Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada, World Heritage site
Created in 1922, Wood Buffalo National Park protects a representative sample of mainly the Northern Boreal Plains Natural Region, with small portions within the Northwestern Boreal Uplands and the Southern Boreal Plains. Wood Buffalo National Park received UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1983.
The Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD) is a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance and one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world. Eighty percent of the delta lies within Wood Buffalo National Park and four of five North American waterfowl migratory flyways converge on the delta.
As the largest park in Canada, Wood Buffalo National Park encompasses a vast ecosystem with a variety of landscapes and wildlife. The park, which is larger than Switzerland, is home to sprawling tracts of Boreal plains and forests, and some of the finest examples of gypsum karst landforms in North America.
The park contains the world’s largest free roaming herd of wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), and protects the nesting grounds of the last wild flock of whooping cranes (Grus americana).
Wood Buffalo National Park is home to many other wildlife species, including wolf (Canis lupus), lynx (Lynx canadensis), snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), wolverine (Gulo gulo) and many other species of mammals, as well as birds and fish.
Wood Buffalo also presents the rich cultural heritage of its diverse Aboriginal communities who have a long history of living on the land. They conduct traditional activities and harvesting in the park that continues to this day.
Size and Location
Wood Buffalo National Park spans the border of the Canadian province of Alberta and the territory of the Northwest Territories. After its creation in 1922, it was expanded in 1926 to cover a total area of 44,807 sq km.
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Flora and Fauna
Wood Buffalo National Park is widely known as the nesting place of the world’s last migratory flock of whooping cranes (Grus Americana). The whooping crane was on the brink of extinction in 1941, when the only self-sustaining flock (known as the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock) numbered only 15 individuals. Since then, recovery efforts on the parts of Parks Canada, as well as national and international partners have increased the number of birds in the park flock to slightly over 300 with the grand total of wild and captive birds reaching nearly 600. The whooping crane is listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Home of the largest wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) herd in the world, Wood Buffalo National Park provides a habitat for approximately 5 000 free roaming bison. This Canadian population was once estimated to have been as large as 168 000 animals, but heavy amounts of hunting and severe winters took their toll on the population, and are commonly understood as the main factors contributing to the historic decline in numbers. The current population in Canada is approximately 10 000 animals. A National Recovery Plan for Wood Bison was established in 2001 by the National Wood Bison Recovery Team, and monitoring and recovery projects are currently being undertaken by members of the park and the partners. The wood bison is listed as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List.
Other species at risk in Canada found in Wood Buffalo National Park include four bird species – the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), the olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus cooperi), the peregrine falcon anatum subspecies (Falco peregrines anatum) and the rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) – and one mammal – the woodland caribou Boreal population (Rangifer tarandus pop. 14). The olive-sided flycatcher is listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List, while the rusty blackbird is listed as “Vulnerable”.
The Peace-Athabasca Delta is situated at the western end of Lake Athabasca where the Peace, Slave and Birch rivers converge. The drainage basin that supplies the Peace-Athabasca Delta with water covers a huge area, almost 600,000 square kilometres of northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan making it one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world. Its position downstream of major river basins that are subject to multiple human activities and stresses make the Peace-Athabasca Delta vulnerable to transboundary and cumulative impacts, including increased urbanization, hydroelectric dams, oil sands, other oil and gas developments, forestry and agriculture. Climate change is also impacting Canada’s north more acutely than other areas. Maintaining the ecological integrity of the delta given this context is a major management challenge.
Parks Canada’s approach to this challenge involves three separate approaches. First participating in regional land-use planning initiatives and environmental impact assessments allows Parks Canada to influence regional decision-making in ways that support the long term ecological integrity of the delta.
Second, Parks Canada has established the Peace-Athabasca Delta Ecological Monitoring Program (PADEMP), a partnering with local Aboriginal groups, other government departments and environmental non-government organizations. This integrated ecological monitoring program uses Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western Science to measure, evaluate and communicate the state of the Peace-Athabasca Delta.
Finally, a Peace-Athabasca Delta Area Management Approach is currently being developed to integrate monitoring, research and public awareness to increase our understanding and appreciation of this complex ecosystem.