June 17, 2019
Straddling on the border of the Northwest Territories and British Columbia, Bistcho is a remote and serene boreal forest wilderness nestled in the far northwestern corner of Alberta.
In order to protect the natural integrity of Bistcho, AWA believes that this wilderness requires a management strategy with an ecosystem-based ethic that is developed and implemented through co-management with resident First Nations.
AWA’s Bistcho Area of Concern is a patchwork of wetlands and large tracts of mixedwood forests. PHOTOS: © AWA FILES
Bistcho is a diverse boreal wilderness that not only provides critical habitat for a multitude of wildlife species, but it also provides many important ecological services such as carbon storage, water retention, filtration, and the dispersal of nutrient rich water. Given the extreme sensitivity of this wilderness and its remoteness, AWA believes Bistcho requires protection from industrial surface disturbance, with thoughtful management by local First Nations in order to conserve this irreplaceable landscape.
AWA’s Bistcho Area of Concern falls within the expansive northern Boreal Forest Natural Region of Alberta. Directly west of Wood Buffalo National Park, Bistcho is an ecologically diverse wilderness that is defined by numerous wetlands including sphagnum peat plateau bogs, channel fens and mixedwood boreal forests that are home to many wildlife species in addition to threatened woodland caribou. Cooler climatic conditions of this region only allows for short growing seasons and contribute to permafrost soils, which renders these vegetative communities highly susceptible to disturbance. Forestry and oil and gas activities have persisted on the surrounding landscapes for many decades, with the encroachment of development causing reason for concern.
AWA’s Bistcho Area of Concern is 3503 km2 of public lands that is currently subject to a multiple land-use designation, with no formally protected areas. Industrial clearcut logging and extensive petroleum and natural gas exploration and developments have extended across the surrounding landscapes of Bistcho for many decades.
Once completed, Bistcho will fall under the Lower Peace Land-use Framework with the Government of Alberta committing to “addressing cumulative impacts on the environment and to managing social, economic and environmental realities and priorities in a holistic manner” (Alberta Parks 2018).
In 1994, a draft of the Bistcho Lake / Cameron Hills Draft Resource Management Plan was published, with the intended purpose of protecting permafrost, woodland caribou and their habitat. The plan also recognized the need to sustainably manage other natural features such as land forms, vegetation, fish, other wildlife, and climatic features. No update on whether this plan was ever implemented is available.
Bistcho is located within Alberta’s Green Area for public lands, which are managed for recreation, ecosystem significance and services, in addition to natural resources. Public lands in the Green Area can have government granted dispositions for natural resource exploration and development for industries such as oil and gas, minerals and coal. Agricultural developments are largely excluded from the Green Area, with the exception of grazing leases on the periphery of the Foothills Natural Region. Management and administration of public lands within Alberta is overseen by two regulatory bodies, the Alberta Energy Regulator and Alberta Environment and Parks. Public land dispositions are regulated under two pieces of legislation within the province of Alberta: the Public Lands Act and Public Lands Administration Regulation. Other relevant provincial legislation includes, but is not limited to Recreational Access Regulations, and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (Alberta 2014).
In anticipation of Lower Peace regional land use planning, in 2012 Alberta Energy stopped issuing further new mineral rights across much of the lands north, west and southwest of Bistcho Lake.
To support sub-regional range planning for Alberta’s threatened woodland caribou, in August 2015 Alberta Energy temporarily stopped issuing new energy leases across the entire Bistcho caribou range, which covers a larger area of the Bistcho region than the 2012 decision. AWA supports the continued deferral of all new energy leasing in the Bistcho caribou range until an enforceable habitat management range plan is in place to ensure survival of these threatened caribou.
A protective notation (PNT 170023) has since been issued over a proposed caribou Candidate Conservation Area identified in the Alberta government’s 2017 Draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan. AWA supports the establishment of the Candidate Conservation Area as an Indigenous Protected Area co-managed by the Dene Tha’ First Nation.
Wood bison are classified as Threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act, in addition to being designated as Endangered or a Subject Animal under Alberta’s Wildlife Act. “Free-roaming wood bison found in northwestern 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 2017).
