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COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the Athabasca Thrift, ssp. interior in Canada

Limiting Factors and Threats

Natural Factors

Armeria maritima subsp. interior is limited by its small population size and restricted habitat.

Anthropogenic Factors

Roads -- When the 1981 COSEWIC report was written (Argus 1981), the proposed construction of a road from Cluff Lake to the south shore of Lake Athabasca would have opened the Athabasca dunes to human activity. The need for this road is likely to be replaced by a road from Points North to Black Lake. The Cluff Lake Road seems no longer to be an important limiting factor (Bihun pers. comm.).

Visitors -- Tourists visiting the park and pleasure seekers from Uranium City, particularly those using ATVs, can have great impact on the sand dune ecosystem. At present there are about 200 people living in Uranium City. Feasibility studies are being done to evaluate the possibility of opening a gold mine in the Uranium City area (Bihun pers. comm.). The possibility of ATV traffic on the dunes, despite being banned from the park, is real. The regulations pertaining to the use of the park may be well-intentioned but are they enforceable? It is not known how easily the regulations can be changed to include such multiple use.

Tourism is increasing in the Lake Athabasca area. At present, the most important activity is fishing boat traffic from Ft. McMurray, Alberta; but few fishermen seem to venture onto the dunes. Ecotourism, however, is becoming attractive in northern Saskatchewan. Canoe trips on the Fond du Lac River to the sand dunes are becoming more common (a lecture on such a trip was presented to the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association, Merrickville, Ontario, on 27 Nov. 1997). There are regulations designating camping sites and activities on the dunes. Because the dunes are not routinely monitored by Ministry personnel, the effectiveness of these regulations is unknown (Bihun pers. comm., Rogers pers. comm.).

Mining -- Mining exploration is permitted up to the edge of the park. In the west, the edge of the park is the western edge of the William River dune field and in the east the MacFarlane River. Presently there is no buffer zone around the park (Bihun pers. comm., Rogers pers. comm.). The boundaries of the dune region, when it was designated a Protected Area, included a buffer zone. When the area became a Provincial Wilderness Park, however, the buffer zone was removed. If the area and its endemic flora are to be adequately protected a buffer zone must be reestablished.

Geophysical surveys, presumably for uranium ore bodies, were done in the region in 1997-1998. If and when mining becomes economically viable, mining could take place right up to the edge of the open dunes (Bihun pers. comm.). The impact on the dune habitat and its endemic flora from both mining activities themselves and the greatly increased recreational use of the dunes would be very great.

Other mining-related activities in the sand dunes include the collecting of seed for mine tailing reclamation. In order to stabilize extensive tailings resulting from the extraction of heavy oils from the Athabasca tar sands, SYNCRUD of Ft. McMurray, Alberta, is investigating the use of sand dune endemics (Purdy 1995, Bihun pers. comm.). Two firms, one from Alberta and one from Saskatchewan have already applied for and collected seeds from the park (Purdy pers. comm.). Such activities in the sand dunes are incompatible with the protection of the habitat of endemic species.

The Athabasca sand dunes are not as remote and isolated as they once were. Pressures from mining, tourism, recreational use, and other commercial activities are rapidly increasing and likely to do so in the future. The protection of the unique endemic flora of the region will require the establishment of an adequate buffer zone around the park, enforceable regulations to limit access to its most sensitive regions, and adequate monitoring of the region by provincial conservation officers.