The Bighorn offers incredible recreation opportunities and serves as the headwaters for millions of people in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Image: Adam Linnard
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Wendy Francis - Hiking

“We expect that Alberta’s land-use plans will reflect global standards for landscape protection. We need to approach planning at an ecosystem-wide scale, and create a network of new protected areas and management zones between them in order to maintain ecosystem services — like clean water and flood and drought control — and with room for wildlife to roam.” 
Wendy Francis
Former Y2Y President

Alberta Headwaters

Alberta Headwaters
Photo: Alan Ernst
Y2Y is working to ensure greater protection for Alberta’s headwaters.

Y2Y is working to ensure greater protection for Alberta’s headwaters.

In Alberta's Bighorn

On Nov. 23, 2018, after more than a decade of advocacy from Albertans including conservation groups, the provincial government announced their proposal for the creation of Bighorn Countrya mix of new Wildland and Provincial Parks, Provincial Recreation Areas and Public Land Use ZonesThe proposal and the opportunity for public feedback are available until Feb. 15, 2019.

The Bighorn is a vast region of mountains, foothills, grasslands, rivers and lakes along the Eastern Slopes of Alberta, adjacent to the protected areas of Banff and Jasper National Parks. Incorporating some of the last tracts of intact wilderness in the province, the Bighorn region represents one of North America’s greatest conservation opportunities. The proposed Bighorn Country offers greater protection of the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River that provides clean drinking water to over one million people.  

The same landscape also provides high-quality habitat to Alberta’s most iconic and troubled species, like grizzly bears, wolverines, bighorn sheep, bull trout, and whitebark and limber pine. The Bighorn region also offers unparalleled opportunities for hiking, camping, climbing, hunting, fishing, paddling and horseback riding. 

 Numerous Indigenous nations revere the lands of the Bighorn because of their cultural, spiritual, and livelihood values. It is a particularly important landscape for the Ĩyãħé Nakoda (Stoney) First Nations, whose members reside on the Big Horn Reserve west of Nordegg, but also has significance to Niisitapi (Blackfoot), Cree, Tsuut’ina, Ktunaxa (Kootenay), and Secwepemc (Shuswap) nations. 

In Alberta's Castle area:

Following 40 years of pressure from hunters, ranchers and other Albertans, the provincial government announced the creation of a new Castle Provincial Park and expansion of the Castle Wildland Provincial Park in September 2015.

On Jan. 20, 2017, Premier Rachel Notley and Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips announced that the Castle Parks had passed an order-in-council. The park boundaries were officially set and a draft management plan covering both parks was released.

That draft plan includes a three- to five-year phase-out of off-highway vehicle recreation in both parks and outlines co-management potential with the Piikani Nation.

The Castle area is home to over 200 rare or at-risk species, including grizzly bears, wolverine, westslope cutthroat trout, limber and whitebark pine. 

The region is a vital corridor that keeps wide-ranging wildlife moving north and south through the Yellowstone to Yukon region, helping link protected areas like Waterton-Glacier with the Rocky Mountain Parks further north.

It’s also part of Alberta’s headwaters and is the most significant basin in the Oldman River watershed, accounting for 30 per cent of its waters. The Oldman serves millions of people downstream as it flows through communities such as Fort Macleod and Lethbridge before merging with the Bow River, eventually emptying into Hudson Bay.

The Castle has significance for indigenous communities, including Nitsitapii, Piikani (Peigan), Siksika, Kainaiwa (Blood), Tsuut’ina, Blackfeet, Nakoda (Stoney) and K'tunaxa First Nations. The Piikani locate their origin story in this landscape. Many people from these nations continue to use the area to pursue their traditional ways of life. 

What can you do?

  • Learn about the proposed Bighorn Country and submit your feedback to the government by Feb. 15, 2019. Need help getting started? Check out the survey comment guide from our partners at CPAWS Northern Alberta, then complete the survey here;
  • Call and thank Premier Notley and Minister Phillips for their foresight and commitment to taking measures to protect the Bighorn; 
  • Sign up to receive our Action Alerts and learn about opportunities to get involved;
  • Donate to Alberta headwaters conservation.;
  • Speak up! Follow the campaign on social media, and like, comment and share our news stories. Remember to use #loveyourheadwaters when you do 


Read on for more information about our work in more of Alberta's important headwater regions


Headwaters are the source of all rivers or streams and include glaciers, streams, tributaries and more. Alberta’s mountain headwaters provide water for millions of people, deliver important natural services such as flood and drought control, provide critical habitat for wildlife and offer abundant recreation opportunities.

While some of our headwaters, and surrounding habitat, are protected, many are not. Poor management practices over many decades mean that some mountain watersheds are no longer healthy and intact.

In the Bighorn, metallurgical coal mining is a serious threat and affects the flow and cleanliness of nearby rivers and water. The east end of the Bighorn is crisscrossed with forestry access roads, OHV trails — both regulated and unregulated — and seismic lines.   

Forestry is not currently permitted within the existing Public Land Use Zones of the Bighorn, but some forestry companies have forest management agreements with the Province on neighbouring land with high conservation value. 


AB Headwaters Map with Y2Y

The proposed Bighorn Country is a prime opportunity for Alberta to advance towards the goal of having 17 percent of its land as protected areas by 2020, preserving headwaters and habitat for threatened species while conserving its exceptional mountain landscapes and recreational opportunities for Albertans and visitors.  

The Alberta government is currently engaging in land-use planning for the entire province. Four of the seven provincial planning regions are within the Yellowstone to Yukon region. These land-use plans are a blueprint for activities that will occur on the land for the next 50 years.  

Currently, there is the opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal for Bighorn Country until Feb. 15, 2019The enhanced protections offered by the new Wildland Provincial Park and Provincial Park designations would continue to support a variety of hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and other land-based job and recreation opportunities  

In addition, the proposal allows for more protection of the Bighorn landscape from extractive industries and provides a viable framework for managing recreation to ensure future generations have the same opportunities to experience the region. The new park and recreation area designations would also open the door to co-management with Indigenous nations that would support sustainable economic opportunities and reconciliation.

This is a rare opportunity to increase protection for Alberta’s headwaters by managing forestry to reduce flood and drought impacts, creating new protected areas, preserving habitat for endangered and threatened species such as caribou and grizzly bear, and conserving the mountain viewscapes and recreational opportunities that draw so many residents and visitors to our region.


Enhanced protections for the Bighorn are important for the downstream communities that depend on the clean and safe water that originates there.   

Y2Y, along with its partners, is engaged in initiatives to influence land-use planning to protect the headwaters within the Yellowstone to Yukon region. 

Key to these efforts is bringing together key stakeholders from each region to jointly develop a conservation vision for each region. Y2Y expresses this conservation vision to the government through the formal public comment period, and also to the public by organizing public events. 

Click on the region to see our other headwater efforts:


Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - North

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - Southern Alberta Chapters

Alberta Wilderness Association

Related Information:

Protected Areas & Public Lands

Central Canadian Rocky Mountains

GET THE LATEST: Alberta Headwater News

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