Caribou Mountains Features
- The Caribou Mountains form a low, saucer-shaped plateau that rises 600-700 m above the surrounding lowlands.
- Left unglaciated in the last ice age, the mountains contain remnant communities of lichens, vascular plants and mosses not found in the adjacent country.
- The highest elevations in northern Alberta are within the Caribou Mountains and reach a maximum of 1,030 m in the western part of the plateau.
- Bedrock of the area consists of shale and sandstone, with gravel capping the hills.
- Topography is undulating to rolling. Slopes at the edge of the plateau are moderate to rugged, with the steepest slopes occurring in the northwest and rising 310 m in 2 km. Most of these slopes are very unstable and significant slumping has occurred.
- The climate of the area is boreal cold-temperate continental, with cold winters and short, cool summers. Fort Vermilion, 50 km south and 500 m lower, has a mean daily temperature of -1.4 C and a total annual precipitation of 360.1 mm.
- The area contains sensitive wetlands, unique permafrost features, rich breeding bird habitat, and core refugia for woodland caribou.
- Specific environmentally sensitive areas include the Caribou Mountains escarpment, peat plateau bog, northern ribbed fens, and Margaret Lake
- Permafrost, which is discontinuous in the Caribou Mountains area, is estimated to be from 1 to 3 m below the surface. The area contains extremely rare landforms such as the string flark fens and palsas.
- Palsas are roughly circular mounds of perennially frozen peat and mineral material.
- String flark fens develop on slopes and are characterized by narrow peaty ridges (“strings”) that enclose open water pools (“flarks”).
Township and Range map: JPG | PDF
Natural Subregions map: JPG | PDF
- Northern Mixedwood and Central Mixedwood Subregions: the lowlands of the Peace and Hay Rivers. Aspen and balsam poplar occur, except in areas where the lack of fire has enabled white spruce and balsam fir to reach maturity.
- Lower Boreal Highlands Subregion: along the slopes and deeply cut river valleys that come off the plateau. Aspen/balsam poplar/white spruce mixes grow here, with some jack pine or lodgepole pine hybrids on the better drained sites.
- Boreal Subarctic Subregion: Occurs on the plateau, which covers most of this Area of Concern and almost all of Caribou Mountains Wildland Park. Open stands of widely spaced black spruce over a moss and lichen groundcover are the most abundant vegetation. The area is believed to contain some of the highest concentrations of lichen growth in Alberta. Organic soils/peatlands are widespread. The very cold soils are underlain by permafrost. Some well-drained ridges have white spruce, aspen and jack pine. Only 4 percent of Alberta is Boreal Subarctic Subregion.
- Drainage on the Caribou Mountains plateau is restricted, which has resulted in the formation of numerous deep, cold lakes, the largest being Margaret, Wentzel, Eva, and Pitchimi.
- Fast-flowing and usually steep-banked rivers flow off the plateau into the Hay River, Great Slave Lake, and Peace River basins, which all drain into the Mackenzie River.
- The river banks are unstable and slumping occurs along most river stretches.
- Environmentally Significant Areas:
- Within this Area of Concern, the following have been identified as provincially significant ESAs:
- Caribou Mountains Escarpment: An important geomorphological feature and "unique landform" that supports a "high flora and fauna diversity."
- Caribou Mountains Peat Plateau Bog: one of the best representatives of this Subarctic wetland type in Alberta
- Margaret Lake: described as one of the most significant and diverse Subarctic sites in Alberta
- Caribou Mountains Northern Ribbed Fens: The area around Horseshoe Lake contains the most extensive patterned fen complex in Alberta
- The plateau is characterized by a few dry ridges carrying aspen, white spruce, and scattered lodgepole pine and by huge peatlands that cover most of the area.
- Slumping of peatland occurs along the Ponton River and nearby lake shorelines, exposing profiles of peat that are up to 10 m thick.
- The black spruce peatlands are dominated by upland bryophytes and lichens.
