A wild river called the Kootenay

Lake Koocanusa, once a wild river - Submitted by Heather Leschied, Wildsight's Water Program Manager

Lake Koocanusa

Submitted by Heather LeschiedWildsight’s Water Program Manager

From my viewpoint looking out over Lake Koocanusa, I can’t help but imagine this landscape; pre-highway 3, pre-Libby dam, pre-flood. A wild river called the Kootenay. A river allowed to travel its course from riverbank to riverbank, and back again. Constantly depositing precious gravel, spawning substrates and nutrients to feed the river system. An endless system, originating north of Kootenay National Park, crossing the border into Montana, and back again to rest for a time as Kootenay Lake before plunging into the Columbia River at Castlegar.

At times the landscape seems stark, without life. When the wind picks up it brings dust and debris – 2,444. The number is repeated over and over. This is the current height of the reservoir. This number dictates life here. Too little, and the water is out of reach. Too much, and favourite swimming and fishing holes are lost. It’s a constant struggle. All this amongst the need to produce hydroelectric power and mostly importantly, revenues. Revenues that don’t benefit the people the reservoir impacts the most. Past compensation agreements excluded the people of Koocanusa, left out the nutrient needs of the fish and the wildlife that depend on them.

But today, an engaged community hopes to change this. I am here with the field team from the East Kootenay Integrated Lake Management Partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative that has been developing Shoreline Management Guidelines for East Kootenay lakes since 2006. With moral support from the Lake Koocanusa Community Council, and financial support from the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, we are conducting a Foreshore Inventory and Fish and Wildlife Habitat Assessment with the intention to develop guidelines that will protect the most sensitive habitat values of the lake.

One cool morning we stop to collect samples and detailed habitat information at a low-lying grassy bank that is typically inundated with water at high pool. At low pool it is inundated by off-road vehicle use.

We are thrilled to be met by a long-billed curlew, the largest member of the sandpiper family. Curlew habitat has been documented at a handful of locations around the lake, and designated as Wildlife Habitat Areas. These shorebirds are protected under the provincial Wildlife Act and federal Migratory Birds Convention Act.

But this particular site is a new find, and the curlew is not nearly as thrilled to see us. Long-billed curlew have had a rough go of it. They are Blue-Listed in British Columbia, and federally listed as a Species of Special Concern. Urbanization, forest encroachment due to fire suppression, noxious weeds, conversion of native grasslands to agricultural crops, and soil erosion and other disturbances from Off Road Vehicle use, all threaten these amazing birds.

We promise not to stay long. We collect our data and manage to document the encounter before we depart amidst the tire tracks, new and old, laid into the sand and grass, as the sun shines through the storm clouds to remind us that nature is still at home here.