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The Red Deer River is a major river in southern Alberta.

Its headwaters region is important for wildlife habitat and for south central Alberta’s water security in terms of surface water and ground water quality and quantity. In the Parkland and Grassland Natural Regions downstream, the water-influenced land adjacent to the river (known as the riparian zone) provides a relative abundance of vegetation in this dry area of the province that is crucial to the life stages of many birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The river also supports a high diversity of fish species.

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    The Red Deer River headwaters start in the Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park near Lake Louise.  The river is fed primarily by snow melt, only minimally by glacial melt, and has numerous inflowing tributaries. The 724 km long Red Deer River traverses five of Alberta’s natural regions: Rocky Mountains, Foothills, Boreal, Parkland and Grassland.  It is truly an Alberta born river – as soon as it crosses the Saskatchewan border it flows into the South Saskatchewan River, which becomes part of the Hudson Bay Watershed. There are 15 sub-watersheds of the Red Deer River drainage system.

    The first part of the river runs through the foothills with all the vigour of a young deer.  Below the town of Sundre it becomes a calmer river and flows into Glennifer Lake, which is the reservoir of the Dickson Dam, the only dam along the Red Deer River.  From then on the Dickson Dam regulates the flow of the Red Deer River to make water available for industry, farming, irrigation and urban use downstream. When the river turns sharply to the south at Content Bridge near the hamlet of Nevis, the valley opens up with impressive scenery, healthy vegetation and wildlife. The geology and history of this section of the river is fascinating, as water continues to expose the layers of earth.

    Red Deer River

    Red Deer River (D. Olson)


    Tolman Heritage Rangelands, on both sides of the river, stretch from Content Bridge to Bleriot Ferry just north of the town of Drumheller. These rangelands cover an area of 5945 ha of ranching and agricultural land.  Although this area is classified as Heritage Rangelands, there is no full designation under the Heritage Range Lands Act, and therefore no restriction on grazing leases.  In addition, public access to public lands requires permission from the lessee.

    The River runs through Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, Midland Provincial Park and the well-known Dinosaur Provincial Park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Within the watershed is the Rumsey Natural Area, Rumsey Ecological Area, Hand Hills Ecological Area, Little Fish Lake Provincial Park, Horseshoe Canyon Provincial Recreation Area, Finnigan-Steveville Terraces and Buffalo-Dune Point Terraces.  All of these are identified as Environmentally Significant Areas.


    For the well-being of all living things, the Red Deer River has healthy natural ecosystems. Headwaters are protected and well-managed to ensure abundant clean surface water and sustained groundwater recharge. Intact wetlands are preserved and significant drained wetland areas are restored. The water-influenced lands adjacent to the river (riparian zones) support abundant native vegetation that sustains many species and forms a connective corridor for species migration. Sensitive valley slopes are protected by adequate buffer zones and grazing best management practices. Water quality downstream of the City of Red Deer is good to excellent due to agricultural, energy, municipal and recreation best management practices.

    Land Use affecting Ecological Integrity

    Because the river and its tributaries flow mostly through agricultural lands, farming and ranching practices can affect water quality and the fragile badlands ecology. Nutrient runoff and increased sedimentation affecting water quality are concerns.
    More recently, oil and gas drilling along the river has increased. There has been intensive coalbed methane gas (CBM) activity since 2002. Drilling activity, leaking boreholes and contaminated surface water threaten groundwater. Over the last ten years, pipeline and construction damage along the fragile terraces of the lower river valley are visibly increasing erosion and invasive vegetation risks in this part of the watershed.  Noisy compressor stations close to the escarpments and the river itself have compromised aesthetics and the peace of the area.

    The many pipelines, old and new, crossing the river are a potential risk to the river ecology. A serious pipeline leak occurred in the upper part of the watershed in June 2008, when a 6 inch crude oil pipeline owned by Pembina Pipelines ruptured where it crossed the river north of the town of Sundre. Between 75 to 125 barrels (up to 20,000 litres) of oil leaked into the Red Deer River and contaminated Gleniffer Lake, the reservoir created by the Dickson Dam. Recreation on the reservoir was closed and the water supply to local residents was shut down during the cleanup. The resulting oil slick was contained on the reservoir, and no contamination was reported farther down the river.

    Government actions

    In many jurisdictions around the world, land use planning systems have been put in place to protect and maintain landscape aesthetics and ecosystem functions while accommodating compatible land uses. In Alberta, the Red Deer River is competing with industrial activity, livestock and population growth, without cumulative effects management.

    The Tolman Heritage Rangelands, administered by Alberta Parks and Recreation, encompasses 5945 ha along the Red Deer River from Content Bridge to Bleriot Ferry.  Concerns about the Tolman Heritage Rangelands include : site instability (erosion), oil and gas activity precariously close to sensitive river valley areas; hydrologic integrity, including insufficient understanding of cumulative impacts on surface water and ground water supply and quality; and excess nutrient loading from livestock operations. A full Heritage Rangeland designation will help address these issues.

