by Eric Butterworth, Ph.D.
Annual breeding waterfowl surveys, jointly conducted in May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), have documented that the western boreal forest, extending from Alaska to western Ontario, is the second most important waterfowl breeding area in North America. On average, 40 percent of all waterfowl surveyed on the continent occur in this vast region north of the prairies, giving it the well-deserved nickname "the other duck factory."
Until recently, the western boreal forest remained largely untouched by development. In recent years, however, a dramatic increase in logging, oil and gas production, mining, hydroelectric development, and agricultural production has occurred in the region, threatening its wetlands and waterfowl populations. Several waterfowl species that breed in the region already are in trouble. Continentally, scaup have declined by about 40 percent from long-term average populations, and combined estimates of white-winged, surf, and black scoters have declined by 58 percent since the late 1970s. Declines have been greatest in the Northwest Territories, where scoters have fallen by a staggering 70 percent. Waterfowl researchers are now wondering if these species are serving as “canaries in the coal mine” for the ecological health of the boreal forest as a whole, just as declining pintail numbers have raised alarm about waterfowl habitat conditions on the prairies.