More staff, artificial flooding among plans to save Wood Buffalo National Park

The federal government intends to save the international heritage status of Canada's largest national park by increasing staffing, better monitoring oilsands tailings and artificially recreating spring flooding to rejuvenate the park's waterways.

Action plan aims to stave off endangered designation for Canada's largest national park

The world's largest beaver dam in Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Parks Canada)

The federal government intends to save the international heritage status of Canada's largest national park by increasing staffing, better monitoring oilsands tailings and artificially recreating spring flooding to rejuvenate the park's waterways.

Ottawa submitted a 96-page action plan to save the Wood Buffalo National Park to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization Friday to stave off having the park designated as "in danger" due to poor management practices.

UNESCO warned Canada in 2017 that the park was in a bad state after receiving a complaint from the Mikisew Cree First Nation two years earlier.

Canada had until Friday to submit its response plan, which UNESCO will consider at its July meeting before deciding whether the park continues is marked as "in danger." That could lead to it being delisted as a world heritage site altogether.

World-heritage status designates important cultural and natural locations around the world as being in need of proper conservation. There are more than 1,000 such sites worldwide, about 50 of which are currently listed as "in danger."

Wood Buffalo National Park covers 45,000 square kilometres of forests, wetlands and grasslands that straddle the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The park is home to the largest free-roaming wood-bison herd, the last breeding ground for whooping cranes and one of the largest inland river deltas in the world.

The Mikisew Cree say climate change, hydro dams and the oil sands are having catastrophic effects on the ecosystem in Wood Buffalo National Park, which received world-heritage status in 1983.

Mikisew spokeswoman Melody Lepine says the action plan as written is well-designed and if it is actually implemented it could help restore the ecosystem to its previous health.

Will plan be properly funded?

The question mark, she said, is whether the government will put the resources in to implement it.

Last year's federal budget included a $1.3-billion, five-year investment in national parks; $27.5 million of that has been earmarked for Wood Buffalo.

Lepine says she doesn't know what the right amount of money is, but that $27.5 million doesn't come anywhere close to what is needed.

"Just recently, I think, the government committed $250 million to protecting killer whales on the coast," she said. "Our region is rich in resources and yet there doesn't seem to be a lot of resources from the federal government to protect the Wood Buffalo National Park."

Wood Buffalo National Park is home to the largest free roaming wood-bison herd, the last breeding ground for whooping cranes and one of the largest inland river deltas in the world. (Joe Duff/Operation Migration/The Associated Press)

Officials with Parks Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada said Friday there are other sources of money that can go towards the park's restoration, including a $50-million oilsands monitoring fund.

The impact of the oilsands located upstream of the park — and particularly the tailings left over once the bitumen is mined — has been one of the significant hurts to the park, research has shown.

Lepine is also concerned there are no hard timelines for accomplishing the items in the action plan.

Work on water flows underway

Parks Canada has committed to a progress report in 2021, but officials say several items are already in motion and there is a commitment to implementation in Ottawa and among the provincial and territorial governments involved.

Alberta, for example, is working on establishing additional provincially protected areas around the national park's borders. Work to collect relevant data on water flows through the park is also well underway, the officials said.

The action plan also includes conservation strategies for the bison herds and whooping cranes, and a requirement that environmental assessments of any future developments include possible impacts on the park.