Threatened fish take historic helicopter ride in Banff National Park

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BANFF NATIONAL PARK — The small westslope cutthroat trout slide out of a blue camping cooler as Mark Taylor carefully lowers it into their new home, Rainbow Lake.

Taylor, an aquatics ecologist for Banff National Park, has rigged the cooler with an oxygen tank and hauled the fish on a helicopter from nearby Sawback Lake, where staff and volunteers caught the trout.

It’s only a three-minute ride, or a few kilometres as the crow flies, but it’s a historic move for both Banff National Park and the overall recovery of a species at risk.

“This is the first time that we have collectively, not just Parks Canada, created a new population of fish,” said Taylor.

The project to relocate about 100 fish, which took place on Wednesday and Thursday, fit into the recovery plan for the trout by both protecting the species and creating new populations.

Westslope cutthroat trout, an iconic Alberta fish named for the red slash on their throat, were federally listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act in March 2013 due to habitat loss, overharvesting and competition with non-native species.

A Westslope Cutthroat Trout.

A westslope cutthroat trout.

Shane Petry/Department of Fisheries and Oceans /

Herald archives

In Banff National Park, the population has been reduced by more than 80 per cent of its historic range.

Westslope cutthroat trout exist in the Cascade River, but their genetics have been compromised by downstream movement and the subsequent hybridization with rainbow trout from Rainbow Lake.

Both Rainbow Lake and Sawback Lake flow into the Cascade River.

A map of the area.

A map of the area.

Parks Canada

“We do have a fairly close to perfect watershed downstream with just a few bad apples — we had a few rainbow trout and this problem of hybridization,” explained Taylor. “You can’t really fix that problem until you get rid of the source of rainbow trout.”

Since 2011, Parks Canada has been working to eliminate the non-native trout from Rainbow Lake by using gill nets and electrofishing in an attempt to restore the Upper Cascade watershed to its historic state.

They removed 528 rainbow trout and left the lake without any fish for almost two years — until this week.

During two days at Sawback Lake, one of only 10 core populations of pure native cutthroat trout in the national park, a team of about a dozen Parks Canada staff and Trout Unlimited volunteers caught 100 of the estimated 2,500 fish in the lake.

Staff from Parks Canada and volunteers from Trout Unlimited fish for westslope cutthroat trout in Sawback Lake to move to Rainbow Lake.

Staff from Parks Canada and volunteers from Trout Unlimited fly-fishing for westslope cutthroat trout in Sawback Lake.

Colette Derworiz /

Calgary Herald

“This has been an amazing opportunity and project for the volunteers and Trout Unlimited to help capture these native westslope cutthroat trout,” said Rob Buffer, president of the Bow headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada.

“They are beautiful fish in an incredible place and, to restock a new lake with these native fish, it’s been really great.”

Trout Unlimited had about half a dozen volunteers between the ages of 13 and 83 helping with the project.

Volunteer Gerry Stephenson, 83, said he caught a 40-centimetre-long cutthroat trout among the 30 or so fish he brought in.

“I’m sure there are bigger ones in the lake, but they didn’t come to my fly,” he said. “Most fly-fishermen know that cutthroat are very special … and we don’t have many of them.

“This effort to spread the pods of cutthroat to different lakes is a good way to enhance the species but also, if something dramatic happened to this lake and killed off these fish, now with some of the fish going to Rainbow, they are a totally different source.”

A helicopter picks up water in Rainbow Lake as he goes to pick up a bucket of westslope cutthroat trout.

A helicopter pilot picks up water in Rainbow Lake as he goes to move a load of westslope cutthroat trout.

Colette Derworiz /

Calgary Herald

After a morning of fly-fishing and putting the trout into tanks, volunteers transferred the larger cutthroats into a water bucket slung on the bottom of the helicopter, which then transported the fish over the mountains to Rainbow Lake.

There, Taylor and resource conservation manager Bill Hunt proudly watched as the fish were placed into the water.

“This is a fantastic day,” said Hunt of the $160,000 project, which also included some genetic testing. “We began work four years ago and this is the final day of the project.”

Mark Taylor (left), a Parks Canada's aquatic ecologist and Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager with Banff National Park, stand in front of Rainbow Lake after reintroducing genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout from Sawback

Mark Taylor (left), a Parks Canada aquatic ecologist, and Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager with Banff National Park, stand in front of Rainbow Lake after introducing genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout.

Colette Derworiz /

Calgary Herald

Taylor said he breathed a sigh of relief Thursday as the project came to its conclusion.

“You sort of get an attachment to a project like this when you work on it year after year — just the investment and the fact that this project is related to the recovery strategy for westslope cutthroat trout,” he said. “So I feel like I am contributing something bigger than even just to Banff National Park.”

All that could be left on the project now is changing the name of Rainbow Lake.

“There’s a bunch of paperwork I’d have to do,” he said, “but it would be a good idea.”

cderworiz@calgaryherald.com

Twitter: cderworiz

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