Golden Opportunity for the Bighorn

If you’ve ever had a glass of water in Edmonton, your drink most likely came from the headwaters of the Bighorn Backcountry. Most of the water in the North Saskatchewan River, which hydrates Edmonton and other communities, originates in the Bighorn.

The Bighorn is a largely intact 4,000-square kilometer wilderness area that connects the eastern sides of Banff and Jasper National Parks. It features four sub-basins that supply 90 percent of the North Saskatchewan’s flow: Cline, Ram, Clearwater and Brazeau.

In addition to its recreational appeal, the Bighorn is rich in biodiversity and offers key habitat for grizzly bear, elk, its namesake bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and myriad bird species, including boreal owl, golden eagle and white-tailed ptarmigan. It’s a crucial link for wide-ranging species moving between Banff and Jasper National Parks and the adjacent White Goat and Siffleur Wilderness Areas. It’s also a cornerstone of the Yellowstone to Yukon region, one of the world’s last remaining intact mountain ecosystems.

Photo by Wendy Francis

Photo by Wendy Francis

For their long-term survival, wide-ranging species such as at-risk grizzly bear and wolverine require a system of interconnected protected areas. These connections must provide sufficient habitat to allow species to move in search of food and mates, while supporting appropriate human use and development.

Thirty years ago, the Alberta government promised to protect the Bighorn permanently. The North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (NSRP) process, now underway, offers a golden opportunity to fulfill that promise.

The NSRP is a blueprint for future land use in the North Saskatchewan watershed, which stretches from the Icefields in Banff National Park through Edmonton, across the Saskatchewan border and beyond.

Sometime soon, the plan will be open for public comment and Edmontonians will have a rare chance to decide which areas in the North Saskatchewan region merit permanent protection. We will all have a chance to help design a regional plan that will permanently protect the Bighorn and secure an irreplaceable water source, offer many opportunities for nature-based recreation, and conserve the rich diversity of wildlife that also call this region home.

Sarah Cox

 Sarah was the Senior Conservation Program Manager for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), a non-profit organization based in Canmore that seeks to protect and connect habitat so that people and nature can thrive. Keep an eye on Y2Y’s Alberta Headwaters page for information about opportunities to comment on the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (NSRP).