The Bowron Lakes chain are wild stock lakes within Bowron Lake Provincial Park and form a 120-km waterway that is a world famous canoe route. Pictured here is Bowron Lake. Shea Kadar photo

Almost every part of Canada’s largest national park deteriorating: federal study

Drawing on decades of research — the report lists 50 pages of citations

An exhaustive federal study of Canada’s largest national park concludes almost every aspect of its environment is deteriorating.

The 561-page report on Wood Buffalo National Park says industry, dams, climate change and natural cycles are sucking the watery lifeblood from the vast delta of northeastern Alberta’s Peace and Athabasca rivers.

It was prepared after concerns were raised over the park’s UNESCO World Heritage status and backs most of them up.

“The (Peace-Athabasca Delta) depends on recharge of its lakes and basins in order to retain its world heritage value,” concludes the study released to The Canadian Press.

“Currently, hydrologic recharge … is decreasing. Without immediate intervention, this trend will likely continue and the world heritage values of the (delta) will be lost.”

The study looked at 17 measures of environmental health, from river flows to Indigenous use. It concludes 15 are declining.

Drawing on decades of research — the report lists 50 pages of citations — the study is likely to be the most complete assessment on the region downstream of Canada’s largest energy developments and one of its biggest hydro dams.

“There’s literally hundreds of different studies going on with regard to the park or the oilsands or B.C. Hydro,” said Don Gorber, the consultant who led the effort for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“All these things are going on independently. No one had put it all together.”

Gorber found major changes in the park. Behind them all is water — or the lack thereof.

Peace River flows have fallen nine per cent since the Bennett Dam was built in British Columbia. Flows from the Athabasca have declined 26 per cent. Ice jams that once flooded wetlands and isolated lakes no longer occur.

As a result, bison habitat is shrinking. Invasive species are replacing native vegetation. Migratory birds are starting to avoid areas where they once flocked in the millions.

Indigenous people who depend on boats to get to many parts of their traditional territory have lost access. Trappers who used to bring in hundreds of muskrats a season now say the water-loving rodents are gone.

Others describe fish kills from stagnant, oxygenless water.

Lower water levels are concentrating chemicals similar to those produced in the oilsands. Heavy metals and toxic hydrocarbons are showing up in bird eggs. Mercury levels in minnows are rising.

In the skies, “both science and (Indigenous traditional knowledge) have indicated a downward air-quality trend resulting from poorer air quality at certain times of the year,” the report says.

We told you so, said Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree, one of the First Nations whose complaints to UNESCO led to the request for the study.

“It confirms a lot of these threats, the concerns, that are causing the challenges in the delta,” she said. ”It does a good job of capturing the issues in Wood Buffalo, specifically in the delta.”

Gorber is cautious about assigning blame for the changes. Wildfires can create many of the same chemicals as an oilsands plant, he said.

“I don’t think we have enough studies to pinpoint exactly where they come from,” said Gorber. “But we do know the types of contaminants that we’re measuring are probably similar to contaminants that could be coming from the oilsands.”

Forestry and agriculture also occur upstream.

As well, climate change is causing the delta to dry out over the long term. Migratory birds can be affected anywhere along their flight path.

“My intention was to determine if there was a problem at the park and not to point fingers at who caused it,” Gorber said. ”I think everybody has some kind of effect.”

Natural cycles may be involved.

“There probably were periods in the past where it was good, or not so good.”

But the world’s second-largest freshwater delta is no longer the pristine ecosystem it was even a generation ago.

“Without a doubt, there’s something going on,” Gorber said.

Meanwhile, development continues. Teck Resources has applied to build an open-pit oilsands mine 30 kilometres from the park’s southern boundary.

Parks Canada has set aside $27 million for work in Wood Buffalo. As requested by UNESCO, Ottawa is developing plans with Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and First Nations.

Public consultations are expected to begin in the late fall and the plans are to be submitted to UNESCO in December.

“The government of Canada is committed to the ongoing protection of Wood Buffalo National Park and World Heritage Site,” said a Parks Canada spokeswoman in an email.

The Mikisew Cree were heavily involved in Gorber’s report, said Lepine, but not so much with the response to it.

First Nations are being consulted on technical issues, but aren’t at the decision-making table.

“For the most part, we have been kept on the outside,” she said.

Lepine said policy-makers should remember a Cree phrase that Gorber quotes — “nipi tapitam.” It means “water is boss.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Shuswap bottle drive to support pediatric cancer research

Young cancer patient doing her best to help others with the disease that hits one in 333 kids

Regional district directors’ pay conflict resolved in new bylaw

11th-hour attempt for more by CSRD electoral area directors fails

Race is on for Shuswap late-run sockeye salmon

New estimates say about 750,000 sockeye will spawn on the Adams River, similar to 2014 dominant run

In photos: Ready, set, roll!

Friendship Day Soap Box Derby excitement in downtown Salmon Arm

Iconic Shuswap sternwheeler undergoing work for return to service

Sicamous business owner Mike Helfrick hopes to offer dinner tours on historic vessel

Weekday weather update

A look at your Okanagan-Shuswap weekday weather for Sept. 24

Edmonton cannabis company revenues more than triples to $19.1 million

Aurora Cannabis revenues more than triple in fourth quarter

B.C. pharmacist suspended for giving drugs with human placenta

RCMP had samples of the seized substances tested by Health Canada

Seattle one step closer to NHL after arena plan approved

Seattle City Council unanimously approved plans for a privately funded $700 million renovation of KeyArena

Harvest Moon to light up B.C. skies with an ‘autumn hue’

It’s the first moon after the autumn equinox

Hockey league gets $1.4M for assistance program after Humboldt Broncos crash

Program will help players, families, coaches and volunteers after the shock of the deadly crash

Don’t feed birds in the parking lot

Vernon wildlife control services owner says feeding ducks and geese, or any wildlife, is bad

Canada has removed six out of 900 asylum seekers already facing U.S. deportation

Ottawa had said the ‘overwhelming majority’ had been removed

Most Read