The Bistcho wilderness is situated within the Alberta’s Bison Protection Area which was designated in 1995, and spans an area of 40,000km2. This area also includes AWA’s Hay-Zama and Cameron Hills Areas of Concern, in addition to the northern portion of AWA’s Chinchaga Area of Concern; it extends from the far northwest corner of the province south to the Chinchaga River. The Government of Alberta carefully monitors and controls the free-roaming bison herds within the Bison Protection Area, and those found in and around Wood Buffalo National Park so as to protect the disease-free bison herds and domestic livestock from contracting tuberculosis and brucellosis from diseased bison populations within Wood Buffalo National Park.
AWA believes that Bistcho should be protected from industrial surface disturbances, and be co-managed with resident First Nations in order to conserve ecological integrity and natural values.
AWA’s Bistcho Area of Concern is approximately 3503 km2 of Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region directly west of Wood Buffalo National Park. Zama City, Lutose, Steen River, and Indian Cabins are some of the small communities surrounding the Bistcho wilderness with access being limited to fly-ins and distant access from Highway 35.
The Bistcho wilderness is a patchwork of boreal forests with numerous wetlands and sporadic lakes. Drainage is relatively restricted within this area, giving rise to numerous shallow lakes which include Thurston, Beatty, Jonhston, May and Bistcho Lake. Bistcho Lake is a large shallow euthropic lake that contains a diverse array of fish species, and is also one of the largest lakes within Alberta. Bistcho is primarily located within Alberta’s Hay River Basin, with only a small northwest segment falling within the Liard River Basin. Water flows through the landscape along channel fens into the Petitot River, which is the largest watercourse within Bistcho. The Petitot River then drains into the Liard River Basin, while other rivers drain off the slopes into the Hay River Basin. Ultimately, all water on Bistcho’s landscape flows into the Beaufort Sea via the Mackenzie River.
The Bistcho landscape is part of the Cameron Hills Upland, a region that is characterized by Cretaceous strata and the Alberta Plateau, which includes the Buffalo Head Hills, the Caribou Mountains and Horn Plateau. These plateaus are believed to be erosional remnants after the Tertiary river sculpted the lowlands areas in between. Elevation ranges from 215 meters to 640 meters at Elsa Hill which is the highest point in the Bistcho area. The surface bedrock in low-lying areas located between the hills consists of paleovalleys filled with glacial, and possibly preglacial sediments. Bistcho topography was influenced by the Wisconsin Glaciation which affected landscapes by primarily eroding away a significant amount of material while depositing till (Mcgillivary and Hastings 1988). During the waning of the glacier, large blocks of ice became stagnant and melted to form small kettle and proglacial lakes throughout the landscape. Common soil types found within Bistcho include Gray Luvisol and Organic Cryosol which display a significant amount of discontinuous permafrost.
Bistcho’s landscape consists of mixedwood forest stands that are accompanied by various wetlands. This landscape provides important habitat and ecological services for the region, and is what renders this wilderness provincially significant. Bistcho’s old growth forest and peatlands are home for many boreal wildlife species, in addition to providing critical habitat for at risk species such as woodland caribou, and wood bison. Bistcho’s wetlands and old growth forest serve as significant stores for carbon and are important for water retention and filtering. In the midst of an ever-changing global climate, the ensemble of vegetative communities within Bistcho could also serve as a climate refugia for many wildlife species.
Bistcho completely resides within Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region, with a significant portion being characterized as Northern Mixedwood Natural Subregion. A small southeastern segment of this wilderness consists of Lower Boreal Highlands which eventually transitions into the Boreal Subarctic Natural Subregion.
A significant amount of Bistcho’s landmass is comprised of various wetlands such as bogs and fens, which are differentiated based on their vegetation cover, depth of organic layer, pH and amount of water. Bogs are characterized as peat-covered wetlands with a high water table, acidic water conditions and a general lack of nutrients. The vegetation commonly found within bogs are cushion-forming Sphagnum mosses, acidic soil-tolerant (ericaceous) shrubs and black spruce trees. Fens are differentiated by more nutrient rich conditions and a higher pH which enables the growth of sedges, grasses, brown mosses, and some tree species ( Zoltai 1987). The Bistcho wilderness is interspersed with sphagnum peat plateau bogs, collapsed scar bogs and channel fens. Bistcho’s wetlands provide habitat for many animal species, in addition to threatened woodland caribou. Research indicates that woodland caribou concentrate feeding, particularly during the winter, within forested fens and raised bogs. It is hypothesized that these wetland formations are selected by caribou because provide an increase in microhabitats, which enables a higher production of lichen biomass (Bradshaw et al 1995). These peatlands are an important ecological feature that are vital to the survival of the Bistcho woodland caribou herd, and ultimately the recovery of caribou populations within Alberta. In addition to providing habitat for at risk species, these wetlands also perform many important ecological services such as sequestering atmospheric carbon, and therein reducing green house gas emissions, as well as water filtration, retention and nutrient dispersal to surrounding ecosystems.
