The boreal forest has always been a bastion for waterfowl, but dramatic changes in land use and climate now threaten this region's fragile wetlands
By Matt Young
Where do the ducks come from?" Throughout history, hunters have asked this question as they ponder the origins of waterfowl that arrive each autumn on the north winds. While many hunters are aware of the huge contribution the prairies make to the fall flight, they might be surprised to know how many of the birds they hunt are actually raised farther north—in the vast boreal forest of Canada and Alaska.
This immense region's countless glacial lakes, bogs, beaver ponds, and other wetlands produce almost as many waterfowl as the prairies, earning the boreal forest the well-deserved nickname, "the other duck factory." In fact, most of North America's geese and the majority of several species of ducks including scaup, wigeon, green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, and scoters are raised in the boreal forest and the Arctic. These northern regions also support a significant portion of the continent's breeding mallards, pintails, and canvasbacks, as well as large numbers of molting waterfowl.
"Northern wetlands are vital to waterfowl populations in many ways," says Dr. Fritz Reid, director of conservation planning at DU's Western Regional Office in Sacramento, California. "These habitats not only support millions of breeding and molting waterfowl every year but also offer refuge for large numbers of drought-displaced waterfowl when the prairies are dry. By some estimates, 75 percent of North America's ducks depend on wetlands in the boreal forest at some time during their life cycle."
While much of the Arctic remains relatively untouched by people, the boreal forest is experiencing a dramatic increase in many forms of natural resources development. The rapid expansion of forestry, oil and gas production, mining, hydroelectric development, and agriculture impacts millions of acres across the boreal forest every year. During the next few decades, these and other forms of development could alter more than 30 percent of the entire region.
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."
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?"