My Days in the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch

My Days in the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch

It was the summer and fall of 1966 when I began a rewarding part of my life – my days in the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch. For as long as I could remember, I had dreamed about working in the branch but jobs were few and far between – a few biologists and a scattering of conservation officers and technicians worked at protecting the world class fish and wildlife resources of this vast province. In some ways, things haven`t changed much today except that our population is far larger and seeping into almost every corner of the province.

The Columbia River Treaty was ratified in 1964 and someone thought it might be worthwhile to try to discover what the impacts of several large dams and reservoirs might be on the Kootenay – Columbia Ecosystem – indeed. Kootenay Lake was a major target of the investigation .

A research station and study group was set up in Nelson. It was headed by Dr. A.H. (Al) Acara and located at the old Nelson Hatchery below Cottonwood Falls. A field station was located in the Lardeau at Cooper Creek and headed up by Bob Mills. The Cooper Creek Camp accumulated data such as spawner counts for rainbow trout and kokanee and downstream fry numbers for the Lardeau River and Meadow Creek while the Nelson Station worked up the information along with other physical and biological information on Kootenay Lake. I worked both in the Lardeau bush camp tramping the creeks and rivers and at Nelson where my major jobs were analysing gut samples and scales from Main Lake (Gerard) rainbows. Gut samples were collected at Kaslo and taken to Nelson dosed in formalin.

I opened the stomachs and checked the contents. Nearly all the big rainbows ate only kokanee, some of them were quite large – up to 40 centimetres. But every so often the guts were crammed with something else – carpenter ants. All trout love the big ants which are usually only available for a few days in the late spring or early summer. I had seen a big rainbow feeding on ants many years before. George Hobbs and I were trolling near the mouth of Woodbury Creek in 1949 when I noticed a big trout slowly swimming down a line of ants casually sipping them.

Mills, Gord Rear, Shorty Kniess and Gary Seminoff worked mainly in the Lardeau while Ed Zyblut, Les Fleck, Rick Beauchamp, Itsou Yesaki, Joe Quinn, Randy Gris, Nick Kostiuk and Rick Pepper usually worked in Nelson. In addition to the regular crew, Conservation Officers and Technicians from other areas of the province sometimes came in to help. Don Sharp came in from Salmon Arm while Jim Varty was brought in from Kamloops while I was there but others also showed up from time to time. George Taylor even put in some shifts.

Some of the conservation officers were old hands and helped keep the job very interesting. Don Sharp was an avid hunter and liked a good feed of ducks when he could get them. Meadow Creek had a strong mallard population when the kokanee run was in. They gorged on eggs and carcasses and were not worth eating . I told this to Don but he was convinced that if they soaked in wine long enough, they would be delightful. We snuck along the creek flushing fat mallards. They would rise straight up above a band of alders along the creek and Don would blast them – “ jump shooting “ he called it. We took a few back to camp and marinated them in red wine for a few hours to make them palatable. In those days the main BC wines were not fit to drink so it wasn’t a great loss to ruin a few jugs of red death biker special select but it did no good. When we tried to cook the ducks, the camp had to be evacuated because of the rank smell.

Many other visitors dropped in to camp. Ed Vernon and Ron Thomas came by on occasion as did Ted Hunter and Rod McCrea, old time hatchery men who lived further up the Lardeau Valley.

I went back to school in 1967 and the project started to end not long after – it did not end well.

A huge whitefish die off began in 1969. People were shocked when piles of fish started to come ashore especially around the outlet of the lake at Balfour. Al Acara firmly believed that high CO2 levels were the cause. A massive amount of decaying vegetation was present in Duncan Reservoir which, except for a small cosmetic area, had been left uncleared. Huge areas of standing dead forest and floating wood debris which even included some cabins bobbing in the flotsam, were left behind the dam – it was a horrific sight but few people saw it. The government had taken care to clear an area that would be seen by the TV cameras during the opening ceremonies. They even hired a few Nelson boys to water ski in the cleared area as Wacky Bennett, the then Social Credit Premier of BC trumpeted the benefits of the wonderful Columbia River Treaty Dams. Of course, Dr. Acara’s contention that the dam was killing fish was a strong counterpoint to the Bennet Message – indeed.

