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3 Pressures on Wetlands in Alberta
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Section 3.1

Human Footprint Surrounding Wetland Health Monitoring Sites

Using a new method to delineate catchments, we present a summary, by natural region, of the extent of different types of human footprint around ABMI's open water wetland sites.

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image ABMI

Agriculture accounted for more than 50% of disturbance around open water wetlands in the Grassland and Parkland natural regions.

  • We used an updated method to delineate catchments surrounding our shallow open water (SOW) wetland monitoring sites and summarized the average human footprint cover in them. 
  • Human footprint around SOW was highest in the Parkland (68.5%) and Grassland (53.1%) natural regions; human footprint covered less than 20% of catchments in the remaining four natural regions.
  • Agriculture human footprint was the most common type in the Parkland (50.9%), Grassland (39.5%) and Boreal Forest (6.7%) natural regions while forestry footprint was the most common type in the Foothills (11.3%) and Rocky Mountain (4.1%) natural regions.
  • There is a need to assess levels of disturbance around other wetland classes (e.g., marshes, bogs, fens), as well as wetland loss. 


Stephanie Ball

The health of a wetland and the species that can be found there is often influenced by the habitat and human footprint that surround the wetland.

  • Wetlands can receive water through overland flow. Rain or melting snow in the area surrounding a wetland (catchment) flows into the wetland because it is a low point in the landscape. 
  • When there is human development in the catchment, overland flow can transfer pollution, weeds, or other impacts to the wetland. 
  • Hydrologic connections between wetlands and surrounding areas also serve as a conduit to connect wetland habitats and populations of native wetland plants and animals across the landscape.
  • We use our monitoring data to describe the relationship between wetland species and their surrounding environment. In the past, to account for the influence of human footprint and natural habitat in the wetland catchment, we would summarize the vegetation, soils, and human footprint in a 250-m buffer area surrounding a wetland. 
  • We are interested in refining these buffer areas so that they better estimate a wetland's hydrologic catchment area.

In this section, we summarize the area of human footprint surrounding our shallow open water wetland monitoring sites using a refined method for delineating catchment areas.

image ABMI

Agricultural runoff can affect water quality by introducing nutrients and sediment.

image Ramon Cliff

Wetlands in urban areas provide habitat to a wide range of species.


Hanging culverts under roads can interrupt the natural flow of water and organisms between wetlands.


The Alberta Wetland Policy provides direction to avoid or minimize impacts to wetlands.


Defining Catchments

  • We calculated catchments surrounding our wetland monitoring sites and summarized the human footprint cover in them. 
  • We used a new method for delineating the topographic catchment area using GIS tools, including a digital elevation model, simulated flow direction, and the ArcGIS watershed tool.
  • The topography-based catchments represent the gross drainage area or the area surrounding the wetland that could contribute water to the wetland through overland flow.
  • The method combines the original 250-m buffer around the open water zone shape and the topographic catchment shape. We confirmed in the literature that 250 m is an appropriate size to quantify disturbance surrounding wetlands[1,2,3,4].
  • The resulting catchment is any area that is included in both the 250-m buffer and the topography-based catchment.

Depiction of the area used to define a catchment in our methods.


ABMI wetland health monitoring sites in Alberta; catchments were defined and human footprint was summarized around each of these sites. Note that the exact wetland site locations are not displayed—monitoring sites are randomly located within 5.5 kilometers from the publicly available coordinate. 


  • ABMI's wetland health monitoring program targets permanent, shallow open water wetlands (SOW) as monitoring sites. These sites are part of ABMI's systematic grid of 1,656 site locations, spaced 20 km apart across the province. 
  • There are 1,208 wetland monitoring sites included in this summary: 45 in the Rocky Mountain, 133 in the Foothills, 252 in the Grassland, 130 in the Parkland, 618 in the Boreal Forest, and 30 in the Canadian Shield natural regions.
  • We used the Human Footprint Inventory (HFI) 2019 to summarize the percent area of human footprint—broken down by natural region—within each catchment where our open water wetland monitoring sites are located.
  • Human footprint is summarized by total area and is also broken into the following categories[5]: agriculture, forestry, transportation, energy, and urban/industrial. 
  • Cover of human footprint in catchments surrounding our wetland monitoring sites represent potential sources of disturbance to permanent open water wetlands. Impacts to wetlands themselves were not assessed.
  • ABMI wetland monitoring sites are randomly selected from a pool of eligible wetlands surrounding each 20 km x 20 km grid location. The eligibility criteria favours permanent shallow open water wetlands that are at least 1 ha in size and 0.5 m deep in July. It is likely that there is less human footprint surrounding these wetlands than other wetland types because areas with permanent surface water or saturated soils are usually not good candidates for development and are easy to identify and avoid. For example, the Prairie Habitat Joint Venture tracked wetland losses from 1985 to 1999 in the Grassland and Parkland/Boreal Ecoregions in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba and found relatively small losses in deep marshes and open water compared to sedge/grass and crop/summer fallow wetland types[6].
  • The analysis was based on spatial datasets (digital elevation model, Human Footprint Inventory (2019)) that are not 100% accurate. Our results reflect these inaccuracies. 
  • The scale of the catchments in this analysis is localized and related to each individual wetland. This scale is smaller than other watershed units used for management purposes (e.g., Hydrologic Unit Code 8, 10, etc.).
  • This analysis does not capture loss of wetlands. 


