Ecosystems in the West Kootenay
The West Kootenay is made up of parts of three mountain ranges in Eastern British Columbia: The Selkirks, the Purcells, and the Monashees. The mountainous terrain creates a diverse array of ecosystems, from high alpine lakes to dense riparian forests. In addition to the towering peaks and glaciers, the West Kootenay is defined by three large lake systems within the Columbia Basin: Slocan Lake, Kootenay Lake, and Arrow Lakes.
Species and ecosystems of interest
Seasonal weather patterns have combined with rugged topology to create an eco-type in the West Kootenay that is unique in the world: the inland temperate rainforest. Huge cedars and hemlocks tower toward the sky, with multi-layered canopies and sparse underbrush. There is literally nowhere else on earth where a temperate rainforest lies so far from the ocean. As a result, the Kootenays are home to an array of rare and endemic species, from the Giant Helleborine to the Woodland Caribou. This page presents a basic overview of some of our region’s species. For more details, please visit the Resources page.
Kootenay Lake is home to the world’s only freshwater salmon: the Kokanee. Unlike other salmon species like the Coho and Chinook, Kokanee do not migrate to the ocean and return to their natal streams. Instead, Kokanee move from their small streams into the vast Kootenay Lake, where they feed on other fish as well as insects. Once they reach adulthood, the Kokanee return to their birth streams to bury their eggs in the gravel. Kokanee can be seen in many streams in late august and early September around Kootenay Lake. The Kokanee Creek Visitor Centre offers programs, walks, and information about the salmon.
The Kokanee are not the biggest fish in the region. White sturgeon up to 20 feet long roam the depths of the lakes, feeding on dead shad and other smaller fish. The sturgeon is a cartilaginous fish (like a shark), and retains many prehistoric features dating back to its emergence 175 million years ago. Unfortunately, the construction of the Libby Dam in 1974 resulted in a changed flow regime that has hampered the sturgeons’ reproduction. As a result, the vast majority of the genetically unique Kootenay sturgeon population is over 25 years of age with not enough young fish to replenish the population. An international team of scientists is working to restock the population with juveniles and to adjust the water management practices to ensure the survival of the species.
The Gerrard rainbow trout is another noteworthy species in our area. The Gerrard trout is the largest rainbow trout in the world, and is endemic to the Lardeau valley north of Kaslo. The trout return to the Lardeau River to spawn each May after feeding through the winter on Kokanee salmon. At one time, due to overfishing and other factors, the population was down to 150 fish. Thanks to new regulations and management strategies (particularly the addition of nutrients to the North Arm of the Lake), the population has recovered to over 1,000 fish.
Bull Trout are a blue-listed species of char, identifiable by their unusually large head and mouth. The trout require exceptionally cold, clear water to survive and spawn, and prefer habitat with abundant large woody debris. As a result, the bull trout is relatively more sensitive to disturbance by human activity and settlement. The clearing of lakeside and stream side vegetation increases temperature of the water, and runoff from urban areas, farms, logging, and road building brings suspended soil particles into the water.
The most threatened mammal in North America makes its home in the Kootenays. The Mountain Caribou is a distinct subspecies from the Woodland Caribou that migrate north to the arctic. The Mountain Caribou depend entirely on old growth forests, where their ability to survive on lichen allows them to winter in high elevations where predators are less abundant. There are only 1900 of these animals remaining in the world, due to the changes in the ecosystem brought by logging and habitat fragmentation. For more information on Woodland Caribou and their recovery plan, visit the Caribou Project.
The grizzly bear is a subspecies of brown bear that has been extirpated (locally extinct) from much of its historic range due to human settlement, habitat fragmentation by highways and roads, and habitat loss due to forestry practices. Once thriving as far south as California and Mexico in prairie habitat, the grizzly bear is now limited to mountain woodlands, where it generally subsists on berries, roots, grubs, and small mammals. Avalanche slides, wetlands, and open meadows are critical to the grizzly because the dense canopy of old growth and the dense bramble of new growth don’t provide enough food sources. There are approximately 15,000 grizzly bears remaining in British Columbia, with about 600 in the Purcell range. The Jumbo Valley is an important nursing ground and gene stockpile from which the populations in the Selkirks and Monashees are supplemented. Conservation officers have to kill black and grizzly bears every year as a result of habituation and contact between bears and human populations. To learn what you can do to prevent these incidents and protect our region’s bear populations, visit Bear Aware.
The wolverine, like the grizzly bear, was once common in many parts of the US and Canada. Due to loss of habitat and encroachment on summer territory, the US population has dwindled to a few pockets in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Wolverine have a reputation as being fierce, solitary predators, but new research suggests that wolverine maintain family ties and cooperate to some degree. More research is needed to help us understand these elusive alpine denizens.
Habitat risk factors
Human settlement has affected the biodiversity of the region since humans first arrived from Asia over 9,000 years ago. The arrival of European trappers, miners, and settlers since 1850, however, began a landscape transformation that is still underway. Railroads, and later highways and roads, fragmented the landscape. Mining, logging, and fire suppression have wrought changes on a large scale. Cities and towns have created hotspots for wildlife encounters that haven’t always ended well for the wildlife. Finally, the damming of the Columbia River for flood control and hydroelectricity have inundated wetlands, riparian areas, and river deltas.
All these changes to the landscape have had profound effects on the species that depend on these habitat types. Food is scarcer; catastrophic fires are more common; the age and species diversity of our forests is reduced due to forest stewardship practices; foreshore development on Kootenay and Slocan Lakes impact water quality and riparian habitat. But the biggest impact to our region’s biodiversity is just starting to be felt. Climate change, depending on how severe and sudden the changes are, could reshape our region in ways we can scarcely conceive. For more information on climate change impacts on our region, visit the resource page.
What you can do
We all have a role to play in protecting our region’s phenomenal biodiversity and beauty. Sign up for action alerts to participate in shaping policy and decision making.
Make a personal commitment to protecting our ecosystem. Participate in the annual Commuter Challenge and use the Kootenay Rideshare to reduce your vehicle miles. Learn more about conserving energy around your house and reduce your carbon footprint. Eliminate bear hazards on your property. Purchase Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber to protect watersheds and forests. Learn more about our region’s ecosystems at the Kokanee Creek Park Visitor Centre, operated by EcoSociety.
Join others to make a bigger impact. There are many groups in our region dedicated to protecting a specific watershed, forest, or resource. Visit our Resources page to find out more. EcoSociety’s conservation committee and staff respond to threats to our ecosystem integrity. Campaigns like Wild Rivers and Jumbo Wild! help to magnify the voices of our community members and influence policy decisions. Learn more about our campaigns, and sign up for Action Alerts to take part in the democratic process.