South Nahanni Watershed

For more than 4 decades, protecting the South Nahanni Watershed has been vigorously supported locally, across Canada, and at the international level (Nahanni National Park Reserve became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978). CPAWS has been a champion for both Nááts’ihch’oh and Nahanni National Park Reserves, which protect a combined area of over 35 000km² of the South Nahanni Watershed. These protected areas provide habitat for a rich variety of wildlife and vegetation - unique for an area this far north. The area also encompasses an incredible diversity of landscapes, including some of the world's finest karst formations. CPAWS-NWT continues to push for strengthened conservation of the South Nahanni watershed, and to continue to provide updates on the status of the land, water, and species that call the watershed home.

Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve

On December 16, 2014, the Government of Canada officially established Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve (NPR) following public consultation and negotiations with Sahtu Dene and Metis organizations. The headwaters of the South Nahanni Watershed (SNW) are in Náátsih’ch’oh NPR. The health of the entire river is dependent on the health of its headwaters and the ecosystems it flows through. In addition to its ecological values and role in completing protection of the SNW, Nááts’ihch’oh holds key cultural and spiritual significance for the Shutagot’ine (Sahtu Mountain Dene) and the Sahtu Métis.


Combined, Náátsih’ch’oh and Nahanni NPRs protect 35 000km² of the SNW, and together provide not only protection to this world-class heritage site, but offer once in a lifetime recreation experiences. From paddling the Moose Ponds and headwaters of the SNW in Náátsih’ch’oh, to camping near Virginia Falls in Nahanni, outfitters in the area have decades of experience travelling through the SNW.

Check out this short video about conservation and development in the South Nahanni Watershed!

Conservation Science

As a science-based conservation organization, CPAWS recognizes and promotes the use of conservation science is an important aspect of our work. CPAWS-NWT has partnered with accomplished researchers on several exciting conservation science research projects.

From bat surveys to mountain caribou studies in the SNW, CPAWS-NWT has been a tireless supporter of wildlife conservation science in the NWT. Scientific studies were used to inform land managers in decision-making around the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve in 2009 and the subsequent creation of Naats’ihch’oh National Park Reserve in 2012, and have demonstrated that large mammal species in the north require large tracts of land for migratory and territorial requirements. 


After breakthrough bat research in Nahanni National Park in 2006 by biologist Dr. Cori Lausen, bat studies continue to occur in the area, and in southern Northwest Territories. Until 2006, no one new how many bat species resided as far north as the SNW, but it was discovered that 7 species – possibly 8 – can be found in the South Nahanni watershed! 

Since the 2006 research in the SNW, bat ecology research has been booming in the NWT! Scientists are mostly interested in how bats survive northern latitudes, short summers, and short summer nights.

  • Read Dr. Lausen's full report here.
  • Check out the BAT POSTER we created to display Dr. Lausen's bat research! (*ATTENTION NWT HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS*: This poster is curriculum-linked to Experiential Science 10)
  • Visit Bats R Us to learn more about Dr. Lausen and her work with bats!

Through protection of the SNW, a globally unique opportunity has presented itself to provide a number of large species with enough room to roam. An incredible diversity of other species are also protected.


Caribou are extremely important to many communities and people in the NWT. In the South Nahanni Watershed, northern mountain caribou (Medzih) are protected over parts of their ranges by Nahanni National Park Reserve and Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve, but still face threats from industrial development and possible over-harvesting. Nahanni caribou will likely benefit greatly from increased protection in the South Nahanni Watershed, but much remains to be learned about these caribou.

In 2008, CPAWS-NWT worked with Parks Canada, the Yukon and NWT territorial governments, the Nahanni Butte Dene Band, and Liard First Nation to develop outreach materials that featured the results of a multi-year population study of two South Nahanni Watershed mountain caribou herds. The population study, which used satellite collars to track caribou movements through the watershed, helped provide baseline information on the population status of these Nahanni caribou herds, and increased our collective understanding and ability to manage caribou soundly in this nationally and internationally recognized area.

  •       Read the Nahanni Caribou research report here.
  •       Download a copy of the Nahanni Caribou: Medzih poster here. This plain language poster displays research results from the 2008 field season, and is linked to the NWT Experiential Science 10 curriculum.
  •       Read Dr. John Weaver’s 2008 report on Conserving Caribou Landscapes.

