IBA Little Fish Lake
High River, Alberta
Site Summary
AB022 Latitude
51.392° N
112.269° W
894 - 986 m
35.66 km²
native grassland, rivers/streams, inland saline lake, improved pastureland, unknown
Land Use:
Agriculture, Nature conservation and research, Rangeland/pastureland, Tourism/recreation, Urban/industrial/transport
Potential or ongoing Threats:
Disturbance, Drought, Extraction industry, Grazing, Introduced species, Other decline in habitat quality, Recreation/tourism
IBA Criteria: Nationally Significant: Threatened Species
Conservation status: Ecological Reserve (provincial), Provincial Park (including Marine), Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (potential)
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Site Description
The Little Fish Lake area of south-central Alberta is about 34 km southeast of Drumheller. The IBA includes Little Fish Lake itself, the provincial park on the east side of the lake, and Hand Hills Ecological Reserve on the northwest. The 7 km² lake is shallow, alkaline, slightly saline and very productive. The 14 km shoreline contains extensive gravel beaches with alkali deposits that are between 10 and 30 m wide. The Hand Hills are an unusual feature in Alberta they are a remnant Tertiary plateau that rises 146 m above the surrounding area. Extensive areas of relatively undisturbed northern rough fescue grassland are found here.

Three rare plants grow in the Little Fish Lake area; they are Crowfoot Violet, Few-flowered Rush and Small Yellow Evening Primrose. The uplands hold a locally high population of Richardsons Ground Squirrel.

The Little Fish Lake area has been an excellent area for both lake and upland birds. In 1990 as many as 48 Piping Plovers were recorded along the lakeshore. This species, which breeds on sandy shorelines, is endangered in Canada. By the time of the 1991 Piping Plover survey, the numbers at Little Fish Lake had declined to 8 pairs (about 1% of the Canadian prairie population), and then between 1995 and 1998, the population dropped further from 2 pairs to 0 birds. Thus, although currently the species is not present, the lake still has the potential to be an important breeding site for Piping Plovers. Also, at least 5,000 geese use the lake for staging, and during the breeding season, 876 California Gulls nest within the lake.

The Hand Hills are an excellent place for prairie- breeding land birds. Bairds Sparrow, Spragues Pipit, Ferruginous Hawk (nationally vulnerable), Loggerhead Shrike (prairie population, nationally threatened), Upland Sandpiper and Long-billed Curlew (nationally vulnerable) are all species that breed in the hills. Large populations of the first two species are found here. In the past, Sharp-tailed Grouse maintained two leks in the Hand Hills area.

IBA Criteria
SpeciesT | A | I Links Date Season Number G C N
Piping Plover 1989 - 1993 SU 18 - 48
Note: species shown in bold indicate that the maximum number exceeds at least one of the IBA thresholds (sub-regional, regional or global). The site may still not qualify for that level of IBA if the maximum number reflects an exceptional or historical occurrence.
Conservation Issues
Both the Hand Hills Ecological Reserve and the small provincial park are protected from development, but the lake and its shoreline are not, although it is a potential Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site.

The sharp decline in the number of breeding Piping Plovers is clearly due to rapidly decreasing lake-water levels. Between 1975 and 1989, the mean water level dropped by 3.4 m. The old shorelines that had been used by Piping Plovers have become overgrown with plants. Vegetation growth around a low salinity lake such as Little Fish Lake is faster than on a fully saline lake. Ducks Unlimited constructed a weir at the mouth of the outlet channel to try to maintain water levels, and recently high water levels events have occurred. Thus it is likely that Piping Plovers will return. Additionally, the lake-water level issue may be confounded if water levels are raised above historical levels for recreational purposes. Trampling of the lakeshore by cattle is another problem. In 1991, fencing was completed that excludes cattle from the shoreline used for nesting. Also, an alternative watering location is being provided.

In the uplands, off-trail vehicle use occurs frequently, particularly in the hills and coulees. This kind of off-road driving damages the soils and plants, which in turn means a loss of habitat for grassland birds.

Little Fish Lake is designated as an Endangered Species Site under the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

The IBA Program is an international conservation initiative coordinated by BirdLife International. The Canadian co-partners for the IBA Program are Birds Canada and Nature Canada.
   © Birds Canada