How Healthy Forests Foster Healthy Fish and Us

Do you know where your water comes from, its quality, how we use it and what other living things depend on from it? Make September the month to increase your water literacy with your neighbours, friends and family. Embrace lifelong learning and get outside to find the answers. As famous 19th Century scientist Louis Agassiz encouraged, “study nature, not books.”

As students head back to school and our focus shifts to formal learning, I challenge you to strengthen your informal naturalist intelligence. In 1996, Dr. Howard Gardner added this eighth level of intelligence to his first seven (e.g. musical, verbal-linguistic, mathematical, bodily, etc.). Naturalist intelligence is the ability to observe, understand and organize patterns in nature and for us to see the relationships between a healthy environment and us. 

A great way to develop this skill is by taking a hike at Mount Fernie Provincial Park. On this hike observe nature and notice changes in the season. Leading from the day use parking lot, in 2014 the Elk River Alliance (ERA) installed five interpretive signs that focus on how healthy forests foster healthy fish. 

Standing at the first viewpoint of Lizard Creek, listen to the sound of the rushing water and imagine healthy Westslope cutthroat trout swimming around below you. Listen to the trembling aspen shaking bright yellow leaves. How are these trees and fish connected? Trees anchor soils, soak up and shade the water, while leaves decompose in the water feeding bacteria and bottom dwelling bugs that are food for fish. Fish add nutrients to the soils and feed forest dwelling animals like kingfisher. 

At stop number two at the Lizard Creek falls; do you see any insects hatching? Walk under the bridge and pick up a rock? Do you see anything crawling around? You might be seeing mayflies, stoneflies or caddisflies, three benthic macroinvertebrates that are intolerant of pollution and thrive in Lizard Creek. Their presence indicate high water quality. In one square metre sample, ERA counted 2333 critters in Lizard Creek’s fall Streamkeepers sample. Some of these animals live for two years in the water as juveniles and only forty-eight hours in the air as adults, to mate, lay eggs and die. 

Along with biological indicators like water bugs, temperature, pH and oxygen are needed by aquatic life. Fish like water cold because it holds more oxygen and less disease. Fish and most other life also like it near neutral pH, although our limestone geology results in natural alkaline measures of typically 8.4. 

Lizard Creek is a very important tributary for spawning and rearing cutthroat and bull trout. “Bullies” spawn in the fall when the water temperature drops to about 9C. Baby trout are protected in Lizard Creek’s cutbanks and overhanging vegetation where they can hide.

Look up, out and under your feet. This green zone or riparian area between the creek and upland is the most productive, diverse and important habitat for all life. Like fish, do you see your connection to this forest? How do healthy forests foster healthy people and high water quality?

To improve your water literacy another level, help protect water quality and wildlife habitat, become an ERA Streamkeeper volunteer. ERA has sampled high flow in June and low flow in September since 2011. If you want to learn more about water quality at Lizard and Alexander Creeks, contact ayla@elkriveralliance.ca or 250-423-3322.