Grizzly Bears

In 2004 and 2005, CPAWS-NWT worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada and Parks Canada to bring Dr. John Weaver to the South Nahanni Watershed. Dr. Weaver conducted field studies on the distribution and composition of the Nahanni grizzly bear population. His research concluded that the population was healthy, but that the existing National Park boundaries were too small to support these large predators sustainably, over time. CPAWS-NWT continues to advocate for increased protection for grizzlies within the SNW, especially in key critical habitat areas that were left out of park boundaries, and hold resource extraction interests. 

  • Read Dr. Weaver's full report here.
  • Check out the grizzly poster we developed to display Dr. Weaver's research!    


What CPAWS is doing

CPAWS-NWT is working hard to protect the South Nahanni Watershed

The creation of Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve was intended to help protect the headwaters of the SNW.  In 2010, during public consultations on Nááts’ihch’oh NPR, Canadians were asked for their feedback on three different-sized park boundary options. Despite overwhelming public support (over 90% of respondents agreed) for a boundary that best protected ecological values, a boundary which values infrastructure access and mineral potential over critical wildlife habitat was developed and approved by the federal government.

Unfortunately, as the boundary stands, Nááts’ihch’oh NPR only partially protects the headwaters of the SNW. The current boundary falls short of what is needed to protect the ecological integrity of the world-renowned Greater Nahanni ecosystem, leaving critical wildlife habitat, including caribou calving and breeding grounds, and source waters of the South Nahanni River outside the park boundary. As the boundary is currently drawn, there is a real risk that the ecological integrity of the entire SNW will be compromised.

The Sahtu Land Use Plan is now being amended to zone the areas left out of Nááts’ihch’oh. Until the amendment process is finished, important habitat for grizzly bear, mountain caribou and Dall’s sheep remains protected.  However, it is likely that much of this area will be open in Special Management Zones to allow for potential mineral development. A robust investment by developers and government in baseline research and monitoring, as well as cooperation to mitigate impacts through the Environmental Assessment process is now needed to protect ecological values throughout the South Nahanni Watershed.

Nahanni River Fund       


About the Fund

The Nahanni River Fund (NRF) was established in 2005 by the Nahanni River Outfitters Association (NROA) in collaboration with Parks Canada, and the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society – Northwest Territories Chapter (CPAWS-NWT).

The development of the NRF came out of discussions between Parks Canada (no longer directly involved with the Fund) and the NROA as a means of financing projects that were beyond Parks Canada’s funding capacity and mandate. As Nahanni river trip participants are often the strongest supporters of conservation in the area, the NRF allows Nahanni river trippers to make a contribution toward projects that enhance education, protection, and advocacy opportunities in the Nahanni National Park Reserve and the greater South Nahanni Watershed.

The Nahanni River Fund provides an opportunity for these supporters to do something positive as part of their river experience. It also provides an opportunity for CPAWS (as the only ENGO working directly to safeguard the integrity of the area) to communicate directly with these supporters.

Nahanni River Outfitters Association

The Nahanni River Outfitters Association (NROA) is comprised of three outfitting companies that operate in the South Nahanni Watershed:

Project Funding

Since its inception, the Nahanni River Fund has contributed to outreach and education projects for the conservation of Nahanni National Park Reserve and the greater South Nahanni Watershed. From assisting with the outreach of our 2006 Nahanni bat research (see our BAT POSTER here!), to helping us reach the goal of expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve with the "Nahanni Forever" postcard campaign, the NRF has been integral to some of CPAWS-NWT's most important campaigns, and therefore, our most important successes. 

Nahanni Expansion Celebration. From left to right: Nahanni Forever Postcard, Yellowknives Dene Drummers, happy dancers!

Currently, the NRF is contributing to CPAWS-NWT's efforts to expand supporter awareness of industrial development and conservation initiatives within the South Nahanni Watershed. Thanks to the NRF, CPAWS-NWT has been able to provide training materials for Nahanni river guides for the past 4 years that focus on mining activity, aboriginal history, and conservation opportunities within the SNW - information that is not available from any other source. This information was given a make-over and turned into a short educational video, and a field-ready, waterproof booklet, so that river guides could carry the information with them and have it as a reference guide.

These tools are being updated and redistributed for the 2016 paddling season, and will continue to be a valuable training tool for guides, and an excellent reference for clients who want to the most up-to-date information on the state of the South Nahanni Watershed.


NRF Video: 2016 South Nahanni Watershed Conservation & Development Primer 
Parks Canada: Nahanni National Park Reserve

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