Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC), Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) and Golder Associates hosted the 2011 Artic Grayling Symposium in Grande Prairie, Alberta from June 7 to 9 this year. It was the third in a series of symposiums devoted to Arctic grayling conservation issues, following events in Prince George, British Columbia in 2000 and Jackson, Montana in 2005.
The symposium included presentations focused on the areas of biology and natural history, monitoring approaches, threats to conservation, and management strategies, as well as a field trip to sites along the nearby Beaverlodge River where Arctic grayling were extirpated during the 1990s.
"I think the field trip was very valuable," said Brian Meagher, TUC's provincial biologist for western Canada, adding that the visit to the actual ecosystem allowed participants to really witness and discuss the problems experienced at that location, as well as how those issues are being addressed by a local stewardship group and the owner of the adjacent property.
"It's primarily land use," Meagher continued, discussing the reasons for the extirpation of the grayling in that area. "It's never one thing. But land use is a major component of it. In the Beaverlodge situation, it's primarily agricultural transition. There's some forestry issues in the headwaters. And there's oil and gas industrial activity going on quite often through the community."
Additionally, grey water flows into the river from Beaverlodge's sewage treatment plant. The town also installed a weir to retain water for the community and other water users in the area.
"And that sort of was a barrier to migration," said Meagher. "As well as the water quality was altered based on different community users. And so the process now is to go in and do tree plantings and riparian setbacks and just talking with landowners to try and stop the bleeding."
Meagher described riparian areas with an appropriate amount of natural vegetation as having a "sponge effect."
"The water, basically, is retained in those willows or shrubs or trees or whatnot," he explained. "As well, they basically form what they call natural rebar in holding the bank stability. So, you avoid slumpage into the river."
Riparian vegetation also shades the river, which is important for coldwater fish species, in addition to providing habitat for birds and the insects that may ultimately fall into the water to be eaten by fish.
"Some people just don't know that if you remove all the trees from a riparian area, you don't have the protection the river needs," Meagher continued, discussing the important role of education in conservation efforts.
"If you're a landowner," he said, "and you're running an operation, every square foot of your property is valuable. And they all try to use it. And it's just a matter of having the right tools to understand and, as well, the funding to put in fencing and to put in trees and stuff, because it's not cheap."
The symposium was sponsored and attended by members of the oil and gas community operating in the region, as well as government departments, conservation organizations, and other resource industries, including mining and forestry.
"We always would like to have more participation," Meagher admitted, although the event did exceed TUC's expectations with approximately 140 people in attendance.
"There [were] individuals from Suncor and Devon," he said. "And the forest industry had representatives there. And so having those types of individuals who are actually working on the ground in those locations is very valuable, as well as the funding that some of the other organizations provided to actually hold the conference was very appreciated and needed."
Meagher noted that the participation of the resource industries in these events does a great deal to help TUC move forward with its conservation work.
"I think that the reality of the situation is that a lot of the work getting done on the ground is being stimulated by industry in ways of mitigation and compensation," he said. "It's much harder for a grassroots organization to try and drive those projects."
According to Meagher, the fact that resource industries have to satisfy regulatory requirements is a significant factor in facilitating conservation projects because of "the funding and the deadlines that come along with industrial activity in mitigation and compensation types of projects."
Ultimately, the goal of an event such as the Arctic Grayling Symposium is to bring people together and encourage discussion about conservation.
"There's two sort of benefits to it," said Meagher. "One is the obvious benefit about hearing research and getting people connected and up to date with what's going on in other parts of the world where they might not have contacts or information."
The second benefit is the opportunity to focus discussion on Arctic grayling issues among all interested stakeholders from university researchers to the energy sector.
"And there's a lot of conversations that go on during the coffee breaks and in the evening and stuff like that." Meagher added. "By holding it at a college where we had a dorm-like situation for a lot of the participants, it made it really easy for people just to sit around the dorms after, on the couches, and have conversations about methods or projects and stuff like that. And a lot of sort of light switches were flicking big time."