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Protecting the Bighorn in Alberta’s Headwaters

Y2Y's Sarah Cox writes that big changes could be coming to the Bighorn Wildland area under the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan.

By Sarah Cox, Y2Y’s Senior Conservation Program Manager 

In June 1915, torrential rains and melting snowpacks caused the North Saskatchewan River to rise 14 metres above its low-level water mark.

The ensuing flood in Edmonton swept away 50 homes and submerged 35 city blocks, including today’s neighbourhoods of Walterdale, Cloverdale, Rossdale and Riverdale. When the waters receded, 800 homes and businesses were destroyed and at least 2,000 residents were homeless.

The upcoming 100th anniversary of the Edmonton flood offers a poignant reminder that events upstream can have a serious impact on downstream communities.

Today, residents of Edmonton and surrounding communities have a rare opportunity to ensure that a land-use planning process currently underway by the provincial government provides greater flood protection and secures the source of water for millions of Albertans.

The North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (NSRP), which will be opened for public comment in the next few weeks, will offer a blueprint for future land use in the North Saskatchewan watershed, which stretches from the Icefields in Banff National Park through Edmonton, across the Saskatchewan border and beyond.

Trace the North Saskatchewan River to its origins and you’ll find that 90 percent of its flow arises in the Bighorn Wildland, an area that links the eastern flanks of Banff and Jasper National Parks and features four sub-basins: Cline, Ram, Clearwater and Brazeau.

Bighorn pond in Alberta's Bighorn Wildland, a largely roadless and intact wilderness at the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River. Photo: R. Pharis.

Keeping the Bighorn Intact

The Bighorn is one of the few roadless areas that remain in Alberta’s foothills, and the majority of the region is classified as Nationally Significant in the provincial government’s 2009 Environmentally Significant Areas report. It’s one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the North Saskatchewan region.

The Bighorn contains evidence of human use dating back more than 10,000 years. It features First Nations cultural resources, traditional-use sites and gravesites, as well as historic trails used by First Nations, early fur traders and the fledgling forest service.

The Bighorn is rich in biodiversity and provides key habitat for grizzlies, elk, its namesake bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and myriad bird species, including boreal owl, golden eagle and white-tailed ptarmigan. It’s a crucial link for wide-ranging species moving between Banff and Jasper National Parks and the adjacent White Goat and Siffleur Wilderness Areas, which were also once included in our national parks system. It’s also a cornerstone of the Yellowstone to Yukon region, one of the world’s last remaining intact mountain ecosystems.

Bighorn sheep graze throughout the watershed, and in their namesake, the Bighorn Wildland. Photo: Wikipedia.

Preserving the Bighorn's Diversity 

Thirty years ago, the Alberta government promised permanent protection for the Bighorn, most of which was once included in our national parks system. The NSRP now offers a golden opportunity to fulfil that long-standing promise. We must ensure that the plan protects the entire Bighorn as a wildland park, while maintaining the current management regime.

An indisputable body of scientific evidence shows that, for their long-term survival, wide-ranging species such as at-risk grizzly bears and wolverines require a system of interconnected protected areas. These connections must provide sufficient habitat to allow species to move to seek food and mates, while supporting appropriate human use and development. As such, the NSRP should include a wildlife corridor land-use designation that will allow multiple uses compatible with long-term species survival on land outside protected areas.

The story of mountain caribou in the North Saskatchewan region is a solemn reminder that species vanish when their habitat is destroyed. This region used to be home to healthy populations of caribou, the reindeer species found on the Canadian quarter that depends on lichen found only in old-growth forests. But clear-cut logging and other development, and increased vulnerability to predators such as wolves, which use accompanying roads and seismic lines as aids in hunting, have led to the caribou’s demise.

Woodland caribou are no longer found in the North Saskathewan watershed due to development pressureso. Credit: P. Sutherland

Ensuring the NSRP Protects Nature

The NSRP must protect and adequately manage forests in our headwaters. The Alberta government’s profile of the North Saskatchewan region rightly points out that “forests of this natural region, lying among the Eastern Slopes, regulate spring run-off which helps to minimize flood damage by slowing snowmelt and storing, holding and slowly releasing water.”

Forest soils that are compromised by clear-cutting and road building lose their natural functions for flood and drought control. So let’s make sure that the NSRP outlines improved standards for forest management in our headwaters, ensuring that ecosystem function and services are maintained.

With the public comment process set to begin, we all have a chance to help design a regional plan that will ensure clean drinking water, prevent and mitigate flooding, offer abundant recreation opportunities and protect the remarkable array of wildlife we are still so fortunate to have in the North Saskatchewan region.

Calgary’s headwaters are already protected in national and provincial parks; it’s time to protect Edmonton’s headwaters, too.

Sarah Cox leads the Alberta Headwaters Project, Y2Y's initiative to increase protection for our headwaters. This article was originally published in the Edmonton Journal and re-posted in the Ottawa Citizen.