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Ottawa investigating logging company over bridge in Alberta's Kananaskis Country

Federal officials are investigating an Alberta logging company for building a bridge without a permit over a river considered crucial habitat for threatened species.

Federal officials are investigating an Alberta logging company for building a bridge without a permit over a river considered crucial habitat for threatened species. 

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada is investigating the construction of a bridge over the Highwood River," said department spokesman Rodney Drover in an email. 

"Construction of infrastructure near water may require review to ensure compliance with relevant provisions under the Fisheries Act."

Spray Lake Sawmill is building the bridge in a popular recreation area called Kananaskis Country in order to reach a large swath of forest it has slated for clearcutting. Fisheries and Oceans has confirmed no authorizations for the bridge have been issued, although the Species at Risk Act requires permits for such activities in critical wildlife habitat.

Spray Lake vice-president Ed Kulcsar said he couldn't comment on the investigation.

"We follow all approval processes and implement all measures and best management practices to ensure the protection of fish and fish habitat on all our bridge installations," he said in an email. 

The river provides increasingly rare habitat for bull trout, Alberta's provincial fish and a threatened species subject to a federal recovery plan. 

"There aren't any unimportant bull trout streams left," said Lorne Fitch, a longtime Alberta fisheries biologist and adjunct professor at the University of Calgary. 

He said about 70 per cent of the bull trout habitat in that area has already been lost.

"We're down to a fraction of what we used to have and every one of those fractions is important." 

Fitch said activities such as road construction and bridge-building damage habitat by silting up the stream beds, impairing the ability of fish to find food and hatch eggs. 

The silt plugs up spaces between stream-bed gravels, home to the insects that trout eat, said Fitch. It also prevents oxygen-rich water from nourishing the eggs fish lay in those spaces. 

"It doesn't take much. The literature suggests that even as little as 10 per cent more sediment than natural background levels can have a demonstrable effect."

Pictures of the construction work taken by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society suggest heavy equipment has been moving into and across the stream bed. 

Joshua Killeen, program manager for the society, said provincial officials are concerned enough about water levels and temperatures in the river to have limited fishing during parts of the day. 

"At the same time, this bridge was being constructed," he said. "There's one rule for the public and another rule for industry, and they don't seem to be meshing with each other."

Killeen pointed out the bridge, the road it connects and the clearcut it will eventually lead to are in one of the most popular recreation areas in the province.

Kananaskis Country's 4,200 square kilometres include an ecological reserve, provincial parks, provincial recreation areas, wildland provincial parks, public land use zones, as well as Crown and private lands. A little over a third of it is open to resource exploitation, including the 11-square-kilometre plot Spray Lakes plans to clear cut.

"There's quite a number of hiking trails and recreation areas," Killeen said. "The Highwood River is a big angling spot.

"It's pretty popular."

Killeen said issues such as the bridge over the Highwood pop up regularly. Part of the problem, he said, is that legislation relies on industry to identify where its activity threatens important wildlife areas.

"It's left to industry to decide whether they think that critical habitat is there or not. If they're incorrect and they do damage critical habitat, there are penalties.

"The problem is the damage is already done."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 30, 2023. 

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press