02/22/2018 13:17 EST | Updated 02/22/2018 14:00 EST

Alberta government backs off plans to close popular fishing rivers

EDMONTON — The Alberta government is backing away from a proposal to close several popular fishing rivers over concerns about stocks of native trout.

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said Thursday she isn't convinced the science is strong enough to ban angling on the Ram, Clearwater, Kakwa and North Saskatchewan rivers.

"We have a problem to fix together," she said after making the announcement at a meeting of the Alberta Fish and Game Association. 

"I wasn't convinced we were looking at it as holistically as we could after reviewing the feedback from the draft policy."

Department officials had suggested at recent public meetings those rivers would be closed over concerns that fish populations along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and in parts of the boreal forest are small fractions of what they used to be. Most of that decrease is blamed on habitat loss.

A 2015 study found virtually all southern Alberta streams that spawn native trout were threatened by forestry, energy development or overuse.

As a result, cutthroat populations are estimated at five per cent of historic levels. Bull trout — Alberta's provincial fish — have lost at least 70 per cent of their original range. Arctic grayling, once common in the north, are down to 10 per cent of historic levels.

Alberta is required by federal legislation to address problems with native fish species.

"It's really clear we have an issue with native trout species," Phillips said.

Although she warns stream closures may be reconsidered, she said her department will take other steps this season.

Biologists will review relevant research and identify where the conflicts between fish habitat, industrial development and recreational use are most intense.

The government will spend more to rebuild damaged stream banks and improve infrastructure that blocks free movement of fish. It will also increase funding by $100,000 for groups to do similar work and undertake public education programs.

A program of citizen science will be developed to monitor ongoing impacts.

Phillips acknowledged the energy and forestry departments are also crucial players in those watersheds. She pointed to the government's caribou recovery plan as evidence those departments can work together.

"We already have a reasonable amount of co-operation," she said.

Jordan Pinkster of the Alberta Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who said Wednesday the closures weren't justified by the science, welcomed the news.

"We're very encouraged that's where the minister want to go," he said.

He said he was cautious but optimistic about Phillips' promises to bring industrial users to the table to talk about cumulative impacts on watersheds. The government's plans for the Castle Wilderness Park in southern Alberta suggests that it is willing to make tough decisions on balancing the environment and the economy, Pinkster said.

But he added the government can be inconsistent, pointing to approvals for clearcut logging in the Highwood Pass area.

"We have some conflicting decisions being made," said Pinkster.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960