Westslope Cutthroat Trout

The Alberta population of westslope cutthroat trout was listed under the Species at Risk Act (Canada) (SARA) as a threatened species in 2013. The fish species is also listed as threatened under the Wildlife Act (Alberta), but a provincial listing has no legal implications. Westslope cutthroat trout were once abundant throughout the rivers and streams of the mountains and foothills in Alberta. Only a small fraction of the approximately 274 waterbodies historically occupied by westslope cutthroat trout still contain genetically pure populations of the trout in the upper Bow and Oldman watersheds of the South Saskatchewan River basin. The rapid decline in population numbers is known to be the result of invasive species, over-harvest, and habitat loss, problems exacerbated by decades of public land management in Alberta predicated on a multiple use ideology that has failed to halt activities which threaten the fish and its habitat.

The Clinic has worked with several environmental non-governmental organizations in Alberta in efforts to protect what remains of critical habitat for westslope cutthroat trout. In 2015, the Clinic was retained by the Alberta Wilderness Association to advise on commencing legal proceedings to require the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to issue a critical habitat order under SARA. These proceedings led to the issuance of the Westslope Cutthroat Trout Alberta Population Order, SOR/2015-241 which makes it an offence for any person to destroy any part of the critical habitat set out in the Recovery Strategy for westslope cutthroat trout. At the time of its issuance, this critical habitat order was only the second its kind to be issued under SARA. Subsequent to this, the Clinic has been retained by Timberwolf Wilderness Society as legal counsel for a series of judicial review applications in Federal Court seeking orders that mandate compliance by the Minister on various SARA obligations with respect to recovery planning for westslope cutthroat trout. The Clinic has also filed numerous access to information requests with provincial and federal departments to obtain a more complete picture and understanding of action and inaction by responsible officials in relation to the protection of critical habitat. Also see the Grassy Mountain Coal Mine.

This is an open and ongoing project, and the Clinic continues to monitor provincial and federal decisions which impact the Alberta population of westlope cutthroat trout and its critical habitat along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

In the news

Alberta Wilderness Association’s (AWA) work with the Public Interest Law Clinic has focused on the species at risk laws in Canada and in particular, how they relate to endangered westslope cutthroat trout. By working with Shaun Fluker, and the students who have been part of the clinic throughout the past two years, we have been able to examine questions of law and explore the resources available to the public and non-governmental organizations like the AWA to leverage efforts of all concerned to recover this endangered species. Giving the students real cases to work on and to learn from, and giving AWA the benefit of bright young law students to delve into the legalities, and ways of ensuring the laws are upheld is extremely important and we all benefit from the Public Interest Law Clinic. Our work together secured a Critical Habitat Order for Westslope Cutthroat Trout and further to the Order, we continue to work to ensure the federal government is taking meaningful steps to recover this species.

Joanna Skrajny

Conservation Specialist, Alberta Wilderness Association