Excerpt from Mackenzie River Basin: State of the Aquatic Ecosystem Report 2003 by the Mackenzie River Basin Board (p. 133-142). Full report available at


The Peel River sub-basin encompasses an area of 74,000 square kilometers from its headwaters in the Yukon to its confluence with the Mackenzie River near Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories. Mountainous terrain and permafrost, both of which cover vast areas of the sub-basin, control the flow of water in most of the rivers. Upstream of is confluence with the Wind River, the Peel River passes through the spectacular Aberdeen Canyon. The canon is cut unto thick limestone and is a continuous series of rapids and cascades over several kilometers. The Peel sub-basin includes portions of the Taiga Cordillera Ecozone and the Taiga Palins Ecozone. Wetlands, such as bogs and fens are abundant within the Taiga Plains Ecozone.

The Peel sub-basin overlaps with the traditional territories of four First Nations; the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation (Mayo), the Tetlit Gwich’in (Fort McPherson), the Tr’ondek Hwech’in (Dawson), and the Vuntut Gwichin (Old Crow). The importance of the Peel River watershed to First Nations was recognized in land claim agreements which required the creation of the Peel River Watershed Advisory Committee. The only permanent community is Fort McPherson, where nearly all inhabitants (about 760 in 2001) of the sub-basin live. About 90% of the population is Aboriginal.

The Peel sub-basin contains one base metal deposit with reserves of 1.4 million tonnes of zinc ore, two iron deposits totalling more than five billion tonnes of iron ore, and seven coal deposits totally over 400 million tonnes. Most of these deposits were identified many years ago, but none have been developed. Exploitation of any of these deposits would require construction of an efficient modern transportation system.

Potential oil reserves are estimated to be 3.4 million cubic meters and potential gas reserves are estimated at 6.5 billion cubic meters. In 2002, the Yukon Government issued a permit to Hunt Oil Canada for exploration rights on 40,200 hectares of the Peel Plateau. To date, no work has taken place under this permit, but Hunt Oil proposes to spend 1.2 million doing exploratory work in this area.

There are no major releases of wastewater to the Peel River and its tributaries. Water quality in the Peel River is determined by natural processes and conditions. The Peel River carries high loads of suspended sediments during much of the spring and summer. Concentrations of certain metals are also elevated at that time of year. Most of the metals bind to particles of sediment in the water, which inhibits them from being picked up by, and harming, aquatic plants and animals.

Annual peak flows on the Peel River have been somewhat smaller in recent years than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. The very high peak flows that occurred four times during the period 1964 to 1982 have rarely occurred since then. The size of peak annual flows are important in shaping river channels, transporting sediment, and affecting plant and animal communities within the river and on the floodplain. However, whether the reduced frequency of very high peak flows on the Peel River has affected the Peel River ecosystem remains unknown. Such information is required to understand how climate change could affect river ecosystems through its impact on river flow.

River tourism activities in the Yukon have become more popular over the last few decades. In particular, there has been an increase in the use of remote rivers, such as those in the Peel sub-basin. There are concerns regarding the social and environmental impacts of river tourism, but territorial legislation, which was developed to sustain the wilderness quality of rivers, should help to address these issues.

Broad whitefish and other fish species caught from the Peel River continue to be an important source of food for the Tetlit Gwich’in of Fort McPherson.

First Nations people in the Peel sub-basin have observed that local fish stocks are healthy that migratory waterfowl are abundant, and that the beaver population is becoming re-established.

Although Dolly Varden in the Rat River may have been overfished in the past, recent harvest levels have been below the recommended limit of 2,000 fish per year. The continued involvement of key stakeholders bodes well for fish management in the future.


Trevor Lantz

University of Victoria
Master Students
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Tracey Proverbs
M.A. Candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria