In Canada, less than 6 percent of the boreal forest has been protected. But almost 90 percent of the region is owned by the government or aboriginal communities, providing opportunities to conserve wetlands and waterfowl habitats. “Unlike most other North American ecosystems, the ecology of much of the boreal forest remains intact,” Butterworth says. “We have learned that it is much easier to protect intact natural systems than trying to restore them after they have been degraded. That’s why we are proactively working to conserve the best of the best of the boreal forest’s wetlands and waterfowl habitats before they are impacted by development.”
Aboriginal communities are among DU’s most important partners in conserving boreal habitats. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, the homeland of the Dehcho First Nation spans more than 50 million acres between Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie Mountains. This vast wilderness supports large numbers of breeding, migrating, and molting waterfowl, as well as a variety of other migratory birds and wildlife. In response to proposed development in the Mackenzie River valley, the Dehcho First Nation recently drafted a land-use plan that will conserve an area encompassing 26 million acres, or about half the region. That’s more than 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The Dehcho First Nation used the best available science not only to identify protected areas but also to define clear thresholds for development to minimize negative ecological impacts. Water bird survey data contributed by DU helped the Dehcho First Nation incorporate wetland and waterfowl conservation strategies into this balanced plan, which includes extensive habitat protection and sustainable development.
In another example of DU’s partnership with aboriginal communities, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation recently signed an agreement with the Yukon Territory to manage and conserve wetlands on Old Crow Flats, one of the world’s largest and most productive waterfowl breeding areas. This agreement was the result of a lengthy conservation planning process involving First Nations, federal, and territorial governments. The resulting management plan recommends the full protection of approximately 2 million acres of wetland-rich wildlife habitat, including immediate protection of 1.1 million acres in a core area and interim protection of an additional 800,000 acres of adjacent lands for a period of 20 years. DU was an active member of the technical working group that drafted the recommendations and provided valuable data on wetlands and water bird numbers in the area.
In the southern boreal forest, where natural resources development is already taking place, conserving wetlands and waterfowl habitat is more challenging. DU is working closely with government agencies and natural resources industry groups to help ensure development is conducted in accordance with best management practices that have minimal impacts on watershed health, wetlands, and waterfowl populations.
“Further development of natural resources in many areas of the boreal forest is not a question of if, but of when, where, and how much,” Butterworth says. “Therefore, it’s essential to find a balance between development and conservation in these areas.”
Although good stewardship can minimize the impacts of some forms of development, another possible threat—climate change—could have even more far-reaching impacts on waterfowl and their habitats. In the interior of Alaska and northern Canada, mean winter temperatures have risen significantly since 1950. Scientists have already documented dramatic shifts in the ranges of some migratory birds, and indigenous peoples have observed profound changes in winter ice conditions, snowfall patterns, and the timing of spring thaws.
For waterfowl and other wildlife, one of the greatest threats posed by a warming climate is melting permafrost, which is essential to maintaining water levels in many northern wetlands. Without an underlying layer of this frozen ground, water from melting snow can seep into the ground rather than pooling on the surface. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks documented that during the past 50 years the number and size of small, “closed basin” ponds have declined significantly in many areas. The researchers suspect this decline in wetland habitat is the result of thawing permafrost, increased evaporation caused by warming temperatures, or a combination of both.
“Many climate models predict some of the largest increases in global temperatures will occur in northern latitudes,” Reid says. “If current climate trends continue or accelerate, we can expect to see even greater impacts on boreal wetlands and wildlife in the future.”
While big changes are clearly coming to the boreal forest, large-scale development is only just beginning across much of the region, offering DU and its partners a historic opportunity to conserve its wetlands and waterfowl populations for future generations. The stakes couldn’t be higher for waterfowlers. Without the millions of birds raised each year on these northern wetlands, hunters might find themselves asking not “Where do the ducks come from?” but rather “Where did the ducks go?”