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Wetlands Alberta

Engaging Albertans to conserve and protect wetlands


Wetlands are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet.

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Why Conserve Wetlands?

Healthy wetlands are an important resource; central to the environmental, social and economic well-being of Alberta. But, like all ecosystems, Alberta is part of a greater—and inter-connected—environment. This means that what happens in Alberta can have far-reaching effects!

The birds

The decline in North American waterfowl populations presents a good example of how wetland retention in the province influences waterfowl populations far beyond Alberta’s borders.

According to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), the Canadian prairie landscape, including Alberta, supports about 60 per cent of the continent’s waterfowl population. Without quality wetlands to aid north and south migration, as well as breeding and brood rearing, all of North America’s waterfowl populations are at risk.

In Alberta, the Alberta NAWMP Partnership is working to return Alberta’s waterfowl populations to their average 1970s levels. To meet this goal, the Partnership has focused most of their efforts on conserving wetland and upland habitat. Where possible, they are also supporting wetland restoration. Learn more about the Alberta NAWMP Partnership.

Beyond the birds

It is not just waterfowl that is at risk from the loss of wetland habitat in Alberta. Studies show wetlands in Alberta are used by about 250 species of birds. This includes approximately one-third of this province’s species-at-risk list, including the Peregrine Falcon, Piping Plover, Yellow Rail, Long-billed Curlew and Whooping Crane.

Wetlands and surrounding habitats play an important role in improving the quality and quantity of our water supplies in addition to providing valuable wildlife habitat. Wetlands support birds and fish that predators depend on for their food supply. The Bald Eagle, several hawk species, coyotes and foxes all frequent wetland habitats for food.

Many of Alberta’s game and non-game fish species use wetlands for spawning. These wetlands serve as nurseries and sanctuaries for young fish. The aquatic life nourished by a healthy wetland provides the food and nutrients that support downstream fish populations.

Alberta has two main kinds of wetlands, non-peatland prairie wetlands and peatland wetlands. The next section provides an overview of the different kinds of biodiversity fostered by each wetland type. Together, they strengthen the argument for wetland conservation.

Conserving wetlands on the prairies

Alberta’s prairie wetlands, commonly known as potholes, sloughs and marshes are mostly found primarily in settled areas of the province. These wetlands represent approximately 1.1 million hectares, or 2 percent of the Alberta landscape. While these wetlands continue to nurture biodiversity, research shows that about 64 per cent of Alberta’s wetlands in these settled areas have already been lost.

These wetlands provide numerous environmental, social and economic advantages for the province. However, their location in specific ecosystems such as the prairie pothole and aspen parkland regions of Alberta, also gives them special significance.

For example, the Northern Leopard Frog depends on Alberta’s prairie wetlands to keep them fed and safe during the warm months and to provide them a place to hibernate during the colder season. Thanks to programs that conserve and enhance healthy wetlands in central Alberta, these frogs are re-building local populations.

Further south, in the Milk River and Cypress Hills regions of Alberta, several wetland and upland habitat conservation programs are targeting landscapes that are important to the long-term survival of the northern pintail duck.

Conserving wetlands in the boreal forest

Wetlands located in Alberta’s boreal forest are often called peatlands. Peatlands include bogs and fens, both of which are marsh or swamp-like wetlands. Peatlands occur in the west central and northern part of the province covering an area of 10,300,000 hectares or 16.3 per cent of the Alberta land base.

Peatlands represent a broad range of unique and diverse biological systems. They provide essential wildlife habitat support for more than 250 species of plants, including some species at risk. Research shows these wetlands are also productive breeding grounds for migrating waterfowl and a host of other birds and mammals.

During prolonged droughts in the prairie region, these water bodies in the boreal forest provide refuge for migrating birds that otherwise spend their summer months farther south. Although these birds may not breed in the boreal forest, the northerly wetlands help them survive the drought until the fall migration.

Looking forward

Wetland conservation in Alberta has hit a critical point. Past experience has shown what happens when wetlands are lost. It impacts plant and animal biodiversity, agricultural production and can even threaten secure supplies of water for human use.

A significant amount of Alberta’s native wetlands have already been lost to urban development, drainage and changes in land use, such as the switch from native grazing ranges to cultivated crop production. Conservationists are working closely with stakeholders, landowners and municipalities to restore prairie wetlands. They are also working with governments to preserve boreal forest wetland and encourage ecologically smart development in these areas.

Wetlands provide habitat for waterfowl and over 600 species of plants, animals and insects.