Waterfowl in a Changing Land
In the early days of waterfowl management, the boreal forest remained largely a pristine wilderness with little need for active conservation
. This is no longer true in many areas. The boreal forest has rich natural resources—oil, natural gas, timber, minerals, rivers that can generate hydropower, and in the south arable land—and these resources are now being exploited at a rapid rate. In Canada, portions of the western boreal forest are being developed or fragmented at a pace that far exceeds land-conversion rates in some Third World countries. Trees are being harvested for timber and pulp, and land is being cleared for the extraction of a variety of natural resources. Roads are being built across wetlands, which can also impact downstream habitats. And water is being diverted and pumped from lakes, rivers, and aquifers for industrial use. Between 1966 and 1994, agriculture in parts of the southern boreal forest expanded three times faster than the global rate. Development has now impacted more than 87 million acres—an area equal in size to the state of New Mexico—in the Canadian western boreal forest alone.
"Twenty-five years ago, the boreal forest was barely on maps of important waterfowl areas in North America—just a few scattered sites. That's changed," says Jeff Nelson, CEO of Ducks Unlimited Canada
. "It's not that the number of ducks here has grown dramatically over that time; we've just come to better recognize the continental significance of this area and the growing threats there to duck habitat
Population trends among waterfowl species vary substantially across the boreal region. In Canada's western boreal forest, populations of scaup, mallards, American wigeon, and scoters have recently declined below North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP)
goals. In Alaska, however, populations of these same birds are near or above NAWMP objectives. The reasons for this variation are largely unknown, but landscape changes may be contributing factors.
While forests can regenerate over time with sound management, the current scale and rate of cumulative landscape change in the boreal forest may reduce the region's ability to sustain historical waterfowl populations. Climate change also threatens the boreal forest's fragile ecology. Recent studies suggest that in parts of Alaska melting permafrost has resulted in wetland losses of 30 percent. The combined effects of climate change and industrial activity are not fully known, but some evidence suggests that the removal of forest cover accelerates the melting of permafrost, which could result in increased wetland losses. The implications of ongoing habitat loss and degradation are that fewer waterfowl may settle in impacted areas, and those that do settle in these areas will experience lower survival or productivity.
Sustainable Land Use in the Boreal Forest With industrial development occurring on millions of acres in Canada's boreal forest, Ducks Unlimited and its partners are actively working to foster public land-use policies and industrial practices that conserve waterfowl habitat. Specifically, DU and its partners are working to accomplish the following goals:
- Convince key audiences that conserving waterfowl habitat in the boreal forest is important.
- Invest in science to better understand the potential impact of industrial activities on wetlands and waterfowl.
- Partner with forward-thinking companies that wish to include habitat conservation in their sustainable development initiatives.
- Demonstrate how habitat conservation can help companies achieve their business objectives.
- Guide development of industrial practices that conserve waterfowl habitat.