30 Years of Riparian Stewardship
By Amy McCleod, Provincial Riparian Specialist at Cows and Fish
“YOU WORK FOR WHO?”
I often get asked when I say I work for Cows and Fish. People might guess I work at a steak and seafood restaurant. For me, our name is about understanding relationships; in this case, the relationship between cattle and their impact on the landscape, and how that impacts fish, and in general, water.
Cows and Fish is a non-profit society that promotes sustainable management of riparian areas, the areas connecting land and water. Making up a small portion of the landscape, riparian areas are among the most productive and valuable places. When intact, these green threads along the water’s edge help stitch together the shoreline. Diverse plant layers provide water storage, filtration, shade, and forage, which is invaluable for cows, fish, and people.
Cows and Fish took root in 1992, with the proactive involvement of several ranchers in southwestern Alberta, who understood it was possible to maintain water quality, sustain livestock, and simultaneously improve trout spawning habitat in the foothill streams of the Canadian Rockies with thoughtful grazing management. Our program has since branched out across Alberta. If you ask Lorne Fitch, a provincial fisheries biologist and one of Cows and Fish’s founding members, it was a walk across a pasture on the Elkhorn Ranch in Willow Valley with Hilton Pharis that started a journey of discovery.
“Walking across the pasture with Hilton was the beginning of a new insight into how many ranchers and farmers feel about their land and what grows there, walks across it, or swims through it,” Fitch said.
Recorded in the Pharis family photos is the story of succession, growth, and prosperity. Also depicted in the background are the changes over time of Willow Valley. Over the years, Hilton noticed willows were disappearing and that Cutthroat trout populations had also declined. The trout used to spawn in the gravel riffles beneath the umbrella of willows, but it was getting rarer to see a fish and harder to catch the occasional one for supper.
Warning signs were flashing, so the Pharis family began setting goals for the ranch: manage the water, the grass, and the timber. “These three were not only the basis of ranch success, but the success for many of the other ranch inhabitants, fish, wildlife, and wildflowers,” said Fitch. In that initial walk across the pasture, Hilton shared his goal: ‘I want to leave the ranch better than I found it.’
That walk across the pasture with Hilton changed Fitch’s fish-centric perspective to one of thinking broadly about watershed health.
“If we manage watersheds better, smarter, and sooner we reduce the cascade of issues, driven down by gravity, that overwhelm the water, fish, and people. I realized my role was to help Hilton help the fish,” Fitch said.
Thirty years later, Cows and Fish continues to follow in our founders’ footsteps. The work we do often begins with a walk across a pasture and leads to the ability to see the land from multiple perspectives. What began with a handful of ranchers and conservationists taking a chance and speaking up about the possibilities to work together to manage and maintain healthy streamside’s has grown. These days, we are still optimistic about the possibilities — the enthusiasm and stewardship we experience with landowners suggests that riparian areas are seen as valuable parts of the landscape.
The Pharis family understood the responsibility they had for the water and the fish. By working together with Cows and Fish and their neighbours to manage riparian health, they began to sew together a more productive and resilient watershed. Today there are more willows and fish.
Cows and Fish have much to celebrate, thanks to the ongoing commitment of the producers and partners we work with. While we bring a wealth of experience and expertise on riparian function and management, sometimes our greatest offerings are open eyes, ears, and hearts; observing what is occurring on the landscape the producers and partners we work with. While we bring a wealth of experience and expertise on riparian function and management, sometimes our greatest offerings are open eyes, ears, and hearts; observing what is occurring on the landscape and the potential for improvement, hearing the values and desires of those who make their homes there, and creating a space for both to thrive.
Interested in taking a walk with us on your property? Visit cowsandfish.org for more information and to invite us on a walk with you.