Boreal Forest Natural Region
Information sourced from Alberta Government
Northern Mixedwood: this subregion, covering much of the Bistcho area, is defined by lowlands with stunted black spruce bogs and fens, and discontinuous permafrost. Better drainage generally occurs on upland sites where mixedwood forests of aspen, balsam popular, white and black spruce dominate the tree cover. Understory species include bog cranberry, cloudberry, peat moss, reindeer lichens, common and Labrador tea.
Lower Boreal Highlands: this subregion is found in higher elevation areas south and east of Bistcho Lake. Most treed stands within this subregion are dominated by jack pine, lodgepole pine or hybrids of the two. Aspen, balsam popular, black and white spruce trees are common in forested slopes, with understory shrub species such as prickly rose, green alder, and low-brush cranberry. Open and closed peatlands are also common in this region. The herbaceous communities include species such as tall lungwort, fireweed, sedges, bunchberry, and marsh reed grass.
Boreal Subarctic: this subregion is found at the highest elevation areas in Bistcho. It is characterized by black spruce bogs with discontinuous permafrost on elevated plateaus. Lodgepole pine and Alaska birch are also found within this subregion. In lower lying areas, collapsed scar bogs are commonly found which are covered by sheathed cotton grass, and peat mosses. Cooler climates within this area result in a considerably slow and restricted growing season. Low temperatures, water-saturated organic and moss layers, in addition to lower sun angles, all contribute to the development of permafrost which also restricts plant growth. Shrub layers generally consist of Labrador tea, cloudberry and green reindeer lichen.
Some rare plant species such as polargrass and hairy butterwort, have also been documented in Bistcho.
Bistcho many mammal and ungulate species that call this wilderness home which includes at risk species such as woodland caribou and wood bison. Other common species found in Bistcho include:
AWA’s Bistcho Area of Concern resides within the Alberta’s Bison Protection Area which provides vital habitat for the rehabilitation of this species within the province of Alberta. The Government of Alberta carefully monitors and controls the free-roaming bison herds found within the Bison Protection Area, and those found in and around Wood Buffalo National Park so as to protect both the disease-free bison herds and domestic livestock from contracting tuberculosis and brucellosis from diseased bison populations within Wood Buffalo National Park.
Fish and Amphibians
Bistcho’s watercourses provide habitat and critical spawning areas for species such as Arctic grayling, burbot, white sucker, lake whitefish, northern pike, and walleye. Striped chorus frogs and wood frogs are also commonly found in the riparian areas of Bistcho’s watershed.
Common bird species found within the Bistcho wilderness include:
Bistcho has a rich cultural history with the Dene Tha’ First Nation, an Athapaskan speaking First Nation which lived in northwest Alberta to northeast British Columbia, in addition to the Northwest Territories. The Dene Tha’ had a nomadic way of life prior to establishing permanent residence near Bistcho Lake, known locally as Tapawingo, or “Place of Joy, in the early 1900’s. According to oral history, “Bistcho” means “Big Sleep” with Bistcho Lake being the Creator’s bed. The lake’s islands were formed when the Creator pushed up his spruce bough bed through the water, and Petitot River was formed by means of the Creator dragging his walking stick. Historically, Bistcho’s landscapes were also the traditional territory of Dehcho First Nations.
The Bistcho Lake and Jackfish Point Reserves are located along the shores of Bistcho Lake, and contain numerous burial sites and other culturally significant sites.
The surrounding landscapes of Bistcho’s wilderness have undergone exploration and development by the oil and gas industry, with the Skekilie oil field being located on the southern edge of Bistcho/Cameron Hills Management Area. Surface disturbances that result in terrain alterations, habitat loss and fragmentation are some serious concerns for Bistcho landscape with encroaching industrial exploration and development. Surface disturbances have serious implications for the vast majority of Bistcho’s wildlife species, especially threatened Woodland caribou and wood bison, in addition to the potential loss of important natural systems such as wetlands and permafrost.
