

The area was extensively cleared for ranching, causing damage to riparian areas, which has resulted in bank erosion, siltation and destabilization of the river. Various assessments over the last four years have identified a number of problems such as significant loss of riparian habitat and back-channel rearing habitats.

Through the purchase of over half the ranch, cattle have now be removed from the river area and restoration work will be undertaken this summer.

TLC has given the Ministry of Environment a 99-year lease to manage the riparian area. Dolighan says a draft management plan has been drawn up after a meeting held with DFO, the Quesnel Watershed Alliance and other wildlife people. His entire $110,000 regional budget for the local Watershed Restoration Program will be used at the ranch this year to re-establish off-channel rearing habitats and to restore riparian areas trampled by cattle, eroded stream banks and to control livestock access.

Dolighan says the Horsefly is probably one of British Columbia´s "Blue Ribbon" rivers. Its "Class 2 water" designation is for highly valued fisheries, he says.

"It´s been kept real secret," he says. "The area within Black Creek Ranch has high use by guides. We manage the number of days and number of guides. If it eventually becomes too crowded, we would have to establish a limited entry system to preserve the aesthetic values of the fishing experience. We don´t want it oversaturated.

" In order to minimize rainbow trout mortality in the Horsefly River sport fishery, a single barbless artificial fly catch and release regulation is currently in effect, says Dolighan.

Dolighan plans to set up "photo points" to document the changes taking place on the river. Eventually the Ministry of Environment hopes to have kiosks for public viewing with a photographic record.

"It´s a good property," says Dolighan, "a real winner."

Dolighan is trying to get crown land added to the protected area to double its size. He would like a connective corridor from McKinley Creek to Horsefly Falls, which would also help in the recovery of moose habitat.

Other wildlife species include the fisher, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, grey wolf, cougar, mule deer, red squirrel, beaver, muskrat, coyote, red fox, marten, ermine, long tailed weasel, mink, river otter, bobcat, black bear, and lynx as well as an abundance of raptors such as eagles and osprey. The area is known for a high density of black bears and bald eagles, which gather to feed on spawning sockeye in the fall.

Ranching will continue at Black Creek Ranch. Two of the ranch areas that have been purchased will available for calving, allowing the ranch owner time to bring another section of the ranch away from the river into production. Fencing has been erected in these areas to ensure that the livestock have minimal impact on the rehabilitation.

TLC was able to purchase the riparian area of Black Creek Ranch thanks to major funding of $450,000 from the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and $150,000 from the DFO. We have taken out a $175,000 mortgage for our share of the purchase. We have until October 31 to raise that money.

You can help protect this important fish habitat forever by sending a tax-deductible donation, by cheque or credit card, to The Land Conservancy of British Columbia, 5793 Old West Saanich Road, Victoria, B.C. V8X 3X3. Please designate your gift to Black Creek Ranch; this money will go entirely to this project.

TLC is also raising $1.1 million by the end of July to purchase the last remaining intact riparian area on the lower Nanaimo River. The site contains 140 acres (56 ha) of old growth Douglas-fir forest in two parcels. These properties are valuable for their forestry values alone, as the old-growth coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem is endangered, according to the Ministry of Environment´s Conservation Date Centre. These properties also contain vital fish habitat, the principal reason we want to buy and protect them.

Steelhead, rainbow and cutthroat trout, and chinook, coho, pink and chum salmon are all found in the river. The floodplain is particularly important as coho habitat.

Negotations have been finalized for the $250,000 purchase of the 40-acre parcel from MacMillan Bloedel. The second privately owned property is in imminent danger because loggers are poised to start clearcutting. Because the Forest Practices Code is not applicable, there is no guarantee that the company will leave an adequate buffer zone. According to a number of experts, any significant removal of trees from this property could drastically alter fish and wildlife habitat. Negotations are not completed for this parcel.

If you´d like to donate to this project as well, designate Nanaimo River.

Check out our website for the full description of the Nanaimo River and Black Creek projects, as well as the other preservation areas we are working on.

Our membership now stands at around 350 and our goal is 10,000. If you like what we are trying to do, please consider becoming a member. Dues are $15 student/senior/low income, $35 individual, $50 family, $100 supporter. You can join on-line through our website.

For more information contact the office at the above address or email:

Katie Stewart is a compositor at the Times Colonist in Victoria and an avid amateur naturalist who devotes her spare time to trying to protect habitat.

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