The country contains the second and third largest rivers in North America and contributes 8% of global river discharge to the ocean. Yet, many of Canada’s waterways have been dammed and developed, regulating and reshaping the hydrology of the nation’s largest basins.
As Canada, like the rest of the world, confronts an uncertain future in the wake of large-scale human development and climate change, the nation’s wild rivers remain critical for the safeguarding of the species and people who depend on these watersheds. Until recently, no study had identified Canada’s largest wild rivers. Together with WWF-Canada’s Watershed Reports, the free-flowing rivers analysis allowed the identification of the ten longest free-flowing rivers, which remain relatively free from human impacts. These rivers are the Liard, Dubawnt, Thelon, Kazan, Horton, Anderson, Taltson, Stikine, Ekwan, and Birch.
Unlike dammed rivers, these wild waterways provide numerous irreplaceable ecological and community benefits, including nutrient transport, climate change adaptation, pollution control, and habitat for threatened species. Specifically, one of Canada’s most iconic species, the barren-ground caribou, cross these wild rivers to reach their calving grounds. Lake sturgeon depend on these free-flowing rivers for the habitat variety that fulfills the fish’s different biological needs during its life stages. More than that, these rivers contribute to the national economy through tourism and vibrant fisheries, among other activities, and play significant roles in the cultures and heritages of Indigenous peoples.
At present, there are no national and comprehensive protections for these important wild rivers in Canada. As Canada shifts to a low-carbon economy, large free-flowing rivers could be tapped for hydropower, which could reduce the health of ecosystems and block migration routes for wildlife that are forced by warming temperatures to find new suitable habitat.
The protection of Canada’s largest free-flowing rivers will be imperative for the future of the country’s economy, culture, and ecology. The first step toward valuing these rivers is to understand their unique characteristics and contributions to Canada.
The Liard River, the longest of Canada’s wild rivers, spans the Yukon Territory, northern British Columbia and Northwest Territories, and is a tributary of the Mackenzie River. The Liard River watershed is home to many important species, such as grizzly bear, moose, wolverine, and Rocky Mountain elk. The river also sustains a high value fishing industry, with populations of chum salmon, Arctic grayling, bull trout, inconnu, and mountain whitefish. The area around the river is productive for forestry and has potential for mining interests and oil and gas exploration. Several protected areas and parks are currently found along the Liard River, including the Liard River Corridor Provincial Park and Liard River Corridor Protected Area.
The Dubawnt River crosses the border between the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, beginning in a series of lakes before it joins the Thelon River at Beverly Lake. A portion of the river flows through the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. Established in 1927, the sanctuary covers an area of 52,000 square kilometers in Canada’s central tundra natural region. The Dubawnt River watershed provides habitat for the Beverly and Ahiak Barren-ground caribou herds. It is also an important migratory bird nesting site for species such as the lesser snow geese, and is home to foxes, wolves, muskox and grizzly bears. The Dubawnt River offers large fish and catch volumes for fisherman as well as opportunities for wildlife viewing.
The Thelon River has been designated a Canadian Heritage River. Located in Nunavut, it is found within a transition ecosystem referred to as an “Arctic Oasis” because the river supports a healthy stand of boreal forest while surrounded by Arctic tundra. As a result, the area supplies habitat for a unique blend of Arctic and boreal species and has incredible biological diversity, including the largest flock of greater Canada geese, wolverine, Arctic fox and Arctic wolf. Currently the only inland, non-coastal Inuit community in Canada lives along Baker Lake, which is part of the basin.
The Kazan River is another Canadian Heritage River. The northern portion of the river passes through a transitional zone between boreal and Arctic tundra ranges, which contribute to significant species diversity. Species found in this watershed include the wolverine, four species of loon, snow owls, tundra swans, peregrine falcons, and caribou. Evidence indicates that Dene and Inuit communities lived along the river for more than 5,000 years. During the summer they stayed close to the river and then migrated to the tree line or the coast for the rest of the year. In fact, the river is considered the birthplace of the Caribou Inuit culture. Along the river is a 30 km stretch of caribou crossing, which was designated the Fall Caribou Crossing National Historic Site. There, generations of Caribou Inuit have hunted, allowing them to survive the long winters. The local Caribou Inuit along the river still travel by canoe and kayak while hunting and fishing.