Chances were good that a major conflict was about to break out. But no direct evidence of high carbon dioxide levels could be found so the conflict never materialized. Many wondered if Al had been muzzled and, although I certainly wouldn’t put it past the government to try and make the evidence go south or attempt to discredit Al, it wasn’t necessary because his theory was not provable.

The Social Credit government of the day was numb when it came to environment. They were a blacktop and concrete bunch and there was no love between them and BC Fish and Wildlife Branch biologists so even if the government spinners had gone after Al, the branch would likely have stood up for him and the truth would have eventually seeped out.

We never found out what killed the whitefish but Kootenay Lake was undergoing serious but unintended enrichment at the time and the fish ballooned up in size and became very lethargic before the die off began. The lake had seemingly become too rich for this usually small species which was used to life in colder, less productive water.

I went back to Humboldt in 1967 and graduated in 1968. I dodged a ticket to Viet Nam and bused to Nelson where Patricia Mary McKim and I got married. We lived in a cabin at Six Mile behind the Question Mark store beside the creek. Dumpy worked as a dental assistant for Dr. Fujibayashi and I slung beer at the Queens and Lord Nelson. I also got a few jobs cleaning snow off roofs in the very cold and snowy winter of 68-69.

In February I got a call from Ron Thomas, the assistant chief of fisheries management for the branch and I headed off to Nanaimo, a place I had only been as a baby and knew next to nothing about.

I would work with Charlie Lyons, Regional Fisheries Biologist. Charlie was a pioneer biologist who went back to the earliest days of the branch when it was known as the BC Game Commission and operated out of Vancouver under Butler and Cunningham, the first commissioners. Charlie was an Island boy who grew up at Headquarters in the Tsolum Valley. He started out at Cultus Lake then worked at the Summerland Hatchery before he then went to Prince George as one of the first regional fisheries biologists for the province. He ended up in Nanaimo years later following in the steps of Dave Hurn another of the branch pioneers.

MY initial job was to work as a technician on the Big Qualicum River to study the effects of flow control and river modification on steelhead. The river is a DFO project that utilized storage in Horne Lake to manage river flows. Some temperature control was also possible. The project also diverted Hunt Creek, a flashy tributary, into the lower part of the Big Qualicum and simplified large sections of the river to facilitate chum salmon production. Flow control was fine for steelhead but the engineered parts of the river were not good steelhead habitat, Dick Harvey, the project manager and I added boulders and logs to the simplified sections to increase complexity and habitat value for steelhead and cutthroat.

Although the Big Qualicum River was the reason for my job, it was soon evident that it was much less important than the major land use issue on Vancouver Island and the Mainland Coast at that time: logging. The forest companies were having their way in the woods and major damage was evident. Logging and road construction were tearing up streams and adjacent slopes. Charlie Lyons had worked with the forest industry and BC Forest Service in the north to make some serious changes in forest practices there. The Island situation was much more grave and we decided to try and gain a measure of influence We knew it would be difficult. It was somewhat different than the Interior in that much of the forest land base was private thanks to the Esquimalt Nanaimo Land Grant of 1876 when some 1,900,000 acres – almost 25% of The Island – were given to Robert Dunsmuir to build the E&N Railroad which he needed to haul his coal out of Nanaimo, Ladysmith and beyond. Dunsmiur sold his holdings to the CPR which in turn were largely purchased by forest companies. They have made billions from some of the finest forests on the planet. The E&N Lands were located on Southeast Vancouver Island, perhaps its most habitable area for fish, wildlife and people.

Another complicating factor was that the BC Forest Service had almost no meaningful role in holistic forest management then. They seemed to function more like a bystander or even a cheerleader for the companies. The Chief Forester for the Vancouver Forest District which included the Island even seemed hostile to basic forest management let alone fish and wildlife stewardship in the forests. He would be tough to influence – indeed.

