LAKE LOUISE – Working hard to take a bite out of invasive aquatic species in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, pilot projects introduced in 2019 have found success.
Parks Canada Aquatics Specialist for Lake Louise Yoho and Kootenay Shelley Humphries said projects in 2019 were able to help nurture the ecosystems in Canada’s national parks.
“We had a super busy summer,” Humphries said.
Whirling disease and invasive mussels are a major concern in national parks, she said, explaining that a major step in limiting the spread of each has been active participation from the public.
Whirling disease was found in Johnson Lake Banff National Park for the first time in 2016.
“There’s no harm or risk to people at all, but it is devastating to trout,” Humphries said.
Most locations that have found to be infected with whirling disease are in the eastern end of the national park near the Banff townsite, along with some locations in the Upper Bow. An outlying area was also found near Lake Louise in a small pond with infected rainbow trout.
This fall, Humphries and her team used an organically-derived plant-based chemical to remove all fish from Little Herbert Lake and will continue to test over the next couple of years to ensure that the life cycle of the whirling disease parasite has been broken by removing the fish host from the system.
“Hopefully, we’ve removed this place on the landscape and will stop or slow down the spread of this infection,” Humphries said. "We definitely don’t want it to go into British Columbia.”
As of now, there are no plans to restock the lake.
The most important aspect of helping stop the spread of aquatic invasive species has been the self-certification program for all anglers and paddlers in Yoho and Kootenay national parks.
When the lakes became ice-free, a mandatory self-inspection was required of those looking to enter the water using their personal water-craft or fishing gear.
“People need to fill it out and self assess and ensure that they ask if they have properly cleaned, drained and dried the equipment they were using before they bring it into the park,” Humphries said.
“We don’t want people going from water body to water body. With whirling disease now in some parts of Banff, but not in other parts and not in Yoho or Kootenay, the days of letting people wander across all of these major divides between these major river networks has to end.”
The process is a step in educating people and encouraging them to reassess how they think about the water.
Invasive mussels get closer to the Rockies each year, she said, explaining that the provincial check stations are at the front line of preventing their spread.
“Every year they encounter boats that are infected with invasive mussels,” Humphries said. “It would just be devastating to our ecosystem if they got in here.
"It can change the whole fish community or crash fish populations ... once you’ve got them it's almost impossible to get rid of them.”
The key is to drive home how the species being targeted are microscopic and will not be seen by the naked eye, which makes cleaning gear all the more important. She said she encourages people to keep an eye out for water and mud on crafts.
“We’ve had very positive feedback when [Parks Canada] summer students were out talking to the public,” Humphries said. She added that they had about 1,000 permits over the summer. “For the first year of our program, I think that we did good and that it’s a great public communication tool.”
The team also dealt with an old aquatic invasive species at Hidden Lake located behind the Lake Louise ski area.
The restoration project in the area began in 2011 because the lake used to have westlope cutthroat trout. The area was compromised when brook trout got into the lake in the 1970s and quickly took over and spread out the valley.
Netting, electrofishing and angling were used to help with population numbers, she said, but as less invasive tools they did not find success in that area.
A pilot program was introduced in 2018 that used organically-derived plant-based chemicals into the ecosystem. The first treatment was very successful, she said.
The second and final treatment took place in 2019 and there are no fish left in the lake or the upper four kilometres.
“Now our plan is to introduce westslope cutthroat trout to that area,” Humphries said.
She added that as of now the process of this reintroduction has not been decided and will not likely take place until 2021.
People will be able to take a guided hike into the Hidden Lake area with a Parks Canada trained interpreter. The focus of the hike will be the westlope cutthroat trout, but other species will be featured.
“It’s a great spot to go and talk about species at risk we have in Banff, including whitebark pine … wolverines and bears and some interesting rare plants,” Humphries said.
A driving belief of Parks Canada is to ensure national parks have proper species in the proper places in the ecosystem, Humphries said, and they are eager to share with Canadians so they can learn about these places and treasure them.
“If somebody goes on a hike like that, they are going to get an amazing experience because they are going to be going out with a highly trained interpretive guide that works with Parks – they’re going to be able to answer all their questions about what they are seeing," she said.
She added it is especially important because they can give up to date details on restoration project as they continue on the journey, giving guests a high level of information by participating in this pilot project.
“I feel like this is a growth area for all agencies that manage water and fish because the downside of getting a new aquatic invasive species is just so expensive and so harmful to the environment,” Humphries said. “Prevention is our best line of defence.”