Canada's Biggest National Park Is Under Siege

Dams and development may be a major factor in declining river flow at the park, leaving its wild bison popoulation high and dry. 2009fotofriends/Shutterstock

What’s eating Wood Buffalo National Park?

According to a new study from the Canadian government, just about everything. And as a result, this once-thriving national park that runs through the Northern Territories and Alberta is eroding at an alarming rate, from every corner, and from its once-vibrant heart.

In the 561-page report released this week, scientists point to the usual suspects — the ravages of unchecked industry, dams and climate change, as well, as natural cycles.

In fact, the park could lose its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and be added instead to a growing list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

That would represent a tragic tumble for a place once-prized as a beacon of biodiversity.

Spanning 28,000 square miles, Wood Buffalo is not only the country's biggest national park, it's home to the most wild bison in North America, along with countless whooping cranes that nest there. Another feather in its ecological cap? The park's inland delta, located at the mouth of the Peace and Athabasca rivers in Alberta, is considered the world's biggest.

And virtually all of it is at risk.

What's causing the problems?

A view of Wood Buffalo National Park
North America's biggest wild bison population have roamed this region for centuries. But their numbers are in steady decline. Parks Canada

The study noted chronic declines in vital river flows — the Peace River dropped 9 percent while the Athabasca slackened by 26 percent. Much of the blame for the drying out of the famed delta was pinned squarely on the construction of the Bennett Dam.

As a result, the bison population is shrinking, and native plants are yielding ground to invasive species.

There's certainly been plenty of advance notice about the park’s fallen fortune, including a UNESCO report last year, warning of "long-standing, conceivable and consistent evidence of severe environmental and human health concerns."

"The concerns coincide with the absence of effective and independent mechanisms to analyze and address these concerns at an adequate scale," the report added.

In addition, declining water waters have prevented members of the Mikisew Cree First Nation from accessing much of their traditional territory.

"This is really embarrassing," Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, told The Canadian Press last year. "It's not looking good for Canada avoiding an endangered listing for Wood Buffalo."

Those same concerns were raised again this week, with the federal report looking at 17 measures of environmental health — from river flows to indigenous use. It found the park declining in 15 of those measures.

Development, however, appears to be marching on. A mining company has already applied for a permit to build an open pit about 20 miles south of the park's border.

Map showing devleopments at Wood Buffalo National Park
While dams and energy operations are being blamed for much of the park's declining water flow, several other projects are still planned for the region. B.C. Hydro

And while federal funds to the tune of $27 million have been pledged to help preserve Wood Buffalo, it may be too late for the fast-drying delta.

And likewise, as the UNESCO researcher pointed out last year, the will to save Wood Buffalo may be lacking on the most important levels.

"Governments and industry seem to be unwilling to adequately monitor or accept these claims," the 2017 report noted. "Without immediate intervention, this trend will likely continue and the world heritage values of the (delta) will be lost."