    Alberta’s Energy Resource Conservation Board (ERCB) regulates oil and gas activity, but is slow in monitoring compliance and penalizing violations. Some regulations and guidelines are inadequate to protect the special risks associated with coalbed methane and shallow gas exploration in close proximity to the river.

    The Red Deer River is a tributary of the South Saskatchewan River, which forms part of the Nelson River basin and eventually drains into the Hudson Bay. The Red Deer River watershed occupies 8% of Alberta (approximately 49,000 km2). Average water flow of the entire river is about 70 m3/sec.

    There are fifteen sub watersheds of the Red Deer River, encompassing a headwaters region in the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, a settled agricultural and urban central region, and a drier, more sparsely settled lower region.

    The river valley supports a variety of special and unique landscapes, particularly through the lower Grassland Natural Region where badlands and cottonwood forests provide landscapes and habitats vital to many plant and animal species.

    Natural Regions

    The Red Deer River traverses five Natural Regions based on distinctive ecological attributes: Rocky Mountains, Foothills, Boreal, Parkland and Grassland. The Natural Subregion classifications are: Dry Mixed Wood (Boreal region), Central Parkland (Parkland region), and Northern Fescue, Mixed Grass and Dry Mixed Grass (Grassland region).

    Features of the Lower Red Deer River

    The river turns south at Content Bridge near the hamlet of Nevis, marking the start of the strikingly sculpted badlands terrain in the Parkland and Grassland Natural Regions. One cannot avoid a sense of wonder when, after driving along a stretch of flat country road, the deep river valley suddenly appears before you, displaying the geological history of the last 70 million years.

    Dry Island

    Dry Island East, Red Deer River (C. Olson)


    The fascinating landforms of the badlands today are the result of extremely rapid erosion by rain and wind. The sedimentary layers of the badlands vary in hardness and thus vary in their susceptibility to erosion. The harder layers resist longer, and the uneven erosion gives rise to strange shapes and forms such as hoodoos, pinnacles, spires and terraces.

    This is a recreational paradise. Roaming around in the badlands, whether taking in the views from the uplands or floating down the river, gives one the sense of being in a pristine wilderness area. It is an exceptional region for biologists, ornithologists, botanists and entomologists, as well as for amateur birders and naturalists of all stages and ages.

    The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, northwest of the town of Drumheller, is a world-renowned museum and research centre representing the palaeontology, geology and natural history of the local Red Deer River valley. The entire stretch of the lower Red Deer River is a significant scientific research area especially for palaeontology of the Cretaceous period.

    Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park and Dinosaur Provincial Park are other excellent destinations to appreciate all the lower Red Deer River valley area has to offer.

    Water Quality

    According to the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance’s State of the Watershed Report (April 2009), water quality on the main stem receives a ‘good’ rating in the headwaters region (on a scale comprising excellent, good, fair and poor). In the reaches from Dickson Dam reservoir to the town of Drumheller, water quality is rated ‘good’ but with considerable variability in nutrient and pesticide levels. The reach below Drumheller to the Saskatchewan border receives a ‘fair’ rating in overall water quality.


    The river valley supports a variety of special and unique landscapes, particularly through the Grassland Region where badlands and cottonwood forests provide landscapes and habitats vital to many plant and animal species.


    It is hard not to appreciate the fescues and other native grasses found in the Parkland and Grassland Regions of the watershed, especially in the protected areas along the river, whether on the uplands, the terraces or in the valleys. The Rumsey Ecological Reserve and Natural Area is well documented for its unique native parkland grassland.  The top of the mesa at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is covered with undisturbed prairie fescue, which has never been grazed.

    A significant vegetation transition occurs between Tolman Bridge and Bleriot Ferry which is a transition zone between balsam poplar (the predominant riparian poplar species upstream)  and plain cottonwood (the riparian poplar species found downstream).

    Prickly Pear Cactus

    Prickly Pear Cactus – Dry Island, Red Deer River (C. Olson)

    A hotter and drier micro-climate exists in the lower Red Deer River valley. Much of the vegetation here is a reflection of the degree of protection from sun and wind and availability of water at specific sites. Xerophytic and salt tolerant vegetation inhabits dry and saline locations.

    More than 560 plant species have been identified in the lower Red Deer corridor, of which some are threatened and unique for this latitude. The prairie crocus and blooming fruit-bearing shrubs signify spring in the valleys. The scent of the wild rose and the overpowering fragrance of the wood willows cannot be missed in June. In early July it is a colourful flowering paradise with the bright yellow flowers of the prickly pear cactus, soon followed by the wood lilies, an array of asters and wild sunflowers covering south facing slopes. The herbal scent of sage and juniper are characteristic for some areas.