- Black spruce/lichen woodlands also cover large areas of the plateau.
- Fire is an important component of the forests of the Caribou Mountains and the great majority of the plateau consists of stands that are early-late post fire successional with much deadfall and standing snags.
- The area has been severely impacted by fire over the last twenty years. If the insulating organic cover (vegetation, mosses and lichens) is disturbed, the permafrost beneath can melt and erosion and damage to vegetation, soils, and water flow regime can occur.
- As of 1997, 73 lichen species, 61 bryophytes, and 230 vascular plants, including many rare and unusual species, had been identified based on data from randomly chosen study sites.
- The lichen count is one of the highest in the world. Lichens provide 70 percent of the caribou’s winter diet. Dr. Bernard de Vries describes the lichen communities on the plateau as "an outdoor laboratory for foreign scientists. The lichens are important for caribou and preserving permafrost."
- A stand of pure lodgepole pine growing along the shore of Fleming Lake is believed to be the most northeasterly occurrence of this species.
- Northern ground-cone (Boschniakia rossica) was identified along the west slopes of the mountains, the only known location of this plant in Alberta.
- The Caribou Mountains Wildland Park provides habitat for woodland caribou, a species designated as endangered in Alberta under the Wildlife Act.
- The Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan states that the park’s herd is declining, with a population drop of greater than 40 percent since 1995. The caribou range over almost all of the Wildland Park.
- The range is believed to be one of the largest known caribou winter ranges in the province. The caribou are believed to use the treed slopes of the mountains when the snow is deep on the plateau.
- Eighty-four species of birds have been recorded in the area, including exotic wood warblers.
- The region contains one of the two known nesting sites of the red-throated loon. Waterfowl, shorebirds and birds of prey such as osprey and bald eagles use the lakes and rivers for nesting and staging.
- American white pelicans are believed to stop in the area on their way to their nesting grounds further north.
- The Caribou Mountains are also one of the two known nesting areas in Alberta for the elusive American tree sparrow.
- Twenty-two species of mammals (not including furbearers) have been recorded on the plateau. Furbearers such as mink, muskrat, beaver, wolverine and river otter also use the area. A local native indicated that he sighted a grizzly bear on the west slopes on the mountains in the lat 1940s.
- The Caribou Mountains provide habitat for species found much further north, including gray-cheeked thrush, red-necked phalarope, red-throated loon, American tree sparrow, mew gull, pacific loon and surf scoter.
- A population of up to 120 wood bison lives in the Wentzel Lake area in small groups of up to 15 animals.
- As of 2001, all animals from this herd that were tested for diseases tested negative but it is not known whether the entire herd is disease-free.
- Except for the Bison Management Area in the northwest corner of Alberta, which contains disease-free wood bison that are considered wildlife and are designated Endangered under the Wildlife Act, wood bison are not considered wildlife in Alberta and therefore can be hunted year-round.
- Hunting of wood bison is prohibited within Caribou Mountains Wildland Park.
- Lake trout and lake whitefish occur in the lakes in the Caribou Mountains and the headwaters of rivers flowing from the mountains contain Arctic grayling. All lakes and streams are cold and the fish grow slowly. Arctic grayling are very sensitive to siltation of their habitat.
- Trapping, hunting, and guiding-outfitting occurs in the Park.
- There are two fly-in fishing lodges in the Park, one on Margaret Lake and the other on Pitchimi Lake. Fishing pressure on the slow-growing fish is currently controlled by a restriction on the number of commercial fishing lodges in the area.
- The south central and south eastern escarpment of the Caribou Mountains in northern Alberta is part of the traditional lands of the Little Red River Cree Nation and Tallcree First Nation, who have inhabited this area for over 5,000 years. A lodge agreement exists between the Little Red River Cree Nation and the province.
- Several historic and prehistoric aboriginal settlements are known to exist in the area.
- At one time there were 8,000 Beaver Indians in the area. They suffered massive death due to disease and numerous Beaver Indian graves can be located at Margaret Lake.