The Horton River, located in the north of the Northwest Territories, is home to the Smoking Hills. The name comes from the spontaneous ignition of deposits of carbon-rich shale and sulphur-rich pyrite as they are exposed to the air through erosion. The wilderness paddling industry along the river offers paddlers the opportunity to see wildlife such as caribou, muskox, wolves, grizzly bears, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and gyrfalcons.
Located in the Northwest Territories, the Anderson River flows into the Arctic Ocean. The Anderson River Delta Migratory Bird Sanctuary is located at the mouth of the river. Within the sanctuary is a diversity of habitats from coastal beaches to tundra, which provide important feeding and nesting territory for waterfowl and shorebirds. A total of 104 bird species use the sanctuary for various activities, including black brant, lesser snow goose, tundra swan, and greater white-fronted goose. The migration route of the Bluenose caribou herd also travels through the watershed.
The Taltson River is in the Northwest Territories and flows into Great Slave Lake. However, the wild portion of the river stops short of Great Slave Lake due to the presence of the Taltson hydro plant, which is located north of Fort Smith and has a capacity of 18MW. The watershed is important habitat for several at risk species whose populations declined due to over-exploitation and competition from introduced species. It is one of three rivers in the Northwest Territories to have northern leopard frogs, a species of special concern. The Territories Amphibian Management Plan is being developed to address the needs of all amphibians in the Northwest Territories, including the northern leopard frog. The Taltson River watershed also supports the Slave River Lowlands population of the threatened wood bison. Wood bison populations have been declining in the Northwest Territories for the past three generations. Currently the threats include changes to flow regimes, which underscores the need for protections for this wild river.
The Stikine River is located in Northwestern British Columbia. The Stikine River is the traditional territory of the Tahltan native communities who continue to reside there. Dozens of charismatic species also call this basin home, including mountain goats, grizzly bears, moose, salmon, wolves, Chinook salmon, and steelhead.
Designated under the B.C. Fish Protection Act (1997) and upheld in the Water Sustainability Act (2016), the Stikine is a “protected river,” which means that new dams are prohibited on the mainstem. This Act was the first of its kind in Canada and will ensure that the Stikine remains wild for generations to come. Other provinces can look to the Fish Protection Act as a potential model for protecting wild rivers within their own jurisdictions.
The Ekwan River is in the Kenora district of Northern Ontario and is the southernmost of the wild rivers. The region is governed by the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven First Nations in Western James Bay and Hudson’s Bay.
The Ekwan River is home to several at risk species, including caribou (Boreal population) and the Southern Hudson Bay/James Bay population of lake sturgeon, which is considered a species of special concern. While current threats are low, the Ekwan may be at risk from mining development, as the Ring of Fire is located in the headwaters of this watershed. The Ring of Fire is a proposed chromite mining development approximately 400 kilometers north of Thunder Bay. The project has faced significant challenges, including lack of access to necessary infrastructure, declining commodity prices, significant environmental concerns and lack of support from First Nations communities, leading to declining support from the federal governments. The future of this project remains unknown. However, if it were to proceed, it would likely have significant impacts on the Ekwan River.
The Birch River in northern Alberta flows into Lake Claire and the Peace-Athabasca Delta. The Peace-Athabasca Delta is one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas and supplies significant habitat for migratory waterfowl from across North America. The delta is sensitive to changes in flow level, so any development on Birch River could have negative downstream impacts on this ecological treasure. Fortunately, a large portion of the river flows through Wood Buffalo National Park. It is Canada’s largest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This extraordinary region is home to one of the biggest free-roaming buffalo herds in the world.
In May 2018, the government of Alberta announced the creation of new and the expansion of existing protected areas, which includes almost the entire mainstem of the Birch River. These protections will safeguard the river within those boundaries. However, the headwaters remain unprotected, meaning developments could alter water levels of the Birch River and impact the Peace-Athabasca Delta.