Grassy Mountain Coal Mine: A Threat to Bull Trout, Westslope Cutthroat Looms in Southern Alberta

Southern Alberta, home to some of the most pristine wilderness and fly fishing in the world, is currently under consideration for a 1,520-hectare open-pit coal mine known as the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, funded by an Australian company Riversdale Resources. Coal mining in this region has been illegal since 1976, with the creation of the Coal Policy created in part due to potential impacts on fish and wildlife, until recently when the policy was rescinded without notice or public consultation. Open-pit mining is a process that involves destroying a mountain and separating the valuable parts from the invaluable parts, in this case, coal.

I traveled to this region from where I previously resided in Upstate New York in 2017, some 2500 miles each way, for a chance to catch both a Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat, one of the few places left in North America where you could catch both. In the United States, many of the remaining fisheries that still hold these fish are protected or restricted. Since 1999, the Bull Trout has been considered threatened in the United States, and in 2019, Canada moved them to a threatened status as well.

Location of the proposed Grassy Mountain open-pit mining project.

Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat populations are in major trouble in most locations in the United States and Canada due to habitat loss and degradation, blockage of migration corridors, and poor water quality. Bull Trout require colder water temperatures than most salmonids, need the cleanest stream substrates for spawning, and need complex habitats of lakes, rivers, and oceans that connect to headwater streams. Two of these headwaters are the exact proposed location of the mine. 

Author with an Alberta Bull Trout.

There are several rivers in Alberta where you can catch both a Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat in an afternoon, one of which being the Oldman River –a river system that is easily one of the most pristine and beautiful places I have been to. The river runs 225 miles through the Canadian Rockies, with a drainage of over 10,300 square miles, before joining the Bow and becoming the South Saskatchewan River, eventually draining into Hudson Bay. The river system is not only the home to these fish and other wildlife but is also the drinking water for 200,000 people.

The Grassy Mountain Coal Project will drain into both Blairmore Creek and Gold Creek, two critical habitats for both fish species and other wildlife. According to Riversdale Resources Limited’s website, “The Project is projected to produce around 93 million tonnes of product coal over its 23-year mine life.” The company goes on to state economic benefits for the region of about 350 jobs after construction and that they have an intensive plan to “minimize or reduce overall impacts to fish and fish habitat.” It is impossible to say how much the acknowledged impact will actually have on the fishery and does not account for the possibility of any kind of unforeseen accident. It is noteworthy that although Westslope Cutthroat are mentioned in the FAQ’s regarding the mine, Bull Trout are not mentioned anywhere.

You don’t have to be a biologist to see that an open-pit coal mine placed at the headwaters of two fish species that are very sensitive to pollution and poor water quality is a bad mix. I know that there are always economic benefits to projects like these, but is there really no other way to get them than this? Can the Bull Trout, the Westslope Cutthroat, and all the other species of wildlife in the area withstand the impacts of this mine over the next quarter-century? Is it worth finding out at the cost of this beautiful fishery for 350 jobs? The author, and many others, would say no.

If you agree, here’s a link to resources about the project:

Click here to sign the petition against the mine.

Images courtesy of @FacelessFlyFishing and the author, Ben Burgholzer.

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