Bistcho is a remote and serene wilderness region in the far northwestern corner of Alberta. The area is a diverse subarctic wetland composed of sphagnum peat plateau bogs with collapse scars and channel fens. Within the subarctic ecosystem, soil, vegetation, and wildlife are known to be extremely sensitive to human activities.
Bistcho means “Big Sleep” in the language of the local First Nation, the Dene Tha’. At 426 km2, Bistcho Lake is one of the largest lakes in the province. It is unusually shallow, with an average depth of less than two metres, and is popular with anglers, who report catches of 40-lb pike, 14-lb walleye, and 12-lb whitefish.
Bistcho Lake is known locally as Tapawingo, or “Place of Joy.” In local legend, the lake is the Creator’s bed. The lake’s islands are said to have been created when the Creator pushed his spruce bough bed up through the water. Legend has it that the Petitot River was created by the dragging of the Creator’s walking stick.
- AWA would like to see Bistcho designated as a Wildland Provincial Park based on the model used to establish Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland Provincial Park.
- Although designated as a Provincial Environmentally Significant Area, Bistcho does not currently have protected status.
Oil and Gas
Oil and gas development is permitted in the Bistcho / Cameron Hills area, and several sour gas processing facilities are located here. The Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan (2005) describes industrial activity in the Bistcho area as follows: “Moderate geophysical exploration lines. Moderate but expanding oil and gas development and roadway development. Moderate levels of timber harvesting.”
Current and potential concerns include the following:
- The lack of an updated management plan – the current management plan is dated 1994;
- The sale of oil and gas leases and the resultant development in, and access to, the region;
- The introduction of non-native plant species;
- Damage to unique features, plants, animals and their habitats;
- Lack of information about the location of permafrost, which is necessary for its preservation;
- Increased recreational activity resulting in increased garbage;
- Disruption to water flow and quality.
AWA would like to see Bistcho designated as a Wildland Provincial Park in order to preserve the wilderness character of the area.
- Bistcho is located in the Boreal natural region and includes areas within the Northern Mixedwood, Lower Boreal Highlands and Boreal Subarctic subregions.
- The landscape is dotted with lakes, including the large, shallow, eutrophic Bistcho Lake.
- The Bistcho area is approximately 3,500 km2 in size and is often paired, for management purposes, with Cameron Hills, another unprotected Environmentally Significant Area in northwestern Alberta.
- The Shekilie oil field is located on the southern edge of the Bistcho / Cameron Hills Management Area.
- There is discontinuous permafrost in Bistcho (a condition where mineral soil, peat, or rock is frozen for at least two summers and the winter between).
Township and Range map: JPG | PDF
Natural Subregions map: JPG | PDF
- Bistcho is one of the most diverse and extensive subarctic wetlands in Alberta and is composed mostly of sphagnum peat plateau bogs.
- The Bistcho area drains slowly, which results in a number of small, shallow lakes.
- Water flows along channel fens into the Petitot River, the largest river in the area, which in turn drains into the Liard River. Ultimately, all water from Bistcho flows into the Beaufort Sea via the Mackenzie River.
Environmentally Significant Areas
- Around 70% of the Bistcho Area of Concern is considered a provincial Environmentally Significant Area. This means that Bistcho is considered an important, sensitive, relatively undisturbed tract of land and critical wildlife range.
ESA map: JPG | PDF
- Typical vegetation includes open stands of black spruce with moss / lichen understory.
- Rare plant species, including polargrass and hairy butterwort, have been found in the area.
- Other tree species include white spruce, black spruce, jack pine / lodgepole pine, aspen, balsam poplar, and white birch.
Woodland caribou (P. Sutherland)
- Bistcho Lake supports colonies of Bonaparte’s gulls, Franklin’s gulls, common terns, and black terns.
- Raptor species in the region include bald eagle, osprey, northern goshawk, and sharp-shinned hawk.
- A selection of other birds present in Bistcho includes the common loon, red-necked grebe, trumpeter swan, Canada goose, American wigeon, common goldeneye, spruce grouse, boreal owl, great-horned owl, boreal chickadee, ovenbird, purple finch, and pine siskin.
- Woodland caribou (on the provincial endangered species list), whose numbers have declined significantly this past century, inhabit the area.
- The amphibians known to live in the area include the wood frog and striped chorus frog.
- Arctic grayling, cisco, burbot, white sucker, longnose sucker, spottail shiner, ninespine stickleback, trout perch, slimy sculpin, lake whitefish, northern pike, and walleye live in the area and local rivers are critical for spawning.
- Moose, marten, mink, wolverine, wolf, river otter, beaver, black bear, and muskrat also all call this area home.
- Bistcho lies within the Alberta Bison Management Area. The closest known herd is found to the south in the Hay-Zama area.
Woodland Caribou Range map (PDF)
- The local First Nation is known as the Dene Tha’.
- The Bistcho Lake Reserve and Jackfish Point Reserve both lie along the shore of Bistcho Lake. Grave sites in both reserves are protected.