    Beaver tracks along the Red Deer River

    Beaver tracks along the Red Deer River (C. Olson)


    The lower Red Deer River valley is an important wildlife corridor.  White tail deer, mule deer, moose and coyotes are abundant. Red fox, jackrabbits, bobcat, lynx and cougars have been spotted occasionally. There have been bear sightings every few years. The sage flats in the southern stretch of the river are important wintering habitat for pronghorn antelopes.

    At least 360 bird species have been registered. It is not unusual to float down the river in a canoe past American white pelicans, while turkey vultures soar overhead and a golden eagle looks down from the top of a cottonwood. In the spring and fall, migratory birds  such as Canada geese, mallards, common goldeneye, trumpeter swans and pelicans follow the north-south line of the river.

    Endangered and threatened species such as piping plovers, ferruginous hawks, peregrine falcons and loggerhead shrikes can all be seen in the watershed. The area around Dry Island Buffalo Jump is one of the best butterfly and moth observing areas in the province.  The endangered Great Plains toad and the threatened northern leopard frog are still present in healthy riparian areas of ponds and lakes within the watershed.

    Geology of the Red Deer River Badlands

    When looking down into the badland formations along the lower Red Deer River valley, one can observe the geology below our feet of the past 65 to 80 million years.

    The fascinating geology of the badlands along the lower Red Deer River consists of sedimentary sandstones, siltstones and claystones deposited between 65 and 80 million years ago when much of the interior of North America was covered by a shallow sub-tropical sea. The badlands we see today were once low lying flood plains across which rivers and streams flowed towards the sea, depositing large quantities of sediments in the lush swamps, deltas and estuaries. Dinosaurs flourished in this warm and temperate climate.

    The badlands began to form at the end of the last ice age roughly 10 000 years ago with the melting of the ice sheets which covered most of Canada.  Large volumes of melt water were dammed by remnant glaciers and when warming periods caused breaches in the ice walls, enormous volumes of water were liberated. The rushing melt waters flowed south and eastwards to form the lower Red Deer River valley. The melt waters cut easily through the sedimentary layers, slashing down 150 meters or more to form the deep canyons of the badlands. In so doing they exposed dinosaur-containing rocks representing the last few million years of the Cretaceous period.

    The average rate of erosion is 0.5 cm per year, which is 1000 times greater than the rate in the Rocky Mountains. It is estimated that the existing Red Deer River will be flattened in about 10,000 years.


    The lower Red Deer River and its major tributaries run through some of the most important palaeontological areas in the world for the Cretaceous and late Cretaceous period, which is the period when dinosaurs became extinct. These findings are highlighted by the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology just northwest of the town of Drumheller, as well as at Dinosaur Provincial Park. Significant fossil finds still occur along the lower Red Deer River, including within Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park.

    Palaeontology is essential for understanding so much of what happens in the modern world, including its environments, ecosystems, climates, flora, fauna and so on.
    (Dr. P. Currie, 2009)


    The Special Areas water Supply Project receives widespread opposition in Alberta. At a cost of $200 million to the taxpayer, the project would divert water from the Red Deer River for irrigation purposes. This would represent an Inter-basin transfer from the Red Deer basin to the North Saskatchewan basin, currently not allowed under the 1999 Water Act.

    The proposed project also flies in the face of recent commitments in the Alberta government’s 2003 Water for Life: “The Government of Alberta is committed to the wise management of Alberta’s water quantity and quality for the benefit of Albertans now and in the future.” The strategy notes “During all stages of the consultation on the water strategy, Albertans stated again and again that water conservation… is a fundamental component of any provincial water strategy.”


    Dinosaur Provincial Park was established with the goal to protect the fossil bone beds of the Cretaceous period. The imposing landscape and deep river valley with riparian forests and cottonwood trees makes this earn its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.


    Joseph Tyrrell discovered a dinosaur head while evaluating coal deposits.  With this discovery he defined the future significance of the Red Deer River valley.


    Since the mid 1800’s, the lower part of the river was a source of coal mining. The coal seams are exposed right along the river and coulees.


    The Red Deer River was particularly important to aboriginal survival in prehistoric times. To date 1500 archaeological sites have been recorded, including tepee rings and medicine wheels. Of these, 26 are of significance.  Buffalo Jump, east of Trochu, is the highest buffalo jump in Alberta used by the native people intermittently over the past 700 to 3000 years.  The Alkali Creek area includes cairns once used to watch bison herds on the terraces.

    September 1, 2018

    The Slow-Food of Wilderness Adventure: Canoeing the Red Deer River

    Wild Lands Advocate article by: Andrea Johancsik Click here to download a pdf version of this…

    Read more »

    June 1, 2016

    Walking Among Ancient Giants: Preserving the Riches of Dinosaur Provincial Park

    June 2016 Wildlands Advocate article, by Andrea Johancsik. Andrea Johancsik takes us on a trip…

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    May 17, 2016

    News Release: Gravel Mining Puts Water at Risk

    Alberta’s gravel mining policy significantly erodes environmental protection by allowing gravel mining to occur in…

    Read more »

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