March 31, 2020
Wild Lands Advocate article by: Ian Urquhart, AWA Conservation Staff and Editor, Wild Lands Advocate…
Sharing its northern border with Wood Buffalo National Park, Birch-Wabasca is a collection of rich ecological communities with many unique geomorphological features that make this a distinct landscape in northern Alberta.
With increased science-based management, AWA believes that the Birch-Wabasca wilderness can be conserved for generations to come.
AWA’s Birch- Wabasca Area of Concern is an extensive boreal landscape, south of Wood Buffalo National Park, characterized by its unique ensemble of ecological communities that render this wilderness incredibly diverse in plant, animal and insect species. Just north of Fort McMurray, Birch-Wabasca wilderness is one of the most diverse intact hill systems in northern Alberta with numerous wetlands and shallow lakes interspersing various continuous mixedwood tree stands.
AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern contains Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park (162 Ha), the Birch Mountain Wildland Provincial Park (146 Ha) and Birch River Wildland Provincial Park (331 Ha). Outside of those designated areas, the Old Fort wilderness is under a multiple land-use designation.
AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern falls within two regional land-use plans: the eastern segment is located partially within the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP), which was completed August 22, 2012, and the western segment falls within the Lower Peace Region, which has not been completed.
The majority of AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern is situated within the Green Area of Alberta, otherwise known as the forested portion. Public lands within the Green Area of Alberta are managed for recreation, natural resources, and ecological goods and services. This area has minimal public settlements and permits industrial exploration and development of natural resources, in addition to industrial clearcut logging. Agricultural activities are largely excluded from the Green Area, with the exception of grazing leases generally located around the periphery of the zone. Management and administration of public lands within Alberta is largely overseen by provincial regulatory bodies such as the Alberta Energy Regulator and the departments of Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Energy, and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. Public land dispositions are regulated under multiple pieces of legislation that include, but are not limited to, the Public Lands Act, Public Lands Administration Regulation, Recreational Access Regulations, and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (Alberta 2014).
Currently within AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern there are two wildland provincial parks which together form the largest contiguous boreal forest protected area in the world.
Birch River Wildland Provincial Park (WPP) was designated in May of 2018 by means of a multistakeholder collaboration with Nature Conservancy Canada, the Tallcree Tribal Government, the governments of Alberta and Canada, and Syncrude Canada. The Wildland Park encompasses 332 Ha extending south towards Birch Mountains WPP from the southern border of Wood Buffalo National Park and Bitch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park. Under the legislation of the Provincial Parks Act, Birch River WPP is managed with the intent to “to preserve and protect natural heritage and provide opportunities for compatible backcountry recreation” (Government Alberta 2017).
Birch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park, designated as a part of the Special Places Program, is approximately 146 Ha in size with a western segment of this wilderness connecting with the Birch River Wildland Provincial Park. Similarly, Birch Mountains is also managed under the legislation of Provincial Parks Act with the intent to conserve the natural features and heritage of the landscape while promoting limited access, and low-impact recreation opportunities that are compatible with conservation objectives.
Wood bison are classified federally as Threatened under Schedule 1 of the Species At Risk Act, with some herds in Alberta, such as the Hay-Zama and the Ronald Lake herd, also receiving provincial protection under the Wildlife Act being designated as endangered. The Act states that, “free-roaming within Alberta’s Bison Protection Area are considered to be wildlife, and receive protection under the Wildlife Act. It is illegal to hunt, harm, or traffic in the bison within this area without a licence” (Government of Alberta 2018).
Wood bison are considered a species at risk within Alberta and across our nation primarily because of disease outbreaks, small population sizes and restricted distribution.
The Ronald Lake wood bison herd, which is considered a free-roaming herd, has a range that extends from Wood Buffalo National Park south into the Birch Mountains, but does not receive any protection as they do not reside within the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park or Alberta’s Bison Protection Area, and are considered to potentially carry tuberculosis and brucellosis.
In 2008, the provincial government launched a program that would prevent the spread of tuberculosis and brucellosis between herds and livestock population. The program consists of population control by means of hunting and a coordinated disease surveillance segment to ensure the uncontaminated herds of the Hay-Zama and others remains as such (Government of Alberta, 2018).
In recent years, the Ronald Lake herd has been subject to significant conservation efforts in hopes to expand existing knowledge and better understand the ecology of this herd. The Ronald lake herd has noteworthy importance because of it is a disease-free status, cultural and historical significance to First Nations and Metis, in addition to being hypothesized as having differentiated genetically from other herds (DeMars et al 2016).