The boreal forest and wetland complexes of Bistcho provide vital habitat and food sources for Woodland caribou. The Bistcho woodland caribou herd’s range overlaps the Muskwa petroleum and natural gas formation which is a stratigraphical unit in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. Current oil and gas developments are localized to the southern and eastern portions of the herd’s range, but it is estimated that approximately 91% of the herd’s range is within 500 meters of some form of anthropogenic disturbance with the majority being attributed to seismic lines for oil and gas exploration (Alberta Government caribou range plan draft 2017). A significant portion of industrial infrastructure is listed as inactive, suspended or abandoned having undergone minimal reclamation or restoration efforts.
AWA believes that Bistcho requires thoughtful management that prioritizes protecting undisturbed habitat and extensive restoration efforts to help support resident wildlife species such as woodland caribou. Implementing strict limits on total surface disturbances is required in order to preserve the unique vegetative communities that are imperative to the survival of the Bistcho woodland caribou herd, in addition to a multitude of other wildlife species.
AWA also believes that conservation and restoration initiatives can be compatible with economic stimulus. In October 2018, a report commissioned by AWA, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Harmony Foundation resource economist Dr. Thomas Michael Power found that “at least 65 percent undisturbed caribou habitat can be reached with almost no displacement of existing industrial activity in the Bistcho-Yates ranges.” The report estimatedthat a seismic line restoration program could generate “100 direct jobs per year and give a regional economic stimulus of $24 million per year or $434 million (undiscounted) over 18 years.” AWA believes that in this region, the conservation of wildlife species such as woodland caribou can achieved simultaneously with supporting new employment opportunities and the diversification of local economies.
In September 2022, AWA participated in a trip to Bistcho Lake alongside the Dene Tha’ First Nation as part of a broader initiative being led by the Dene Tha’ to protect and conserve their Traditional Territory. AWA participated as part of a grant from Fisheries and Oceans Canada to support the Dene Tha’ with the collection of western science data (informed by Indigenous Traditional Knowledge) on fish and fish habitat.
In April 2022, the Government of Alberta released two long-awaited land-use plans for threatened woodland caribou. The plans apply to the Cold Lake sub-region in northeast Alberta, and the Bistcho Lake sub-region in northwest Alberta. AWA recognizes that these caribou range plans show a positive shift by Alberta. They set out how the combined impacts of industrial infrastructure, cut-blocks, and other human access will be tracked, coordinated, and reduced. These actions will eventually regain important intact, connected wetland and older forest areas that caribou require in their home ranges.
AWA participated in the development of these plans, but we are very concerned about
significant gaps present in the final versions. As a result, AWA believes that caribou critical habitat still lacks the effective protection required under the federal Species at Risk Act. AWA will continue to seek stronger processes that support Indigenous land-use priorities and set firm timelines for habitat actions, as we work together to protect threatened woodland caribou in Alberta.
In March, the Government of Alberta issues the draft Bistcho Lake sub–regional caribou land use plan for public consultation. AWA studied the draft plan to determine if it responded appropriately to the Task Force recommendations. AWA believes that the main focus of the plan must be to protect caribou in order to comply with federal law. Right now, economic development remains the cornerstone of the draft plan.
In February, AWA’s prestigious Wilderness and Wildlife Defenders Award was presented to Dene Tha’ Chief James Ahnassay as the third and final instalment of the three talks that made up the 22nd Martha Kostuch Annual Wilderness and Wildlife Defender Lecture.
In November, the Bistcho Lake Task Force is launched to advise the Alberta government on land-use planning at a local scale, including caribou recovery actions. AWA participates as a member.
In October, AWA, David Suzuki Foundation and Harmony Foundation commission Dr. Tom Power, an eminent natural resource economist, to study the economic impact of restoring woodland caribou in the Bistcho and nearby Yates caribou ranges. Power’s study concludes that managing lands for caribou recovery can grow the economy in these ranges.
Later in the fall, the Dene Tha’ First Nation proposed an Indigenous Protected Area over a large portion of F20, which would include Dene Tha co-management. AWA supports this proposal to protect and restore valuable wildlife habitat and support Indigenous uses and cultural practices on these lands.
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.
In March, 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.
On October, 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, 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:
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.
In April, 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.