- Currently, there are no permanent residents in this area.
- The 1994 Bistcho Lake / Cameron Hills Draft Resource Management Plan calls for the location and protection of former communities, grave sites, and other historical features.
- Bistcho is a part of the Cameron Hills Upland. This is a region of Cretaceous strata that covers the northwestern corner of Alberta, the northeastern corner of British Columbia, and adjacent portions of the Northwest Territories. These uplands are a result of fluvial erosion that carved the lowlands of the Great Slave Plains and the Fort Nelson Lowland.
- The surface of bedrock in low-lying areas between the hills consists of paleovalleys filled with glacial and possibly preglacial sediments.
- Elevation ranges from 215 metres to 640 metres at Elsa Hill, the highest point in the Bistcho area.
The Dene Tha’ Nation, at the signing of the documents and official ceremony to twin Hay-Zama Lakes, expresses support for protection of Bistcho as a Wildland park with status similar to Hay-Zama Wildland Park.
The Bistcho Lake / Cameron Hills boreal caribou study was initiated in the Northwest Territories. The study area was extended south into Alberta due to the free movement of collared animals between the two jurisdictions. In the NWT, the Cameron Hills has past and existing oil and gas activities, and represents an important area to investigate interactions between boreal caribou and industrial developments.
October 1, 2003
Paramount Resources Ltd. reports that its sour gas processing facility at Bistcho Lake is producing gas at depths up to 4,950 feet (1,500 meters). The plant also processes gas from a third party-operated field to the south at Larne.
In a series of letters to the Minister of Energy, Hon. Murray D. Smith, AWA expresses opposition to a series of leases and licenses, and requests that these leases and licenses not be sold.
In these letters, the AWA seeks EUB, industry, and government commitment to two principles:
- No new leases, surface development, or access through proposed protected areas.
- Outside of the core area, discussion of all development and mitigation plans in low-risk area and buffers within and extending from the proposed protected areas.
The rationale behind AWA’s attempts to protect the sensitive core areas and minimize impacts in the surrounding buffer zones is to ensure the persistence of the region’s ecological and recreational value.
The Bistcho Lake gas processing plant becomes operational.
The Bistcho Lake / Cameron Hills Draft Resource Management Plan is released. The plan was prepared by Alberta Environmental Protection.
Concerns arise in the late 1980s about the impact of land use and timber harvesting on woodland caribou and permafrost in the Bistcho Lake/Cameron Hills area.
Fires in the early 1980s change the nature of the northern caribou range, and oil and gas development damages some areas of permafrost.
Aboriginals establish permanent residence. Smallpox outbreaks hit the area in 1920 and 1921. People begin to leave the area starting in 1934, and in the 1950s, the last family leaves.
Bistcho is managed under the Bistcho Lake / Cameron Hills Draft Resource Management Plan (April 1994). The purpose of the plan is to protect permafrost, woodland caribou, landforms, vegetation, and fish, as well as other wildlife and climatic features. Sustainable Resource Development is responsible for ensuring that the plan is enacted, and agencies like Fish and Wildlife act in a consultation role.
- The 1994 Draft Resource Management Plan lists a number of concerns and commitments (pp. 7-19 and Appendix B) – research is needed to see if these concerns have been addressed and the commitments carried out. Some of the commitments are as follows:
- Completing a fisheries and lakeshore management plan;
- Protecting trapping and fishing cabins;
- Recording local knowledge and involving stakeholders;
- Protecting rare / threatened / endangered species;
- Reclaiming disturbed areas, with the exception of the developed oil field;
- Using “dog legs” and minimal impact construction to reduce issues with line of sight;
- Locating critical habitat and creating wildlife maps;
- Preventing the construction of any new fishing lodges (one in existence);
- Restricting use of access trails by motorized vehicles during periods of warm temperatures;
- Continued monitoring of fish populations in Bistcho Lake;
- Protecting forest from fire, disease, and insects;
- Managing the sustainable harvesting of timber;
- Protecting historical resources;
- Protecting permafrost;
- Ensuring that industry is aware of the special status of the area when mineral licenses and leases are sold; in addition, special operating conditions will apply to exploration and development;
- Encouraging a limited amount of tourism;
- Protecting water quality and quantity.
- Bistcho lies within the Alberta Bison Management Area. This 40,000-km2 area was designated in 1995 for the protection of the Hay-Zama bison herd.
- Other key directives and programs related to the Bistcho and Cameron Hills area are as follows:
- Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan (Fish and Wildlife, 2005);
- Procedural Guide for Petroleum and Natural Gas Activity on Caribou Range (Information Letter 91-17, 1991);
- Tourism 2000: A Vision for the Future (Government of Alberta, Alberta Tourism, 1991);
- Wetland Management in the Settled Area of Alberta – An Interim Policy (1993);
- Special Places 2000 Program;
- Seizing Opportunity, Alberta’s New Economic Development Strategy (1993);
- Forest Conservation Strategy (written 1994, approved 1997).