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McClelland Lake Features



  • Part of the Boreal Natural Region, Central Mixedwood Boreal Subregion
  • Rolling terrain, deep river valleys, sandy jackpine hills, wetlands
  • McClelland Lake watershed contains coniferous old-growth forest as well as extensive connected wetlands and peatlands, including spruce bogs, fens, marshes, creeks, swamps, and lakes
  • The McClelland Lake watershed contains Provincially Significant habitat for staging ducks and other waterfowl.
  • Fort Hills
    • The Fort Hills, located in the southwest corner of the watershed, form a dissected kame – an elongated, mound-shaped hill or ridge of glacial origin that has been cut into two or more parts.
    • Their highest point of elevation is at the west end, where the Athabasca River flows more than 100 metres below.
    • Streams flow off the Fort Hills into the Athabasca and Muskeg Rivers, and to the north, into McClelland Lake.
    • The hills contain old-growth forest habitat as well as important moose habitat.
    • The Wood Buffalo First Nation has a long familiarity with the Fort Hills area and has observed a decline in both moose and game birds over time.
    • Lynx use the hills as a refuge when populations are down; they are highly dependent on snowshoe hares (75 to 90% of their diet).



Environmentally Significant Areas (ESAs)

  • Firebag River (Provincially Significant)
    • The Firebag and its tributaries are provincially significant Arctic grayling habitat.
    • The river is considered hydrogeologically important and has a high landform diversity (meanders and delta).
    • It is also considered key moose habitat.
    • It contains key fisheries habitat (spawning, feeding and overwintering) for walleye, lake whitefish, northern pike, yellow perch, and burbot.
  • Athabasca River – Tar Sands Reach (Nationally Significant)
    • A wide river valley that provides key wintering habitat and movement corridor for moose
    • Provides habitat for small mammals, including fisher and marten
    • An important waterfowl staging area
    • A main artery for fisheries in most of the surrounding region
    • Feeds the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a Ramsar-designated Wetland of International Importance
  • McClelland Lake (Provincially Significant)
    • A clear, shallow lake, maximum depth only a few metres
    • Provides forage fish habitat and potential seasonal habitat for northern pike
    • “Extensive fish surveys conducted during the spring of 2002 indicated brook stickleback and pearl dace are abundant in McClelland Lake.” (Department of Fisheries and Oceans submission to EUB, 2002)
    • Virtually no information about McClelland Lake’s benthic community exists; this means there is no benchmark data according to which to measure the effects of development within the watershed. “Benthic invertebrate communities consist of aquatic organisms such as insects, snails, clams and worms that spend at least part of their lives in or on the bottom of rivers, lakes or wetlands. These organisms are an important food source for fish and are an important indicator of fish habitat quality” (Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program 2004 Community Report).
    • Receives local drainage from small tributaries to south and west
    • Lies directly on a major North American flyway and is an important migratory bird staging area
    • Used as a stopover by migratory birds flying to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, including endangered whooping cranes
    • Important as a nesting site for bald eagles, sandhill cranes, red-necked grebes, and redhead ducks
  • McClelland Lake Fen (Provincially Significant)
    • Peatlands, often called “muskeg,” represent an important terrestrial carbon sink, holding 25% of the world’s terrestrial carbon (Woodwell and Houghton 1991). Peatlands around the world are disappearing rapidly because of human impact from activities such as mining, forestry and agriculture.
    • Peat is a type of soil that contains a high proportion of dead organic matter, mainly plants, that has accumulated over thousands of years.
    • A fen is a peat-forming wetland fed by a continuous source of alkaline, mineral-rich groundwater. Fens support a distinctive suite of species that can adapt to the alkaline conditions.
    • Fens differ from bogs, which are primarily fed by rainwater and are more acidic. Because fens have higher nutrient levels, they support a much more diverse plant and animal community than bogs.
    • Fens provide important ecological benefits, including carbon storage, flood control, groundwater recharging, surface water filtration, and habitat for a diverse community of unique plant and animal species.
    • Patterned fens comprise approximately 1% of the province’s land base and only 4.5% of Alberta’s 103,000 km2 of peatlands.
    • Patterned fens are the product of a complex hydrological flow regime. They develop in shallow, sloping channel-like basins where groundwater seeps up into the basin and flows slowly down-slope.
    • Studies have suggested that patterning begins when organic debris accumulates in the spring over a frozen peatland surface. Ridges of vegetation and peat form perpendicular to the direction of water moving, creating a net-like pattern with descending, stepped pools (flarks) between the ridges (strings). The flarks can be several hundred metres long and the strings can support fully grown trees.
    • Two of Alberta’s largest patterned fens lie on either side of McClelland Lake. The fen to the southwest, often referred to as McClelland Lake fen, has the most prominent string-and-flark pattern in the province and is a provincially significant ESA. Its formation began approximately 8,500 years ago with the establishment of peat-forming mosses.
    • Patterned fens can be more acidic (also called “poor fens”), with the dominant species being Sphagnum mosses, or more alkaline (“rich fens”), with herbaceous species and brown mosses being dominant. McClelland Lake fen is a rich fen.
    • Unlike most fens, this one is associated with a large lake. It drains into McClelland Lake and is larger than 91 percent of patterned fens in Alberta. The peat is up to 5 meters thick. This is underlain by about 10 meters of sand and sandy gravel of fluvial origin.
    • The strings and flarks are strikingly demarcated. The flarks near the lake are extraordinarily large; the strings form a reticulate network with interconnections among the strings, not just a series of parallel strings as they are in many patterned fens.
    • Because of the high water table in this fen, its vegetation is likely to be sensitive to changes in climate and hydrological flows, and to surface damage.
2007-07-28 Fen - McClelland Lake - Photo Credit: Diana Horton
Fen - McClelland Lake - Photo Credit: Diana Horton
  • McClelland Sinkhole Lakes (Provincially Significant)
    • The watershed contains 12 sinkhole lakes – a provincially rare feature – in two chains. Six of the lakes were sampled for fish, and brook stickleback were found to occur in two of them.
    • Sinkholes are a key feature of Karst topography found in limestone bedrock. Karst regions are rare in Alberta and often contain vast, complex systems of interconnected underground passages and reservoirs. Sinkholes have a distinct circular shape and form when the roof of an underground cavern collapses.
    • These sinkholes provide drainage for surface water runoff and meltwater. Unlike many other fens in the region, almost all drainage is subsurface.
    • Because limestone, which is highly permeable, overlies the entire area, development south of the fen, as is planned, will likely lower the groundwater level in the fen. The widespread desiccation will undoubtedly affect the fen’s flora.
    • There is evidence of a large aquifer in the area.
2006-07-28 Sink holes at McClelland Lake
Sink holes - McClelland Lake - Photo Credit: Shirley Bray