In order to conserve the ecological integrity of Birch-Wabasca, AWA believes that the Wildland Provincial Park designation should be expanded to encompass the entire Area of Concern. AWA believes that a Wildland designation would not only protect the observed biodiversity and important ecological functioning, but an expanded area would create a much needed buffer for the wildlife of Wood Buffalo National Park and the Birch River and Birch Mountain Wildland Provincial Parks from encroaching developments and land use activities. AWA also believes that increasing the protection of this boreal landscape would also be beneficial as reference area, as it is a large intact region that is highly reflective of Alberta’s northern native flora and fauna.
Directly south of Wood Buffalo National Park, AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern is a northern boreal landscape that is 13,523 km2in size. The area is a patchwork of high and lowlands dissected by numerous wetlands and lakes, dense forest stands, permafrost and thermokarst scarring, in addition to striking geological features such as glacial flutings. Given the remoteness of the area, access into this wilderness is generally restricted to airplanes or snowmobiles. The nearest roads are Highway 63 to Fort Mackay to the east, or Highway 88 to the west travelling northward toward Fort Vermillion.
The high and lowlands of Birch-Wabasca are distinguished features compared to surrounding landscapes due to their extensive cover by various forms of wetlands, creeks, streams, rivers and shallow lakes, both named and unnamed, that spread across this wilderness. The largest and most notable rivers and creeks include:
Fens and bogs are the most common wetland type in Birch-Wabasca, with swamps occurring along the edges of bogs and along some streams. Marshes are relatively rare in this wilderness, although some do occur at inland deltas, and along lakeshores.
Fens in Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region are described as peatlands that have deep organic deposits (peat) that can range to a depth of 40 cm or less. Fens are greatly influenced by the slow lateral moving water that is generally more nutrient rich because of its contact with groundwater or nutrient surfaces. This increased concentration of nutrients allows fens to be more productive and support a higher number of wildlife species. Fens can have a variety of vegetation covers: they can be treed, shrubby or completely open. Fens in Alberta’s boreal forest provide many ecological services such as preventing downstream flooding and regulating water flow, but they also serve as the main channel of transport for water and nutrients to many different landscapes (Ducks Unlimited Canada 2017).
Similar to fens, bogs are peatlands that also have deep organic deposits but have poorly decomposed organic material. Unlike fens, bogs are elevated above the surrounding terrain which results in most of their water being stagnant with nutrients being derived from precipitation. These topographical features make bogs far less productive than fens. Bogs can be treed, shrubby or open with the vegetation cover being reflective of the level of water and nutrients readily available. Common plant species found in bogs are stunted black spruce, bog cranberry, sphagnum moss and Labrador tea. The deep organic deposits of bogs store an incredible amount of carbon which helps mitigate climate change issues, and they serve also to store water and release it depending on the climatic conditions (Ducks Unlimited Canada 2017).
Common wetlands found in Birch-Wabasca include:
AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern displays many unique geological formations such as eskers, drumlins, fluted moraines, slump and seepage areas, permafrost features and broken terrain with soil creep (AWA files 1985). The Birch Mountains are indicative of erosional remnants from the upper cretaceous period with glacial till deposits covering the top layers. Many surface materials are mostly fine grained till, however, areas of coarse till are possible. Some regions of Birch-Wabasca contain thick organic layers between layers of till; overlaid layers generally include coarse macrofossil fragments such as wood, bark and moss and finer fractions, charcoal and seeds. Middle Wisconsin sites in northern Alberta are rare, this organic layer between till units suggests two glacial events in north-central Alberta-regionally significant middle Wisconsin nonglacial interval (Paulen et al 2005).
The extensive cover and assortment of wetlands across the landscape of Birch-Wabasca is part of what makes this region provincially significant. These wetlands provide a multitude of ecological services such as water retention, release, cleansing and carbon and nutrient storage and distribution. These wetlands also provide the necessary habitat for many boreal forest species in addition to threatened boreal woodland caribou herds.
Birch River Wildland Provincial Park:
Established in May 2018, the Birch River WPP was the product of collaboration between Nature Conservancy Canada, the Tallcree Tribal Government, the governments of Alberta and Canada, and Syncrude Canada. The Wildland Park is approximately 332 Ha in size and extends south from Wood Buffalo National Park connecting with the western segment Birch Mountains WPP. The Wildland designation shifted the landscape away from a multiple-use framework with forestry and energy exploration and development and concentrated on the biodiversity and ecological value of the area. Birch River WPP is a provincially significant area due to the connectivity of habitat and the movement of wildlife between Wood Buffalo National Park and Birch Mountain WPP. This vast landscape represents the largest contiguous conserved boreal forest area in the world, and has been recognized as being essential to the conservation of at risk species with over 68 species such as boreal woodland caribou and wood bison depending on this landscape for habitat. Birch River WPP is also important to many First Nations communities in the surrounding area; this landscape allows communities to continue to exercise their Treaty rights, and maintain the natural values of the landscape and wildlife that are important to their heritage and culture.
