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Canada's Largest National Park Is Deteriorating

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Why Global Citizens Should Care
Wood Buffalo National Park is among the most threatened World Heritage Sites in North America. It is threatened by energy development, hydro dams, and poor management. Taking care of the environment is a vital part of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. You can take action here.

Almost every part of Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest national park, is deteriorating, according to a new report led by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

In March 2017, UNESCO issued a statement that the park in northeastern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories was threatened by energy development, hydro dams, and poor management. If no actions were taken to improve its status, UNESCO warned that it would be placed on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

This warning prompted the report released this week. The study confirmed that 15 of 17 measures of environmental health are declining in the park.

Industry, dams, climate change and natural cycles are draining the water from the delta of Alberta's Peace and Athabasca rivers.

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The Peace-Athabasca Delta is second-largest freshwater delta in the world, according to the Canadian Press.

"The (Peace-Athabasca Delta) depends on recharge of its lakes and basins in order to retain its world heritage value," the report, obtained by the Canadian Press, said. "Currently, hydrologic recharge … is decreasing. Without immediate intervention, this trend will likely continue and the world heritage values of the (delta) will be lost."

Don Gorber, the consultant who managed the study for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that the park has undergone many changes, but the most striking one is the changes in its water.

Since the Bennett Dam was built in British Columbia, Peace River flows have decreased by 9%, and Athabasca River flows have decreased by 26%. There are longer ice jams in the area to flood wetlands, according to the Canadian Press.

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Invasive species are now taking over, migratory birds are avoiding areas they used to gather in, and water is lacking in oxygen. Lower water levels are reflecting conditions like those caused by oilsands.

The animals in the region are feeling the changes. Bird eggs have metal and toxins in them and increased mercury levels are showing up in minnows. The habitat for bison is becoming smaller and smaller. Muskrats have left the region.

Indigenous people can no longer access some of their territory because they relied on boats to do so.

"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 said.

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Indigenous people have warned of these changes for some time now.

"It confirms a lot of these threats, the concerns, that are causing the challenges in the delta," Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree told the Canadian Press. "It does a good job of capturing the issues in Wood Buffalo, specifically in the delta."

Lepine was one of the people who went to UNESCO years ago to complain that the park’s environmental values were being sidetracked by oilsands, hydro development, and climate change.

Lepine said the Mikisew Cree were involved in the report and First Nations are weighing in on issues, but have not been involved in decision-making.

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Gorber said the report’s intention wasn’t to assign blame.

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

Wildfires can result in similar chemicals as those from an oilsands plant and natural cycles can cause changes — but so, too, can industry, climate change, and dams.

"Without a doubt, there's something going on," Gorber said.

Last month, Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna announced that the federal government was committing $27.5 million over the next five years to the park.