Prior to European settlement, the Beaverlodge Watershed in northwestern Alberta was wooded and scattered with wetlands. With settlement, the watershed was modified for agricultural use.Where farm lands weren't managed to maintain riparian health, there has been general degredation of water quality due to the increase of sediments, nutrients and other chemicals in the water.
Restoring Fish Habitat One Tree at a Time
Prior to European settlement, the Beaverlodge Watershed in northwestern Alberta was wooded and scattered with wetlands. With settlement, the watershed was modified for agricultural use.Where farm lands weren't managed to maintain riparian health, there has been general degredation of water quality due to the increase of sediments, nutrients and other chemicals in the water. The Beaverlodge River, a tributary of the Peace River, was an important spawning ground of the Arctic Grayling, a cool-water sportfish. Since 1994 Arctic grayling have not been present in the Beaverlodge River or its tributaries and are presumed to have been extirpated from the watershed. With the Arctic grayling now only found in 60% of its historical range in Alberta, Alberta's Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) has identified Arctic grayling as a Species of Special Concern, meaning that without human intervention, it may soon become threatened with extinction.
Observation on the state of the watershed by the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA), Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (ASRD) and the County of Grande Prairie from the early 2000s, identified agricultural impacts on the river and determined that Arctic grayling no longer use the Beaverlodge for spawning. In 2003, the Grande Prairie Riparian Action Team (GPRAT) was formed by members of various departments, organizations and non-profits for the purpose of restoring the watershed. Between 2004 and 2007, the group completed a number of riparian restoration projects. Though now disbanded, GPRAT's work has provided a strong foundation for subsequent efforts in the watershed's restoration.
In 2006 the Agroforestry and Woodlot Extension Society (AWES) along with the County of Grande Prairie, the West County Watershed Group, and the (ACA) initiated a project to establish riparian forest buffers on farms in the Beaverlodge watershed. According to the Association for Temperate Agroforestry, riparian forest buffers are “strips of trees, shrubs and grass planted between cropland or pasture and surface water courses. Buffers protect water quality, reduce erosion and flooding."Riparian buffers allow for the coexistence of agricultural production and environmental sustainability. This project was initiated with a small group of amateur tree planters from the partner organizations who, with the help of Jill Henry, the County's Rural Extension Officer, identified farmers who might be interested in participating.
As the project developed it became clear that there was a substantial amount of private land available for tree planting, a daunting task well beyond the capacity of a handful of extension officers. Doug Macaulay, Agroforestry Specialist with the AWES, recalls his realization of the breadth of the task, “We had hundreds of acres available to us but if we continued to rely on the original handful of us 'desk folk' to do the planting, it would take a century or more to reforest the watershed! We needed tree planters.”
Macaulay spent the winter of 2007 developing an ambitious three year project to plant a total of 66 000 trees on several farms along the Beaverlodge River and its tributaries. By spring of 2008 he was informed that his application to the ACA's Grant Eligible Fund had been successful. Moreover, local nurseries had surplus trees to donate. PRT Nurseries in Beaverlodge and Woodmere Nurseries in Fairview, supplied 22 000 seedlings free of charge. The local tree planting company, Next Generation Reforestation, was hired to work on the project.
Advertising the program through the local media, five farmers with land that was suitable for planting were chosen for the project. By the end of 2008, 50 acres of riparian buffer had been planted to trees. The following two years the project received further funding from the ACA's Grant Eligible Fund, enabling a total of 66, 000 trees to be planted on 150 acres of farmland. Knowing that the status of riparian health can help determine further improvements, an inventory and assessment of the current riparian health status on 10 project sites was completed in 2009, in partnership with Cows and Fish. These assessments also provide a baseline for monitoring. About half of the sites were already healthy and are enhanced with the tree planting. Most of the others were healthy but with problems and one was unhealthy. Work towards improving the health of those sites will include enhancing or restoring a native plant component.
In 2010 the project received a grant from Alberta Environment's Environmental Damages Fund allowing another 50 acres to be planted. By the end of 2010, the combined efforts of the ACA, AWES and the County had led to the planting of nearly 100,000 trees on approximately 200 acres of 22 different farms. Furthermore, they were no longer actively seeking participants but rather local farmers were coming to the group requesting to participate.
Though the Arctic Grayling and a few other sportfish are lost from the Beaverlodge watershed, there is hope that they will return one day as the fish habitats are restored, including replanting and revitalizing the riparian forests. Residents of the region formalized their watershed group as the West County Watershed Society (WCWS) last spring. “The West County Watershed Society (WCWS) believes the loss of fish is a cumulative issue,"says President Cathy Newhook. “WCWS plans to look at all the actions required to bring the Beaverlodge River back. We are getting a very positive response from private land owners, industry and all levels of government and we will all work together for the restoration of our water shed."In 2011 and beyond the partners are planning to continue working in the area. “In sites at all levels of riparian health,"says Kerri O'Shaughnessy, riparian specialist, “attention to land and riparian management principles will help maintain and improve riparian health overall in the watershed, and ensure the success of the newly planted trees."Perhaps the next generation of landowners will see the fish back in the watershed.