Birch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park:
The Birch Mountains WPP is characterized as relatively flat highlands that can average a height of 800m in comparison to the surrounding lowlands of the Athabasca River valley. The elevation of this landscape influences the hydrology and vegetation cover fostering many treed, shrubby and open bogs that are essential habitat for many wildlife species in addition to many old growth forests (Johnson and Allen 2007). This Wildland park is also connected to the Birch River Wildland Provincial Park further contributing to the necessary connectivity of habitat and wildlife populations within the region rendering it provincially significant.
Through the collaboration with multiple stakeholders, the Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park was established in March of 2019 was created with the intent to protect more of Alberta’s boreal wilderness and to support the traditional rights and practices of local First Nations. Totalling 162 ha, Kitaskino Nuwenëné is located along the southern border of Wood Buffalo National Park serving as buffer for the national park, in addition to connecting both the Birch River and Richardson Wildland Provincial Park. This protection and connectivity of the local landscape facilitates the movement and survival of wildlife populations such as wood bison and woodland caribou.
AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern resides within the Boreal Forest Natural Region of Alberta, but is divided into four distinct natural subregions which are:
This subregion encompasses the western, eastern and southern extremities of AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern. It has a continental climate, which is defined by cold winters and warm summers. The undulating plains, extensive wetlands, and hummocky uplands of this subregion are dominated by stands of pure aspen, white spruce-aspen or pure white spruce stands which are generally located in areas of till and lacustrine. Jack pine stands occur in areas with more coarse material, with black spruce being found in bogs and fens. Gray Luvisolic soils are dominant in this landscape in addition to Gleysolic soils. Canadian buffaloberry, low brush cranberry, and prickly rose are common to the understory. A mix of wild sarsaparilla, hairy wild rye, and tall lungwort are featured in herb communities in addition to feathermosses.
Upper Boreal Highlands:
The Upper Boreal Highlands Natural Subregion is higher in elevation, with a change in vegetation indicating the transition from Lower Boreal Highlands Natural Subregion. This natural subregion occurs on the slopes and plateaus of the Birch Mountains with coniferous forests of lodgepole pine, black spruce or lodgepole-jack pine hybrid stands covering the majority of this landscape. Bogs are more commonly found with some areas containing fens. The understory species common to these areas are cloudberry, Labrador tea, sphagnum moss, and bog berry.
Lower Boreal Highlands:
The Lower Boreal Highlands Natural Subregion occupies a significant portion of the landbase in AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern. This subregion is defined by slopes with diverse mixedwood forests with common species such as white birch, aspen, and white spruce. Jack pine or jack pine-lodgepole stands are common in more dry areas. Many areas contain fens or bogs with species such as sphagnum moss, dwarf bog-rosemary,water sedges, bog cranberry and willow being common to the understory.
This Subregion is relatively small, occupying only the small eastern fringe of AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern. This Subregion includes level to undulating sandy fluvial and eolian plains with some prominent dune fields in the northern and eastern areas of this region. Water levels vary across this Subregion with some drier areas being covered in jack pine tree stands with understories of lichen, bearberry, common blueberry, bog cranberry, willows, river alder, horsetails and Canada buffaloberry. Occasionally white spruce can also be found in these sites however, so mature specimens are rare because of frequent fire return intervals and heavily drained soils. Sand dunes have special vegetative communities which stabilize the surfaces of the dunes, but areas of bare sand do exist (cite) Moist rich sites are relatively uncommon for this region, but they can be found along the rivers and around small lakes. Aspen, balsam poplar, white spruce, black spruce and white birch occur in these areas. Wetland areas in this Subregion can be treed, shrubby or graminoid (open) fens. Vegetative cover common in wetland areas of this Subregion include black spruce, tamarack, common Labrador tea, peat mosses and feathermosses.
The topograghy and climate of Birch-Wabasca have created this unique ensemble of ecological communities in relatively close proximity, rendering this landscape highly biodiverse. Birch-Wabasca has many unique plant species such as the northern quillwort (Isoetes echinospora), believed to be located in a sheltered bay of Pelican Island in Namur Lake. It is also believed that the landscapes of Birch-Wabasca support multiple species of Botrychium (moowort) which include:
Birch-Wabasca is home to many wildlife species such as wolves, coyotes, moose, white tailed deer, in addition to at risk species such as wood bison and boreal woodland caribou.
This landscape and its extensive wetland cover provides habitat for many migratory and resident bird species such as the white pelican, bald eagle, common loon, common terns, cormorants, black and white plovers, ruddy turnstones, peregrine falcons, warblers, and franklin and Bonaparte gulls.
AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern is renowned for excellent and diverse fisheries. Some of species common to the watercourses and bodies of Birch-Wabasca include Arctic Grayling, Goldeye, Lake Whitefish, Mountain Whitefish, Northern Pike and Walleye.
