Lake Koocanusa is a reservoir on the Kootenay River system formed by the creation of the Libby Dam in Montana in 1973. Straddling Canada and the USA, it includes important trans-boundary migratory routes for wildlife, and provides valuable habitat for birds, fish, terrestrial plants and mammals. A unique mixing zone, sensitive grasslands surround the reservoir, which experiences a 30 foot fluctuation in water levels, and supporting multiple Species of Conservation Concern, including: burbot, kokanee, bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, and long-billed curlew. Recently, significant recreational land-use pressures have escalated with uncontrolled off-road vehicle use and uncontrolled camping. More than 100,000 people visit the lake each year, the majority of them from Alberta, to recreate on the land and water.
Upstream industrial impacts from five open-pit coal mines in the Elk Valley add to stresses on the system. Alarmingly high levels of selenium have resulted in a joint request from the Ktunaxa Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho to the Canadian and American federal governments to refer the Kootenay River water quality concerns to the International Joint Commission.
Cumulatively, these pressures have sparked increased community engagement, the development of an Official Community Plan for the Koocanusa area and a Recreation Management Planning process. Led by regional government and First Nations, the plan will be an avenue to address a number of recreational issues, including the extensive off road vehicle use that occurs in the area and is known to impact wildlife values.
Sensitive Habitat Inventory Mapping (SHIM) is a protocol developed by Fisheries and Ocean Canada which provides decision-makers, planners, developers, landowners and government agencies with the knowledge and tools required to make sustainable foreshore land-use decisions that take into account cumulative impacts to fish and wildlife habitats from development pressures.
SHIM has been applied to 11 other lakes across the Kootenay Region, and has improved shoreline management planning to preserve high value fish and wildlife habitats. Living Lakes Canada has supported the Koocanusa SHIM project through the East Kootenay Integrated Lake Management Partnership.