July 12th, 2024

Parks Canada taking steps to combat spread of disease and invasive species in Waterton

By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on March 20, 2024.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

Parks Canada is taking action to combat the spread of invasive aquatic species and the deadly whirling disease in Waterton Lakes, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.

The measures were announced on Tuesday afternoon.

Starting April 1, non-motorized watercraft from outside park boundaries will not be permitted to enter water bodies within Waterton Lakes National Park,” said Locke Marshall, superintendent of Waterton Lakes National Park, in an online press conference Tuesday.

Angling for all fish species will no longer be permitted in flowing waters in the park but will continue as under current regulations in park lakes.

Non-motorized craft include windsurfers, sailboats, kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, paddle boats, belly boats, drift boats, catamarans and other amphibious craft.

“Under the new rules, exempt watercraft will still be allowed to launch in the park. Rental businesses inside the park provide an opportunity for visitors to get out onto the water. Users whose watercraft do not leave the park boundaries may qualify for an exemption,” Marshall added.

Owners will have to take a short course on aquatic invasive species and have watercraft inspected by Parks Canada staff to qualify for the exemption.

“Protecting national parks is a shared responsibility and each visitor has a role to play,” said Marshall.

Waterton is the headwaters of the Waterton River feeding into the Oldman River and the broader South Saskatchewan River watershed, said Marshall.

Due to higher recreational use within the park and the places from which park visitors and their watercraft arrive, “park waters are at higher risk for introducing aquatic invasive species into the region. Whirling disease is already present downstream of the Waterton dam and in 2023, it was detected for the first time in park boundaries within the Belly River, said Marshall.

In addition, invasive zebra and quagga mussels that are present in Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions pose a threat to Waterton and downstream infrastructure and irrigation networks across southern Alberta, he added.

“Infestations can cost millions to control in addition to repair costs for any damaged infrastructure. Parks Canada has been taking steps to reduce the spread of invasive species in Waterton for several years,” he said.

Those include a mandatory inspection for non-motorized watercraft which has been operating since 2021.

But compliance with this program has remained low with only 56 per cent of non-motorized watercraft users participating last year, said Marshall.

“The risk of aquatic invasive species spreading is too high to continue with this previous approach.”

Francois Masse, superintendent of Yoho and Kootenay national parks, said that on Oct. 27 last year Parks Canada closed all water access in those parks following the discovery of a suspected case of whirling disease in Emerald Lake in B.C.

This was the first detection of whirling disease in B.C. and further testing detected it in the Kicking Horse River and other water bodies including Wapta Lake, Fin Creek, Monarch Creek and the confluence of the Emerald and Kicking Horse River, he said.

To reduce the further risk of whirling disease and protect species at risk, access to all water bodies in those parks was restricted until March 31 of this year.

During the winter, Parks Canada conducted an in-depth options analysis on how to best mitigate the risks of whirling disease to sensitive aquatic ecosystems and vulnerable species at risk in those parks and as a result all water bodies in Yoho and Kootenay national parks are now closed to watercraft and angling until March 25 of 2025, Masse said.

“Those closures are designed to help protect fish species vulnerable to whirling disease including several trout species and kokanee. The closures will also provide Parks Canada with an opportunity to conduct further sampling, he said.

Whirling disease, which has no treatment, can reach mortality rates of 90 per cent in young fish, Masse added.

“Once established, it’s very difficult to eradicate” and Parks Canada has determined its action is the best way to reduce its spread.

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