The insect, or invertebrate, species in Birch-Wabasca are equally as diverse as the animals and plants in this region. Surveys of this region have found a diverse array of species within orders such as the Odonata and Araneae.
Some uncommon species spiders found in Birch-Wabasca include:
Common families of damselfilies found in Birch-Wabasca include:
In 1922, Wood Buffalo National Park was established to protect what remained of wood bison populations within northern Alberta, with Plains bison being introduced to the park a few years later with the intent to bolster population size. The introduction of Plains bison into the Park resulted in a hybridization between Plains and Wood bison, and subsequent the spread of brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis, which is believed to have originated from contact between Plains bison and livestock.
Contrary to local First Nation knowledge and opinion, it was believed for many years that the Ronald Lake Wood bison herd was a derivative of the hybridized herds from Wood Buffalo National Park, rather than being an established free-roaming population prior to the introduction of Plains bison into the park.
In 2018, research and genetic analysis confirmed that the Ronald Lake herd was indeed a distinct free-roaming population established prior to the park, in addition to being disease free. This confirmed status enabled the herd’s protection under Alberta’s Wildlife Act as a “Subject Animal”, protecting the herd from non-indigenous hunting, but still allowing for First Nations harvesting rights.
Given its disease free status and its cultural and historical significance to local indigenous communities, the Ronald Lake herd has, and continues to be, the subject of significant conservation efforts in hopes to expand existing knowledge and better understand the ecology of this herd. With population estimates ranging anywhere from 80 to 225 individuals, the Ronald Lake herd has yet to receive a management plan, despite looming concerns around potential land-use impacts such as those that could incur with the proposed oilsands development, Frontier, by Teck.
AWA continues to engage with government officials and indigenous stewards to advocate for a science-based management plan that will incorporate Traditional Knowledge, and conserve this herd as it is a vital part of Alberta’s wilderness, with thriving populations of Wood bison allowing the fulfilment of indigenous treaty rights and food security.
Birch-Wabasca is the traditional territory of the Tallcree and Mikisew Cree First Nations. The Anishinabe Tallcree First Nation has a total of seven reserves to make up a total of 9,387 Ha encompassing a population of 1,044. The Mikisew Cree First Nation traditional lands range over most of the Athabasca Oil Sands deposits, with the center of their traditional lands being the Athabasca Delta. There are numerous burial and settlement sites for both First Nations that have been identified around Eaglesnest Lake, Sandy Lake, Big Island Lake, Gardner Lake.
The landscape of Birch-Wabasca can support many low-impact recreational activities that are compatible with conservation objectives such as backpacking, canoeing, equestrian riding, skiing, camping, hiking, fishing.
Cumulative effects and Restoration
Over the decades, AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern has undergone a significant amount of industrial development from oil and gas, forestry and even diamond mines. All of this exploration and development has rendered a significant portion of the Birch-Wabasca landscape fragmented and discontinuous. These alternations on the landscape have considerable consequences on the survivability of local wildlife, in particular at risk species such as wood bison and boreal woodland caribou.
AWA believes that this landscape deserves increased protection and a science-based management strategy that will limit surface disturbances and promote the recovery and conservation of this sensitive boreal forest landscape. AWA advocates that protected areas such as the Birch Mountains WPP and Birch River WPP should have a considerably large buffer zone from industrial developments on surrounding landscapes in order to minimize the impacts of industrial encroachment, larger protected areas are required in order to properly conserve the ecological integrity and functioning of native habitat and maintain wildlife connectivity.
AWA also believes that greater efforts need to be focused on rehabilitating industrial disturbance sites such as seismic lines and cutlines, as these features have a considerable impact on wildlife ranges such as those of boreal woodland caribou. Currently, parts of AWA’s Birch-Wabasca Area of Concern are occupied by the Red Earth boreal woodland caribou herd, with only 14 percent of this range being protected by means of the Birch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park, Harper Creek Natural Area and Wood Buffalo National Park. Given that 68 percent of the Red Earth caribou range is disturbed by seismic lines, AWA believes that restoration of legacy footrprints are required to continue to enable at risk species like boreal woodland caribou to continue to be a part of Birch-Wabasca wilderness.
The Government of Alberta establishes . Kitaskino Nuwenëné covers an area of 161,880 ha and is to be managed with the intent of supporting Treaty rights and Indigenous land uses, while achieving biodiversity and conservation goals.
May 15 2018
NCC purchases A9 timber quota from the Tall Cree First Nations.
Mikisew Cree First Nation signs a Treaty Land Entitlement with Canada that creates several Reserves in and around Fort Chipewyan and north of Lake Athabasca.
Mikisew Cree First Nation wins a legal case affirming their rights and title interests to areas of Wood Buffalo National Park.
Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Ltd. proposes the Leige Valley region as a protected area of 1400 km2 under the province’s Special Places program