Wild Border Watersheds

Watershed: Iskut-Stikine

Photo Credit: Mike Fay

Photo Credit: Barry Kovish

Photo Credit: Mike Fay

Photo Credit: Monty Bassett

Photo Credit: Mike Fay

About the Iskut-Stikine

The transboundary Iskut-Stikine watershed is one of North America’s largest and most intact wild salmon systems. The Stikine, meaning ‘The Great River’ in the Tlingit language, courses through a diverse range of climates and geography: from the wildlife rich Sacred Headwaters in British Columbia’s Spatsizi Plateau, the river flows through the spectacular Stikine canyon, described by John Muir as a "Yosemite 100 miles long", to a massive estuary of critical importance for migratory birds near Wrangell, Alaska. The largest tributary of the Stikine, the Iskut River, flows from Kluachon Lake near Iskut, B.C., to its confluence with the lower Stikine River near the U.S./Canada border.  At nearly 52,000 square kilometers/20,000 square miles, the watershed is larger than Switzerland. In Canada, the Iskut-Stikine watershed is the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation. The lower Stikine River and estuary is the traditional territory of the Tlingit people in Alaska. 

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All five species of wild Pacific salmon thrive in the watershed, with many fish spawning in the mainstem Stikine. The Iskut River supplies critical spawning, rearing and migration habitat for up to 40% of the entire watershed’s salmon and steelhead. Salmon are a keystone species in the coastal food chain, providing a vital food source for grizzly bear and other animals, as well as contributing to the nutrient cycle critical to the health of coastal ecosystems. Wild salmon are also vital to the economy of Southeast Alaska, and the watershed as a whole supports thriving sport, commercial and subsistence fisheries, guided and subsistence hunting, and a variety of other cultural, recreational and economic activities.

The confluence of the Stikine and Iskut Rivers is an important wetland complex providing habitat for many species including migratory birds, moose, mountain goats, wolves and bear. The Lower Iskut-Stikine is the largest river system in B.C. where a thriving valley-bottom riparian habitat has not been altered by commercial timber harvesting. The lower 48 km/30 miles of the Stikine in Alaska are protected as part of the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area of the Tongass National Forest. The estuary is irreplaceable migratory bird habitat for half a million geese, swans, ducks, eagles and other birds.

Threats to Conservation

In December 2012, coalbed methane (CBM) development was permanently banned from the headwaters of the Stikine, the Skeena and the Nass, all major salmon rivers. The Tahltan First Nation led an eight-year campaign to protect the Sacred Headwaters region, a fight that culminated in Royal Dutch Shell withdrawing its plans to develop CBM, and the B.C. government committing to not issuing oil and gas tenures in the area in the future. 

Despite this victory, and despite protected areas in Alaska and the upper Stikine, the Iskut-Stikine remains one of the continent’s most threatened watersheds. The scope and pace of proposed development in the Iskut-Stikine is unprecedented, with several mining and energy projects in development or in the exploration phase. While the lower Iskut River has largely recovered from the disastrous effects of the hovercraft that served the now retired Snip Mine for five years in the 1990's, the continued survival and resilience of salmonid, bull trout, dolly varden, and eulichan in the lower watershed is of great concern. The Iskut River hydroelectric project – a series of river diversion dams – is currently under construction and could lead to degraded fish habitat. Connected to the Northwest Transmission Line, the hydroelectric project could be a power source for several proposed mines in the watershed. The possibility of acid mine drainage and heavy metal pollution from mines is a threat to water quality, fish habitat, wildlife conservation, and subsistence and commercial fisheries on both sides of the border.

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