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Wood Buffalo National Park was named to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1983 because of its outstanding natural significance, including nesting sites for whooping cranes. Now, some advocacy groups say that status could be at risk due to damage from hydro and oil sands projects.Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy

A United Nations mission assessing "the state of conservation" of Wood Buffalo National Park has been asked to list the park as endangered and to call for a halt to construction of the Site C dam in British Columbia.

In presentations Monday to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), four environmental groups and the Mikisew Cree First Nation said the park, which is on a prestigious list of World Heritage Sites, is being damaged by upstream hydro projects in B.C. and by expanding oil sands developments.

Federal and provincial governments have dismissed the concerns as unwarranted and say they welcome the UN review.

But Chief Steve Courtoreille of the Mikisew Cree said the park is being damaged so severely that the indigenous way of life there is eroding.

"If Site C goes ahead, it will destroy us," he said at a news conference in Edmonton before the groups met with the UNESCO delegation, which ends its 10-day visit to Canada on Tuesday.

Mr. Courtoreille said the dam being built on the Peace River in northeastern B.C. will exacerbate a water-flow problem that began when two BC Hydro dams were built in 1968 and 1980. He said water levels in the park, which straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories border, have dropped so low that it is now difficult to paddle across some lakes by canoe. He also said migratory birds and the resident wood bison have lost important habitat because of the dams, adding that so many muskrats have been drowned by rapidly changing water levels that trapping has nearly been wiped out.

Wood Buffalo, Canada's largest park at 44,807 square kilometres, was established in 1922 and was named to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1983 because of its outstanding natural significance, including nesting sites for whooping cranes.

There are currently 1,052 sites on the World Heritage List, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Central Amazon Conservation Complex in Brazil and the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries in China. Canada has 18 sites on the list, including the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Dinosaur Provincial Park and Gros Morne National Park.

Only two sites have been struck from the list because they weren't adequately protected: the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany.

Another 55 are listed as being "in danger."

Canada has never had any sites delisted or listed as being in danger, but critics say Wood Buffalo National Park could be a first.

"Canada could lose the site … I think that would be devastating," said Melody Lepine, director of industry and government relations for the Mikisew Cree. "That would be a huge embarrassment for Canada."

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a Canadian-U.S. organization, said in a submission to the UNESCO mission that Canada "may well be breaching the international obligations we took on in 1983 when the World Heritage Site was designated."

Alison Ronson, of the Northern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said environmental groups are asking UNESCO and Canada to call for "an immediate halt" to the Site C project until a study can be done on the cumulative environmental impact of the dam and oil sands developments.

In a statement, Parks Canada said the government is working with the UN mission "as a way to review, and potentially to improve, our management of the park."

B.C.'s Ministry of Energy and Mines said in an e-mail that the park is 1,100 kilometres downstream from Site C and that a federal-provincial environmental review determined the project would have little impact.

"The Joint Review Panel … concluded "the project would make small changes to the hydrology of the Peace River, and such changes would be attenuated by the time the flows reach Peace River, Alberta," the ministry statement said.

Kyle Ferguson, a spokesman for the Alberta Ministry of Environment and Parks, said his government is working collaboratively with Parks Canada and UNESCO to protect Wood Buffalo National Park.

"We are confident that our suite of environmental and land management tools, best practices, policies and regulations are making a positive impact and we look forward to receiving any recommendations from the UNESCO panel on areas Alberta can do better," Mr. Ferguson said in an e-mail.

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