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2.1 Distribution of Wetlands in Alberta
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2.3 Wetlands in the Prairie Region

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Section 2.2

Wetlands in the Forested Region

Summary of the area of wetlands in the forested region by wetland class with a description of the most common classes. 

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Wetlands Silhouette

Total area of wetlands in the forested region: 28.6%

  • Fen (also known as muskeg) is the most common wetland class, covering 17.3% of the forested region.
  • Open water habitat (4.3%), swamp (3.6%), bog (2.6%), and marsh (0.8%) make up the remaining wetland area.
  • Almost 25% of wetlands in the forested region are in protected areas.


Nina Veselka

Forested areas in northern Alberta are covered extensively by wetlands—primarily peatland (bog and fen) complexes but also marshes, swamps, and open water.

These boreal wetland ecosystems are important for a number of reasons[1]:
  • Boreal wetlands provide a diversity of habitats supporting a wide range of species, from amphibians to ducks and migratory songbirds to iconic mammal species like Beaver, Moose, and the threatened Woodland Caribou.
  • Boreal wetlands function as water reservoirs, storing water to prevent flooding in wet periods and releasing water during droughts. 
  • Wetland vegetation absorbs and filters contaminants from the water, and helps minimize soil erosion.
  • Undisturbed peatlands—the most common wetland type in the boreal forest—store large amounts of carbon that help to moderate climate change.
  • Wetlands in the boreal forest are often highly connected complexes; these areas are vulnerable to development activities that alter or block water flow (such as roads). Boreal wetland loss is around 5.5% due to human development activities[2]
  • Boreal wetlands are valued for recreation, tourism, and cultural activities.

In this section, we summarize wetland class and percent area covering the forested region in Alberta. We also highlight key wetland characteristics and species associated with the most common wetland classes.


  • Wetlands in the forested region of Alberta were inventoried in the Boreal Forest, Canadian Shield, and Foothills natural regions, along with the Peace River Parkland Natural Subregion.
  • Wetland locations were delineated using open source data and machine learning. Four classes of wetlands[3] were identified (bog, fen, marsh, and swamp) plus open water habitat. The open water habitat category includes shallow open water wetlands—i.e., areas that are less than two metres deep—but also includes open water areas, like lakes, that are deeper than two metres. Upland areas were also identified.
  • Steps to identify and classify wetlands in the forested region of Alberta are listed below. For detailed methods see DeLancey et al. 2020[4] and ABMI 2021[5].
  • Protected areas are defined as provincial protected areas (a list of the eight categories can be found here) and national parks.
Steps to identify and classify wetlands in the forested region:
  1. Open data sources of satellite imagery and a digital surface model (DSM), as well as known locations of classified wetlands[6], were used as computer inputs.
  2. Using these data inputs, the computer “learned” the characteristics associated with each wetland class, such as topographic position and vegetation properties, based on known wetland locations. 
  3. Based on these characteristics for each wetland class, the computer created rules that were used to identify other possible wetland locations in the forested region. These rules were applied across this region to create an inventory of wetlands.
  4. Before finalizing the forested wetland inventory, known terrestrial areas as identified in the Human Footprint Inventory[7] were reclassified as upland.
  5. Finally, the inventory was reviewed at a 15 km x 15 km scale to fix obvious errors such as missing lakes.
Limitations and constraints:
  • The Boreal/Foothills (forested region) Wetland Inventory project has an effective Minimum Mapping Unit of 1,000 m2.  It is based on open source satellite imagery of 10-m2 spatial resolution from the years 2017–2018. The neural network machine learning approach excelled at delineating large fen and bog complexes, but did not capture as many small temporary marshes as the seasonal approach employed for the prairie region. 
  • The accuracy of the wetland delineation (i.e. identification of wetland vs. upland areas) is greater than the accuracy of wetland classification to the class level. The Boreal/Foothills Wetland Inventory classification has an overall accuracy of 85% compared to photo-interpreted validation data; however, most of the accuracy is from the distinction between upland and wetland, which is assessed at 95%.
  • Out of the three regional wetland inventories, wetland classification by class was most challenging in the forested region due to the diversity of possible wetland classes and vegetation cover. The most common areas of confusion are swamp vs. upland, fen vs. swamp, and bog vs. fen. Refer to the technical documentation for more details on class accuracies.

The computer "learned" the characteristics of different wetland types—such as topographic position and vegetation properties—to identify wetland locations. 


Area of Wetlands in the Forested Region

Current wetland area in the forested region: 28.6%

Area (percentage) of wetlands, overall and categorized by wetland class in the forested region. Hover over the bar or legend to view the area of a specific wetland class.