Some of the most degraded watersheds were around Nanaimo’s backdoor: Nanaimo River, Chemainus River, Haslam Creek, the Nitinat and Englishman. We started having meetings with the companies – MacMillan Bloedel, Crown Zellerbach, Rayonier, BC Forest Products, Canfor and a host of others. I wrote an information bulletin called The Importance of Streamside Vegetation to Trout and Salmon in BC and became a missionary for stream protection. I also began a stream inventory program that allowed the Branch to produce maps showing fish distribution and habitat value.

It was a very hard slug. The companies were quite cordial and did not mind sharing information and outlining their logging plans but they were not about to make any concessions for fish or wildlife. I was travelling some 5000 miles per month preaching the gospel but I wasn’t sure if we were making a  difference. I was often accompanied by the Conservation Officers for the various districts: Jack Lenfesty in Victoria, Jack Fox in Duncan, Leo Van Tine and Dennis Wilders in Nanaimo, Des Haddleton and Bill Hazeldine in Alberni, Jim Osman in Comox and George Taylor and Ray Rogers in Campbell River. Bud Smith, wildlife technician and wildlife biologists Don Blood or Ian Smith and later Darryl Hebert pitched in. It was a strong team effort but still a slog.

Then in April of 1970, we got a break. I attended a South Island fire prevention meeting at the ranger station in Lake Cowichan. The companies and local rangers Ken Haley and Rae Thomas were on hand. I gave my spiel and we talked about the coming fire season which was already ramping up fast. On the way back to Nanaimo, my seat mate on the bus was Jack Toovey, assistant chief forester for BC Forest Products. Jack was a strong believer in holistic forestry and was eager to see the industry begin to turn the corner. He saw me as an ally and supported most of the features I was advocating. Unlike most of the other forest companies which were largely run by bean counters, BCFP foresters were high on the management totem pole and in strong positions to put serious forestry into practice. They were also energetic characters who knew how to get things done. The Chief Forester was Gerry Birch who was a force to behold. I could now see that our task might be achievable,

BCFP prepared an excellent manual for improved practices and drew up policies to support them. Most of the rest of the companies didn’t care for the New Age Forestry that they could see was coming at them but they had little choice in the matter now that BCFP was cutting new ground. It wasn’t long before the forest service started climbing on. Some of the individual rangers had been supportive but now the entire ship was starting to turn. What seemed almost impossible at first was now common practice especially my major theme – the retention of trees and shrubs along stream margins. “Leave strips” was what many people called them. Within a decade or so of the idea, they were now the standard approach and well accepted.

The effort toward improved forest practices was much aided by others. I’m first thinking of the fish and game clubs. People like Ted Barsby of Nanaimo who had a newspaper column and radio show he freely directed toward the situation in the woods, Barry Thornton of the Comox Valley, a teacher, avid steelheader and newspaper columnist who helped form the Steelhead Society and contributed big time to improved stream protection. Alec Merriman of Victoria also chipped in big time through his newspaper columns and access guides to Vancouver Island forest lands. In those days, environmental groups were uncommon so the fish and game clubs (the first BC environmental groups) were of major importance in terms of influencing environmental policies and practices – indeed.

In 1972, George Reid came in as the Regional Fisheries Biologist for The Island and we finally got a chance to work on fisheries management issues instead of   a steady diet of habitat protection even though habitat problems were becoming more complex as the region was experiencing more urban growth especially in the Sooke to Campbell River zone. George was especially concerned about steelhead numbers as we began to undertake swim counts and found that these grand fish were much less abundant than we thought – indeed. For a very long time catch limits were unreasonably high and this was a clear cause of the demise. The quotas were reduced with wide support from steelheaders who began to experience decent catches again. By the mid – 1980’s, steelhead angling had rebounded fairly well but the recovery did not hold and catch and release regulations were employed.

By that time I had moved down to Victoria to work for the BC Lands Branch and live at 1837 Fern Street with some of my old pals from Nelson and some Victoria lads of good character.


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