Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) is located in northern Alberta. It offers one of the most important areas for migrating waterfowl in Canada.  

Importance of the sanctuary: migratory birds and other wildlife

Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary, located 35 kilometers south of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, is part of the Peace-Athabasca Delta. This is one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world and it is one of the most important areas for waterfowl in Canada. It is also considered to be an internationally significant wetland, a Ramsar wetland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site was first proposed as a sanctuary in 1947 by J.D. Soper in order to protect Ross’s geese from hunting as this area was an important breeding, resting and feeding area for this species.

Did you know?

Ross’s geese are no longer a species of conservation concern as their populations have increased dramatically over the past few decades. In fact, the United States declared Ross’s geese overabundant in 1999 as did Canada a few years later.

Ross's geese
Ross's geese. Photo: Kiel Drake

While the water levels in Richardson Lake and other shallow lakes in the area were once wonderful places for waterfowl to breed, rest, feed and moult, the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and Williston Reservoir in 1968 caused a large reduction in water levels. This deteriorated the habitat in the area and consequentially, decreased the number of waterfowl using it.

The majority of waterfowl that continue to nest in and around the sanctuary are dabbling ducks, predominantly mallards, northern pintail, American wigeon and northern shoveler as well as smaller numbers of gadwall, blue-winged teal and green-winged teal. Other species, including snow geese, Canada geese, greater white-fronted geese, Ross’s geese and tundra swans spend time on the lake in the spring and fall to rest and feed.

Other waterbirds that are known to still nest in the area and may be spotted in the sanctuary include:

  • American bittern
  • semipalmated plover
  • killdeer
  • Wilson’s snipe
  • spotted sandpiper
  • lesser yellowlegs
  • common loon
  • horned grebe
  • red-necked grebe

A variety of songbirds, known as passerines, such as flycatchers, thrushes, warblers and sparrows also breed in the area. The common summer residents in the sanctuary include:

  • semipalmated sandpiper
  • spotted sandpiper
  • herring gull
  • California gull
  • ring-billed gull
  • Franklin's gull
  • Bonaparte’s gull
  • common tern
  • arctic tern
  • caspian tern
  • black tern
Canada geese
Canada geese


Richardson Lake itself is shallow and large with a maximum depth under 1.5 meters and covering over 70 square kilometers. The lake has a single major inlet, the Maybelle River, which flows into it from the southeast corner. The lake’s only water outlet, located near its inlet, is Jackfish Creek, which flows into the Athabasca River when the Athabasca water levels are low. When the water levels in the River are high however, the flow on Jackfish Creek has been known to reverse. Deposits of sand and silt have created a small delta on the east side of the lake and the riparian areas around the lake are composed primarily of wetland habitats.

In 2012, the Province of Alberta completed a land use planning initiative for the lower Athabasca River region, in which it proposed a provincial protected area (Richardson Wildland Park) designation for a large expanse of land that includes Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The Province of Alberta officially designated this wildland provincial park in 2018. The federal legislation and regulations applicable to this migratory bird sanctuary are not impacted or changed by this designation.

Map of the area

Map of Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Long description

    Map showing the location of the Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) in relation to Alberta, Richardson Lake, Frezie Lake, and Richardson and Athabasca Rivers. The maps shows the boundaries of the refuge, which enclose most of Richardson Lake and nearby land plots. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters and roads are shown on the map. An inset on the map shows the location of the shelter in Canada.

Access to the sanctuary

Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, such as Richardson Lake, are established across the country to protect migratory birds during critical periods of their life cycle. Whether these areas are used for feeding, resting or nesting, they play an important role in the survival of many species. Access to each migratory bird sanctuary varies by site and is at the discretion of the landowner and land manager. Please ensure that you are aware of how you can help protect this sanctuary and please read the restrictions, including those on firearms and hunting, which are in place to conserve the wildlife that call it home. Dogs and cats must not be allowed to run at large inside Migratory Bird Sanctuaries.

If you would like further information on what is permitted in Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, please visit the Management and Activities section of the website. For more information on Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary in particular, please contact our regional office.

Key facts about Richardson Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory Alberta
Latitude/longitude 58°24' N, 111°04' W
Size 10798 ha
Date created (Gazetted) 1949
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management category Wilderness Area (Ib)
Additional designations Richardson Wildland Provincial Park
Main habitat type Open water (65%), marsh/meadow (15%), trees/shrubs (20%)
Key bird species Mallard, northern pintail, American wigeon, northern shoveler, gadwall, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, snow goose, Canada goose, white-fronted goose, Ross's goose and tundra swan
Other species Birds: American bittern, semipalmated plover, killdeer, Wilson’s snipe, spotted sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs, common loon, horned grebe, red-necked grebe, semipalmated sandpiper, herring gull, California gull, ring-billed gull, Franklin's gull, Bonaparte’s gull, common tern, arctic tern, caspian tern and black tern
Fish: Lake whitefish, walleye, goldeye, northern pike
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) None
Management agency Canadian Wildlife Service, Prairie Region
Landowner Province of Alberta

Related links

Contact information

Environment and Climate Change Canada – Prairie and Northern Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Protected Areas and Stewardship Unit
Eastgate Offices
9250 – 49th Street
Edmonton AB T6B 1K5

Toll Free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)

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