  • In the forested region, wetlands are common, covering 28.6% of the area. 
  • Fen (also known as muskeg) is the most common wetland class, covering 17.3% of the forested region, followed by open water (4.3%), swamp (3.6%), bog (2.6%), and marsh (0.8%).
  • 24.8% of wetland area is included in protected areas (32,576 km2 out of 131,348 km2); 18,956 km2, or 58% of the total protected wetland area, is in Wood Buffalo National Park.
  • More than a quarter of the area of marsh (29.5%), open water (28.1%), and fen (26.3%) wetlands is in protected areas.
  • Representation of bogs and swamps in protected areas is lower at 18.9% and 16.7%, respectively.
Use Ctrl + Scroll to zoom the map

Distribution of wetlands in the forested region of Alberta. Click on the legend to turn wetland types on and off. Note: wetlands cover less area than what is displayed in the map.

More about wetlands in the forested region

Click on a tab for a description of the most common wetlands in the forested region. For more detailed descriptions of each wetland class, refer to the Boreal Wetlands Fact Sheets[1] and the Alberta Wetland Classification System Field Guide[3].

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About fens in the forested region

  • Fen is the most common wetland class, covering 17.3% of the forested region. 
  • Fens (also known as muskeg) are peatlands, which are defined by accumulations of at least 40 cm of organic material (i.e., remains of dead plants) known as peat. It can take thousands of years for peat to accumulate.
  • These wetlands typically form expansive systems in flat, low-lying areas fed by flowing ground water or precipitation.
  • More nutrient-rich than bogs, vegetation of these ecosystems can be grassy (open), shrubby, or treed along with abundant moss cover. Plants growing in fens get their moisture and nutrients from the peat.

Species associated with fens include:

example card Image Nancy S

Woodland Caribou

Rangifer tarandus

Woodland Caribou depend on treed fens and bogs, where they forage on lichen—their primary food source—during the winter.

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About open water habitat in the forested region

  • Open water habitat is the second most common wetland class, covering 4.3% of the forested region. 
  • Open water habitat includes open water wetlands that are characterized by shallow open water up to 2 metres deep covering more than 75% of the wetland area. Also included in this category are open water areas, like lakes, that are deeper than two metres.
  • Water inputs come from a variety of sources such as rain or snow; surface water flowing from adjacent lakes, rivers, and creeks; and groundwater. 
  • Open water habitat is generally permanent but water levels fluctuate seasonally, changing the size of the open water and wetland margin areas.
  • Submersed or floating aquatic vegetation like pondweed, duckweed, and bladderwort species are usually present while water-tolerant plants, like cattails and sedges, often grow around the edges.

Species found in open water wetlands include:

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Yellow Water Lily

Nuphar lutea

Yellow Water Lily is common in shallow waterbodies in the boreal region, where it can provide food and shelter for many species. An excess of nutrients in the waterbody can lead to overgrowth of Yellow Water Lily, which causes oxygen depletion in the water.

example card Image Rob Hinchliffe

a species of aquatic diving beetle

Graphoderus liberus

Aquatic diving beetles are some of the largest beetles found in Alberta. Graphoderus larvae are strong swimmers and very active predators that will pounce on anything they can safely subdue.

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Fringed Valvata

Valvata lewisi

These tiny aquatic snails are very common in boreal wetlands but are rarely seen, mostly because Fringed Valvata snails measure less than 5 mm across and spend much of their time burrowing in the mud, where they feed on bits of decaying organic debris.

example card Image Rob Hinchliffe

American Emerald

Cordulia shurtleffii

Commonly found in many boreal wetlands, the drab-looking nymphs of Cordulia shurtleffii blend in well with their environment, lying in wait for unsuspecting prey. The metallic-green eyes of the adult earned the species the common name of American Emerald.

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About swamps in the forested region

  • Swamps cover 3.6% of the forested region.
  • Swamps have consistently high water tables with pockets of standing water—fluctuating water levels cause temporary to seasonal flooding[3]. However, swamps are not as wet as other types of boreal wetlands like fens and marshes.
  • The terrain of swamps is hummocky with mounds where trees and shrubs can grow and depressions where water can pool. 
  • There are different types of wooded swamps including swamps dominated by coniferous, deciduous, or mixedwood trees. Shrub swamps occur in wetter areas. 
  • Swamps are common in forested floodplains or other transitional areas between wetlands, streams, and lakes. 

Species associated with swamps in the forested region include:



Ducks Unlimited Canada. Boreal wetlands fact sheets. Available at:


Ducks Unlimited Canada. 2017. Boreal wetlands and climate change. Available at:


Ducks Unlimited Canada. 2021. Alberta wetland classification system field guide. Available at:


DeLancey, E.R., J.F. Simms, M. Mahdianpari, B. Brisco, C.Mahoney, and J. Kariyeva. 2020. Comparing deep learning and shallow learning for large-scale wetland classification in Alberta, Canada. Remote Sensing 12(1): 2. Available at:



Jennifer Hird, Lead Scientist - Earth Observation insights Unit, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute

Jen has supported geospatial research and development within the ABMI for over 10 years. In her current role, she leads the organization's satellite-based mapping and monitoring efforts.

If you have questions about the ABMI's wetland mapping program, please get in touch:

We are grateful for the support of the ABMI's delivery partners.

We would like to acknowledge the organizations and sponsors highlighted below who financially supported the development of this report.