Wetlands a vital component of forests

Yellow legs in an open water wetland near the weir on Lesser Slave River.

Pearl Lorentzen
For South Peace News

Fires and floods are one of the dangers of summer in the boreal forest. Healthy wetlands can help with both and are very common.

“There’s so many that you don’t realize how important they are,” says Bev Gingras, head of Boreal Conservation at Ducks Unlimited Canada [DUC].

“Healthy wetlands can act kind of like a fire barrier, but if peat lands dry out they can actually become a propagator of fire. Peat can burn a long time.”

The relationship with flooding is a bit more straightforward.

“Peat is so water hungry,” says Gingras.

It acts like a sponge which protects the land down stream from flooding. It also filters water. Wetlands also store carbon.

“According to the Geological Survey of Canada, the peat in Canada’s wetlands stores almost 60 per cent of all the carbon stored in soils across the country,” says Gingras.

Also, they are an important habitat for woodland caribou and birds, especially waterfowl.

Around 7,500 game birds banded within the Lesser Slave, Utikuma, and Wabasca lakes areas were found elsewhere in North and South America, says James Guindon, with DUC Canada.

These are just a portion of the around 15 million birds that breed in boreal wetlands each year, says Gingras.

The wetlands also provide food for other animals, including great horned owls, which eat waterfowl. The wetlands are also important to the uplands which are the treed areas harvested for forestry. Forestry is an important industry in Slave Lake, High Prairie, and other boreal towns.

“It’s hard to classify nature,” says Guindon.

The wetlands interact with the upland forests in interesting ways. Guindon spent some time researching near Utikuma Lake, which is north of Lesser Slave Lake. The researcher pointed to a stand of aspens on a hill and said that the hills in the boreal forest don’t keep rainwater. Instead, the trees’ roots went down several hundred metres to a wetland in the valley.

Tolko Industries and West Fraser have mills near Slave Lake and High Prairie. These companies and other forest industry companies [such as Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries] are part of the Forest Management Wetland Stewardship Initiative [FMWSI] with DUC.

In 2020, Ducks Unlimited Canada won an Award of Excellence from the Forest Production Association of Canada for FMWSI, which builds on mapping work which has been done in the area since the early 2000s.The area around Lesser Slave Lake, Utikuma Lake, and Wabasca Lake is divided into six watersheds. The maps are “mostly our oldest product,” says Guindon.

In 2003, DUC finished mapping the Utikuma Lake watershed. It was one of the first parts of the boreal forest mapped using DUC’s Enhanced Wetland Classification. GIS uses satellite images to create detailed maps.

“Our goal was to learn about wetlands and waterfowl in the forested area,” says Gingras.

Now, all of the boreal plains [northeastern BC to parts of Manitoba] are mapped. The project has moved into the Territories.

GIS can’t distinguish between shallow open water wetlands and lakes, says Gingras. The difference between lakes and shallow open water wetlands is depth. A wetland is shallower than two metres.

When needed, DUC does on-the-ground surveys or uses other information to distinguish between the two. Wetlands are classified by plants, soil type, and how water moves through the system, says Gingras. Marshes are vegetated water-bodies with grasses, bulrushes, and cattails. Fens and bogs are both peat land, but fens have water flowing in and out, whereas bogs are stagnant and rely on rainwater. Swamps have trees which are 10 metres (almost 33 feet) and taller. Fens and bogs can have trees, shorter than 10 metres.

There are at least three systems used for classifying wetlands in Canada. The Canadian Wetland Classification System has five categories -open water, marsh, fen, bog, and swamp. The Alberta system has nine and DUC’s Enhanced Wetland Classification [EWC] has 20. Both the Alberta system and EWC can be collapsed into the Canadian system.

For example, in the area mapped, the enhanced system has five classifications which fold into the Canadian classification of swamp. These are shrub swamp, hardwood swamp, mixed-wood swamp, tamarack swamp, and conifer swamp.

The map also looks at non-wetland classifications such as: upland conifer, cutblock, agriculture, burnt, and anthropogenic. The DUC data behind the map shows that 62 per cent of the area is upland or other and 38 per cent is wetland and water.

DUC statistics show that the single largest classification in the Lesser Slave, Utikuma, and Wabasca lakes areas is upland deciduous such as aspens, which makes up 35.85 per cent [1,138,435 hectares]. At 10.01 per cent, conifer [with cones] upland is next.

Both coniferous and deciduous trees are harvested in the area and processed by local mills. The two types of treed upland are followed by the three wetland classes – treed bog [9.57 per cent/393,826 hectares], open water [7.24 per cent/229,954 hectares], and conifer swamp [5.19 per cent/164,761 hectares].

The only 20 EWC wetland classes not present in the area is open bog, says the data.

Wetland mapping in the Lesser Slave Lake region was made possible from funds from Alberta Sustainable Resources, Al-Pac Forest Industries, Canadian Boreal Initiative, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Ducks Unlimited Inc., Government of Alberta [Sustainable Resource Development], Pew Charitable Trusts, Shell Canada Energy, Suncor Foundation, United States Fish and Wildlife Services -North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and United States Forest Services.

Muskeg’s origins

Muskeg is one of the more common words used to describe wetlands in Alberta forests.

“It’s been used to describe anything that’s treed and wet,” says Bev Gingras, head of Boreal Conservation at Ducks Unlimited Canada.

While common in everyday use, it is not used on scientific maps. Muskeg comes from the Cree word maskêk, says Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Its first known use in English was in 1806.

Altlab.ualberta.ca gives nine related Cree words to the English word muskeg. These include maskêk [muskeg, swamp], maskêkomin [muskeg berry], and maskêkwâpoy [muskeg tea aka. Labrador tea].

Wetlands around Lesser Slave, Utikuma, and Wabasca lakes. The maps around Utikuma were some of the first ones produced by Ducks Unlimited Canada’s National Boreal Program. Map is courtesy of Ducks Unlimited and partners.

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