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Northern Exposure

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Ducks Unlimited has long recognized the importance of the boreal forest to waterfowl and was among the first conservation organizations to work to conserve key wetland habitats in the region. In 1989, DU began mapping extensive wetland systems in central Alaska. DU subsequently expanded its conservation work in the boreal forest of Canada, launching its Western Boreal Program in 1997. Through this initiative, DU works with a broad coalition of partners dedicated to conserving boreal wetlands and wildlife, such as The Pew Charitable Trusts, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Canadian Wildlife Service, and Northwest Territories. 



“Our goal is to conserve as much of this great forest and its rivers, lakes, and wetlands as possible for waterfowl, other wildlife, and people,” says Dr. Eric Butterworth, senior biologist and manager of boreal operations for DU Canada. “We share this goal with our many partners in all levels of government, industry, aboriginal groups, foundations, academic institutions, and conservation organizations in the United States and Canada. These are all forward-thinking individuals and groups who want to work with us because they know the benefits of the boreal forest and the legacy it offers to future generations.”



A critical first step for DU and its conservation partners was to establish a comprehensive inventory of key boreal wetland systems and to document waterfowl use of these habitats. Using Geographic Information Systems and remote sensing technology, DU has mapped more than 300 million acres of wetlands, watersheds, and other vital habitats across western Canada and Alaska. DU is also engaged in several major research initiatives to assess the value of different wetland types for breeding, molting, and migrating waterfowl and to determine how various forms of development can affect the birds and their habitats.



Declining waterfowl species are a major focus of DU’s research and conservation efforts. Of particular concern, the continental scaup population has declined nearly 40 percent below its long-term average, with much of the decline occurring among lesser scaup in the western boreal forest. Populations of white-winged, surf, and black scoters have suffered even greater declines, especially in the Northwest Territories, where scoter numbers have plunged by a staggering 70 percent. 



“Waterfowl populations are good barometers of wetland habitat quality and quantity, and several duck species that breed in the boreal forest are in serious trouble,” Butterworth says. “Waterfowl biologists fear these declines could represent a general decline in the ecological health of the boreal forest as a whole, just as declining pintail numbers have raised alarm about the state of prairie habitats.” 



Guided by extensive research and wetland inventory data, DU and its partners are actively working with government agencies and other groups to permanently protect the most important waterfowl habitats in undeveloped areas of the boreal forest. In Alaska, many of the most important wetland systems such as the Yukon Delta, Innoko River, and Minto Flats have already received some level of protection, largely as national wildlife refuges. 



“We’ve done a pretty good job of protecting many of the largest wetland systems in Alaska,” Reid says, “but between 40 million and 100 million acres of the boreal forest remain open to exploitation. Currently, much of this area is still too inaccessible for natural resources development to affect habitat on a large scale, but that could change in the future as the state’s transportation infrastructure is developed. DU stands ready to work with progressive industries to promote sustainable development that will protect waterfowl habitats.”

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