The average percent cover of human footprint in catchments surrounding our SOW monitoring sites in Alberta, by natural region, is:








Boreal Forest


Rocky Mountain


Canadian Shield

  • Agriculture footprint was highest in SOW catchments in three of the six natural regions: Parkland (50.9%), Grassland (39.5%) and Boreal Forest (6.7%). Agricultural runoff can affect the water quality of wetlands by introducing nutrients and sediment, which can change the habitat conditions and disrupt chemical and biological processes.  
  • Forestry footprint was the most common footprint type around SOW in the Foothills (11.3%) and Rocky Mountain (4.1%) natural regions. Forestry activities rarely directly target wetland areas. However, nearby operations can impact wetlands in several ways, including soil compaction from heavy equipment, changes in evaporation due to the harvesting of adjacent uplands, and introduction of invasive species. 
  • Urban/industrial footprint was the second most common disturbance around SOW in the Parkland at 8.0%. Impacts to wetlands in urban areas are numerous but the most severe are total loss due to land cover transition from wetland to developed areas.
  • The linear nature of transportation footprint makes it likely to intersect and impede natural water flow on the landscape. This could disrupt normal inflows and outflows of wetlands or flowing wetlands themselves (like fens), changing the hydrology.
  • Overall, there is a lot of variability in the amount of human footprint cover surrounding SOW within natural regions. For total human footprint and for most of the footprint types, there are many site catchments with 0% coverage but there are also catchments with 100% coverage of human footprint. 
Average percent cover of different human footprint types in open water wetland catchments by natural region. The total footprint (%) includes some footprint not accounted for in the footprint types. Standard deviations (SD) are shown in parenthesis. Note: Cover of human footprint in catchments surrounding our wetland monitoring sites represent potential sources of disturbance to wetlands; impacts to wetlands themselves were not assessed.

Future Direction

  • Quantifying and summarizing the amount and type of human footprint surrounding our wetland sites could indicate potential impacts to SOW across the province.  We will continue to explore how human footprint surrounding wetlands can be monitored.  
  • We are interested in continuing to improve our wetland catchment delineation methods. We are currently exploring GIS methods to directly calculate smaller scale catchments, which would eliminate the need to use the 250-m buffer cut offs. Further, isotope information we already collect at our sites can be used to describe site hydrology[7] and could be used to inform catchment delineation. These refinements are expected to improve our wetland species–habitat models. 
  • There is a need to assess impacts of human development activities—including wetland loss—on other wetland classes (e.g. marshes, bogs, fens). Loss of wetlands can disproportionately impact small, semi-permanent wetlands compared to permanent open water wetlands[6].
image Jesse Watkins

Ice road



Lopez, R.D. and M.S. Fennessy. 2002. Testing the floristic quality assessment index as an indicator of wetland condition. Ecological Applications 12(2):487-497. Available at:[0487:TTFQAI]2.0.CO;2


Brown, M. and M.B. Vivas. 2005. Landscape development intensity index. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 101(1-3):289-309. Available at:


Wilson, M.J. and S.E. Bayley. 2012. Use of single versus multiple biotic communities as indicators of biological integrity in northern prairie wetlands. Ecological Indicators 20:187-195. Available at:


Kutcher, T.E. and G.E. Forrester. 2018. Evaluating how variants of floristic quality assessment indicate wetland condition. Journal of Environment Management 217:231-239. Available at:


ABMI. 2022. Status of human footprint in Alberta. Available at:


Watmough, M., D. Ingstrup, D. Duncan, and H. Schinke. 2002. Prairie Habitat Joint Venture Habitat Monitoring Program. Phase 1: Recent habitat trends in NAWMP targeted landscapes. Technical Report Series No. 391. Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, Alberta. Available at:


Gibson, J.J., P. Eby, S.J. Birks, C. Twitchell, C. Gray, and J. Kariyeva. 2022. Isotope-based water balance assessment of open water wetlands across Alberta: regional trends with emphasis on the oil sands region. Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies 40:101036. Available at:



Dr. Jenet Dooley, Wetland Ecologist, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI)

Jenet has been the Wetland Ecologist at the ABMI since February 2019. She leads varied wetland analysis and monitoring initiatives involving many wetland taxa, including amphibians.

If you have questions about the ABMI's wetland monitoring 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.