New federal protections to spur bull trout recovery should shut down provincial coal mining plans for the Nordegg area and southern portion of the Eastern Slopes, says a central Alberta fisheries biologist.
Vance Buchwald is buoyed by the federal government’s recent approval of the plan ‘Recovery Strategy for the Bull Trout, Saskatchewan-Nelson Rivers populations, in Canada’ — and especially its critical habitat component.
The retired provincial fisheries biologist is cautiously optimistic this new strategy — which expands the area considered to be critical habitat — will give ecologists a valuable tool to fight future strip-mining operations in the Eastern Slopes.
Buchwald, who lives in Nordegg, said “critical habitat” is not just defined as where fish reside — but now also includes all waters upstream that could become contaminated by human activity and spoil downstream habitat for these endangered or threatened species.
Bull Trout are considered threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act.
New federal provisions in the Recovery Strategy for the Bull Trout also identify a 30-metre wide strip of protected area along the shores of rivers and streams. Buchwald said this is a big change from previous federal regulations, which varied the protected strip along water courses from five to 100 metres.
Now that Ottawa’s new trout recovery plan defines a 30-metre buffer, Buchwald believes the province must make provisions for this, and give smaller streams more protection from logging — as well as mining operations.
He noted both the Species at Risk Act and the Fisheries Act takes precedence over provincial legislation.
While the right to manage fish was transferred from the federal to the provincial government in the 1930 Alberta Natural Resources Act, he maintains the federal government never gave up all of its rights regarding fish habitat, according to provisions in the Fisheries Act.
Many Alberta conservationists are eager to see some level of government put a permanent stop to future strip mining plans on the Eastern Slopes, but Buchwald tells them it’s a waiting game.
He believes it will take time for both levels of government to resolve the matter as their plans — preserving fish habitat, versus future coal mining development — are at cross purposes.
Alberta Environment, Alberta Energy and the Alberta Energy Regulator were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.
Buchwald said conservationists are awaiting a decision from a federal-provincial review panel on the Grassy Mountain proposed coal mine in the Crowsnest Pass. The project would also be near bull trout habitat. The decision is expected in June.
Albertans can have a say on the government coal policy until Friday by going to the online survey at https://www.alberta.ca/coal-policy-engagement.aspx.