  • Old-growth forest stands are found in the Athabasca River valley and on Fort Hills.
2006-07-29 Boreal Forest - McClelland Lake
Boreal forest - McClelland Lake



  • 205 bird species have been recorded within the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex, of which 116 have stayed to breed.
  • This includes threatened declining species such as yellow rail, short-eared owl and American bittern.
  • The yellow rail is relative rare in most of its range, and its population size appears to have decreased. It has thus been designated of "Special Concern" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
  • Whooping cranes (endangered) have been observed on the McClelland Lake fen on at least four occasions since 1994 (as reported in 2002). They may use the fen as a staging area during their migration to and from their breeding territory in Wood Buffalo National Park.
  • McClelland Lake lies directly in a major North American flyway; it is an important staging area for migratory bird such as white pelican, great blue heron, and whooping cranes.
  • Bald eagles and sandhill cranes nest in the watershed.



  • 114 species of mosses and liverworts occur in the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex (MLWC), of which 18 are provincially rare.
  • The MLWC contains at least 60 species of flowering plants, 4 of which are Alberta rarities. Additional rare species have been discovered with each new field survey.
  • Five species of insectivorous plants thrive in McClelland Lake fen.
  • The Alberta Natural Heritage Information Centre (ANHIC) database indicates that 95 rare vascular plants and 39 rare nonvascular plants may occur in the area.
Pitcher Plant - McClelland Lake - Photo Credit: Richard Thomas
Pitcher Plant - McClelland Lake - Photo Credit: Richard Thomas



  • The McClelland Lake watershed has traditionally been used by First Nations for hunting and trapping. One Fort McKay First Nation man still spends about half of his time at his cabin on the trapline and continues to hunt in the area for much of his family’s meat supply. The best area for hunting and trapping is the south shore of the lake and the area near the Firebag River.
  • Good blueberry, bog cranberry, saskatoon, and kinnikinnick areas exist around McClelland Lake. This area has a history of high traditional use.
  • “The traditional land base of Fort McKay First Nation has been significantly affected by cumulative levels of industrial development” (TrueNorth 2001 EIA).
  • Some of the comments made by First Nations people interviewed for the TrueNorth EIA about the wildlife in the McClelland area:
    • “Wildlife populations are mostly down in numbers. It’s been a steady decline
    • since the oil sands mines started, except for deer, and they’ve increased.”
    • “The way the animals move through the area has changed, they are always running from the noise.”
    • “Construction and forestry ruin habitat, all the noise drives the animals away. Emissions from [industrial]plants are destroying the animals’ food.”
    • “Hunting and trapping remains good around McClelland Lake, except one stretch where quads and hunters disturb traps.”
    • “Animals look skinnier now, especially moose.”
    • “Forestry are taking all the spruce so the squirrels are going too.”
    • “There are not as many small birds around; not even whiskyjacks or robins. It seems like there are more birds in town (Fort McMurray) than there are in the bush!”
    • “There has been a change in the way waterfowl migrate. The area around the McClelland Lake wetland complex used to receive hundreds of migrating waterfowl, but they don’t any more.”
    • “The increasing population has resulted in theft, damaged property, personal conflict and decreased trapping success.”


Sustainable Activities

  • Hunting
  • Trapping
  • Berry-picking
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