Safeguarding headwaters in Alberta - Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

Safeguarding headwaters in Alberta

A view of the town of Canmore and the Bow Valley from Ehagay Nakoda.
A view of the town of Canmore and the Bow Valley from Ehagay Nakoda. Photo: K. Bellefeuille

Y2Y collaborates with partners to ensure that decisions on development, recreation and land-use planning prioritize the protection of the headwaters regions in Alberta.

Alberta’s headwaters are one of the most important landscapes in the Yellowstone to Yukon region for both wildlife and people. Research from 2021 points to this area as one of Canada’s hotspots providing key “ecosystem services” that benefit people, including freshwater, carbon storage and recreation. Y2Y is working to ensure these headwaters regions are kept intact for clean water provision, habitat for at-risk species, and sustainable recreation opportunities.

Our current efforts are focused on:

  • The Bighorn region, where most of the North Saskatchewan River originates
  • Kananaskis Country and the Ghost Watershed, which holds the unprotected portion of the Bow River’s headwaters
  • Livingstone-Porcupine Hills, part of the larger South Saskatchewan River watershed
  • The Castle region, the most significant basin in the Oldman River watershed

What are headwaters?

Headwaters are the source of all rivers or streams. This includes glaciers, streams, tributaries and more.

Alberta’s mountain headwaters:

  • provide 90 per cent of Alberta’s drinking and irrigation water, serving millions of people and farms throughout Alberta and the prairies
  • help with flood and drought control
  • provide critical habitat for wildlife
  • link wildlife with nearby protected areas and parks via vital corridors
  • support Indigenous treaty rights and traditional cultural activities
  • offer abundant recreation opportunities

Why are headwaters in Alberta under pressure?

While some of the headwaters and surrounding habitat is protected, much is not.

Poor management practices over many decades mean that portions of some mountain watersheds are no longer healthy and intact. Across the Eastern Slopes, cumulative impacts from activities continue to threaten water, wildlife and recreation values.

One such example is metallurgical open-pit coal mining. More than 900 active coal lease applications throughout the mountains and foothills in Alberta’s headwaters put essential drinking and irrigation water for millions of people at risk.

The eastern portions of the headwaters in particular are often crisscrossed with forestry access roads, mining exploration roads and drill holes, off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails — both regulated and unregulated — and seismic lines.

Nearly half of Kananaskis Country is open to logging and oil and gas extraction. Forestry is not currently permitted within Bighorn Public Land Use Zones; however, some companies have forest management agreements with the Province on neighboring land with high conservation value.

Westslope cutthroat trout in Alberta's headwaters
Westslope cutthroat trout is one of the highly threatened species in Alberta’s headwaters. Photo: Shutterstock

Where are we seeing progress?

A temporary reprieve from coal

Following an extensive public engagement in 2021, the Alberta government announced restrictions on coal-related exploration and development in March 2022. While this was a welcome reprieve from the pressures of new coal mining that reflects the feedback of tens of thousands of Albertans, there are still concerns that decisions on coal have been deferred to long-delayed land-use planning processes. The future of coal mining in Alberta’s headwaters is still uncertain.

In Alberta’s Castle

Following the largest public engagement in Alberta Parks history, in September 2015 the Government of Alberta announced the creation of a new Castle Provincial Park and expansion of the Castle Wildland Provincial Park.
On Jan. 20, 2017, Castle Parks passed an order-in-council.

The park boundaries were officially set, and a draft management plan covering both parks was released outlining permitted activities, along with co-management opportunities with the Piikani Nation.

Since opening in 2018, the Castle Parks have been enjoyed by Albertans and visitors alike. This special place is highly valued for its incredible recreation opportunities and unique landscapes that support over 200 rare and at-risk wildlife and plant species.

However, the current government has paused a planned phase-out of motorized recreation specified in the management plan. The timing of a decision about whether the phase-out will be fully implemented is unclear.

How is Y2Y safeguarding headwaters?

Y2Y connects groups, resources and ideas across the region to advance conservation and inspire people to take action.

Along with our partners, Y2Y is engaged in initiatives that encourage strong, science-based land-use planning to safeguard the headwaters within the Alberta portion of the Yellowstone to Yukon region. This includes conducting and co-ordinating science research about these sensitive places.

We bring together key individuals, groups and communities to jointly develop a conservation vision for each region. Y2Y expresses this conservation vision to the government through public comment opportunities; and, to the public through events and outreach.

“Wherever you live in Alberta, nearly all of your water comes from the mountains and foothills. Your family, your pets, your houseplants, your favorite fishing hole or swimming spot, the wildlife you love — they all benefit from healthy headwaters.”

Adam Linnard, program manager at Y2Y

Who are we working with?

Our headwaters are important to all people in Alberta, including you.

We also work with numerous organizations, community grassroots groups, governments, and non-profits concerned about headwaters health throughout Alberta’s Eastern Slopes.

These groups include Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Northern AlbertaCanadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Southern Alberta, Alberta Wilderness Association, Livingstone Landowners Group, and many others.

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