Opinion: Why Should We Protect the Horsefly River Watershed?

By Helen Englund –

The Horsefly River watershed is located 75 km southeast of Williams Lake in the Cariboo Region of BC and encompasses approximately 286,000 hectares. The river is approximately 98 km in length and drains into Quesnel Lake. The lake feeds the Quesnel River, which meets the Fraser River in the community of Quesnel. The land features numerous landscape types and ranges in elevation from approximately 800 m in the Village of Horsefly to 2,500 m in the headwater area. For more than 150 years the watershed has been developed by forestry, agriculture, lodges, mining, trapping, recreational users, and individual homeowners.

Sockeye in the spawning channel in Horsefly River. Photo: Ivan Hardwick

The Horsefly River watershed has historic importance, being founded by the gold rush in 1859. People from all over Western Canada come to take pictures and witness the impressive Sockeye salmon run, which is on the scale of the Adams River run.

From a fisheries perspective the watershed is known for its world-famous sport fishery of Rainbow trout, and as one of the largest producers of Sockeye salmon in the world. The Horsefly River is a nursery and produces about 75% of the large Rainbow trout for the Quesnel Lake sport fishery, which can produce trophy size fish over 20 pounds. Horsefly River Sockeye salmon during the peak cycle year are an important contributor to the overall Fraser River catch.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has determined that Horsefly coho and Chinook salmon are Threatened, and Sockeye salmon are Endangered.

In 2017, COSEWIC determined that a number of Fraser River sockeye populations, the Quesnel sockeye run included, were Endangered and proposed them for special protection through the Species at Risk Act (SARA). COSEWIC’s reason for the designation was that the population faces a number of threats in both fresh water and marine areas that are causing habitat quality to decline. A potential new threat to the population is the failure of a mining tailings pond that drained into Quesnel Lake in 2014. They have declined consistently since 2000.

In 2019, COSEWIC identified 16 runs of Chinook salmon that had conservation problems and needed special protection. Of the 16, 13 were in the Fraser River. Of those 13, seven were Endangered, four were Threatened (Horsefly chinook run), one was of Special concern, and one was considered Not at risk. COSEWIC reports these species will be considered for SARA listing later this year.

Fisheries Sensitive Watershed Designation

The Horsefly River shows how challenging it can be to designate Fisheries Sensitive Watersheds (FSW). The Horsefly River system with some of the highest fish values in BC, and its sensitivities to development were recognized as a priority for conservation as far back as 1996 in the Cariboo-Chilcotin Land Use Plan (CCLUP). Subsequent assessments support this ranking. It has also been subject to extensive forest development, particularly in sub-basins within the larger watershed that were subject to salvage logging post-mountain pine beetle attack. Government began the process of designating the Horsefly River watershed a FSW in 2000. While the designation had broad support from First Nations and non-forestry stakeholders, forest licensees’ concerns about impacts to timber supply led to a difficult and protracted process.

It was in June 2018 that the order was finalized and signed off by the regional executive director of the Ministry of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development (FLNROR). However, in the interim, forestry activities continue without strategic objectives to manage rate of development, potentially increasing the risk to fish habitats. Forest licensees have two years from June 2018 to incorporate the FSW designation into their FSPs, and it may take longer before forestry activities are fully consistent with the FSW order.

The Horsefly River watershed is in trouble: stream degradation and cumulative effects such as climate change, historic low water flows, increased water temperatures, and siltation have resulted in river closures. Hydrological studies going back about 25 years on this watershed have warned people but have been ignored. During the 2017 and 2018 extensive forest fires, Horsefly was affected but didn’t burn. Now we are seeing the last remaining standing timber around us being treated to non-stop logging.

Not Against Logging

We need logging so that people can raise their families here and keep communities strong. However, it needs to be done in a more environmentally and sustainable way, so that all of us now and future generations can live, work, and play here.

This is the time for us all to do our parts to advocate for healthy ecosystems everywhere. Contact logging companies, ask for their site plans, and raise your concerns. Ask questions about road building and de-activation, wildlife corridors or winter ranges, retention areas around small and large streams, ponds, and lakes, or anything else.

Helen Englund is a resident of beautiful Horsefly, BC. She loves the outdoors but is concerned with logging practices within the Horsefly River watershed. She wants to share what she has learned and encourages others to do the same on any issue they feel strongly about.To find out more about issues in the Horsefly watershed or to get involved, contact Helen at hrenglund@gmail.com or visit the Horsefly River Roundtable facebook page or website at www.horseflyriver.ca.

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