Restoring wetlands, restoring culture

“As the community planner for the Yaqan Nukiy, Norm Allard is currently managing a large-scale wetland restoration project on Band land in the Creston Valley; an ecological revitalization of the area that he considers to be wholly interlinked with the cultural revitalization of the local First Nations.”

By Nicole Trigg, communications coordinator at the Kootenay Conservation Program

As the community planner for the Yaqan Nukiy — the Lower Kootenay Band (LKB) — Norm Allard is currently managing a large-scale wetland restoration project on Band land in the Creston Valley; an ecological revitalization of the area that he considers to be wholly interlinked with the cultural revitalization of the local First Nations.

“These projects are really important for the band both ecologically and because their language practices and culture are tied directly to the land,” Allard explained. “There is language for everything that is out there; there are practices for gathering the materials found out there and utilizing the area in everyday life. These wetlands are a key component to cultural identity.”

The Yaqan Nukiy Wetlands Restoration Project covers approximately a 517-hectare area that in the past was significantly altered. In the late 1960s, in an effort to create duck nesting sites, Ducks Unlimited built impoundments that could be filled and drained at will using a pump/drainage system that ended up cutting the floodplains off from the rivers and streams.

After Ducks Unlimited and the LKB no longer had the capacity to maintain the system, the Yaqan Nukiy Wetlands Friendship Society formed to maintain the ageing infrastructure and failing pumps.

“The Kootenay and Goat rivers had gone through a lot of changes,” said Allard. “The water levels (of the rivers) actually dropped lower than the intakes most of the year so they were only able to pump water in during the fall, after nesting season, instead of year-round. The open water areas just turned to cattail.”

For over 10 years, the Yaqan Nukiy Wetlands Friendship Society focused on reinstating the wetland habitat, replacing leaking culverts, fixing or replacing pumps, and cleaning out water intake and output canals.

When the society eventually dissolved, Allard was pulled in for a crash course on the wetlands system. Using the knowledge he inherited from them, he managed the system for a year on his own, until he was introduced to renowned wetland restoration specialist Tom Biebighauser of the BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF) in 2017.

“We went out into the field, I showed him where all the water flowed, he had techniques for wetlands restoration, and we came up with a bunch of designs,” said Allard. “We’ve taken two kilometres of dams out and naturalized a lot of the historical wetlands; we’re on the leading edge of wetlands restoration work by completely removing those dams and restoring natural inlet and outlets for the rivers to access the floodplain.”

A qualified GIS technician, Allard geo-referenced a set of old aerial photos from 1929, given to him by Marc-André Beaucher of the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, and discovered a lot of the nesting sites were built in historical wetlands.

“There were about 40 large nesting mounds, averaging 18 metres by 40 metres and about three metres tall, just massive amounts of dirt that were meant to be nesting islands when the compounds were filled to capacity,” said Allard. “But since that doesn’t happen, the compounds end up draining out and these large islands become havens for invasives.”

The restoration work also includes disabling numerous drainage ditches and re-constructing historical wetlands back to a natural state.

Positive results from the work to date include the return of sandhill cranes that are successfully breeding, an increase in the population of Western Painted Turtles, and a population boom in ducks and migratory birds.

“There used to be clouds of 10s of thousands of them on the flats back in the day,” said Allard. “Last fall we were seeing thousands and thousands of them again. We’re also in the process of looking to see if there is benefit to the northern leopard frogs as well.”

Then there is the positive impact on the LKB itself. The project is being funded in large part by the Columbia Basin Trust with matching funds from BCWF, the Fish and Wildlife Program and the federal Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk.

The funding is allowing the Band to build its own capacity, including the purchase of a rock truck, trailer and excavator for use on these projects. Band members are being hired and are developing interest in the various fields involved.

“We’re trying to get the Band to build ownership over the program,” said Allard. “Many from the Band have expressed interest in what is going on.”

While the scope of his work as a community planner is large and varied, he is very passionate about the wetlands restoration aspect of it.

“I’m lucky to be a part of these projects LKB has undertaken. Learning from specialists and trying to bring all that info together, has been really interesting and fun,” he said.

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