by Matt Young
The Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada has long been recognized as North America's most important waterfowl breeding area. And for good reason. During wet years, the prairies and neighboring parklands typically support more than half of the continent's breeding ducks.
In areas where both water and upland cover are abundant, such as wetland-rich landscapes in the Great Plains states that have been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), duck production can be phenomenal.
While the prairies hold center stage as North America's duck factory, the vast region to the north-the western boreal forest-ranks a close second in its importance to breeding waterfowl. Spreading northward from the fringes of the aspen parklands to the Arctic tundra, this vast swath of softwood forest spans 1.8 million square miles across northern Canada and central Alaska.
The region's extensive and diverse wetlands support an average of more than 13 million breeding ducks-up to 40 percent of those inventoried in the traditionally surveyed area-including the majority of lesser scaup, wigeon, green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, goldeneyes, and scoters.
The region is also a major breeding area for mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, canvasbacks, and Canada and white-fronted geese. In total, 23 species of ducks, geese, and swans exist in the region.
At no other time are the wetlands of the western boreal forest more important to waterfowl than during periods of severe drought on the prairies and parklands. "Water levels are far more stable in the north, providing breeding waterfowl with a reliable wetland habitat base year after year," says former DU Chief Biologist Dr. Bruce Batt. "When the prairies and parklands are dry, as they often are, the waterfowl produced in the western boreal forest help sustain waterfowl populations at levels that can support hunting. The region also provides secure habitat for millions of drought displaced waterfowl from the prairies, which survive to breed again in future years when habitat conditions on the prairies are more favorable."
Until recently, the western boreal forest-known simply as "the bush" to most north country residents-remained largely a pristine wilderness. Rising demand for natural resources, however, has spurred a dramatic increase in forestry, oil and gas production, mining, hydroelectric development, and agricultural activity in the region, potentially threatening its wetlands and waterfowl populations.
In response, Ducks Unlimited has joined the U.S. Forest Service, Pew Charitable Trusts, and many other partners in an ambitious new conservation initiative to study and preserve wildlife habitats in the region.
In accordance with the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the initiative's primary objective is to sustain waterfowl breeding populations in the region at levels that occurred there in the 1970s.
In May 1998, I received a duck's-eye view of the western boreal forest while flying with Fred Roetker, a pilot-biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) who surveys breeding waterfowl across the bush of northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
I rendezvoused with Roetker and his partner, USFWS biologist Ben Mense, at a marina in LaRonge, Saskatchewan, where they had stopped to refuel their floatplane and take on supplies for another extended junket in the bush.
After giving me a quick briefing on the safety features of the aircraft, Roetker taxied the single-engine Cessna 185 onto the open waters of the lake, and soon we were skimming across the waves with the throttle down.
Turning westward upon take-off, we quickly left civilization behind. Stretching before us lay mile upon mile of unbroken spruce and aspen forest, interspersed with sparkling lakes and serpentine river systems.
As we approached productive wetland habitats, Roetker brought the plane down almost to treetop height, simulating a waterfowl survey flight. At such a low altitude, I could clearly see lone drakes, bachelor flocks, and pairs of several different duck species scattered in marshy coves, backwater sloughs, and beaver ponds adjoining lakes and streams.
Mallards, wigeon, lesser scaup, and green-winged teal
were the most numerous species, but we also saw pintails, gadwalls
, blue-winged teal, shovelers, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks, common goldeneyes
, and several other species of waterbirds.
"Although large portions of the western boreal forest have little waterfowl habitat value, the region contains a wealth of highly productive wetland complexes, meandering river valley floodplains, and some of the largest inland river deltas in the world," says Dr. Fritz Reid, director of conservation planning for DU's Western Regional Office. "These wetland systems support large numbers of breeding waterfowl, which collectively make a significant contribution to the continental fall flight."
While flying back to LaRonge, I witnessed a dramatic example of the natural resource development that is rapidly transforming vast areas of the western boreal forest. Below us, miles of new logging roads connected networks of clear-cuts where thousands of acres of forest surrounding marshes and streams had been harvested.
Forest products companies have secured timber rights to the majority of the commercially harvestable timber in the southern boreal forest, most of which is scheduled to be cut over the course of the next four decades. In other areas of the region, petroleum production, oil sands mining, and hydroelectric development also have the potential to significantly impact boreal wetlands and other wildlife habitats.
Through the Western Boreal Forest Initiative, DU and its partners are working with natural resource managers to ensure that these activities are conducted in a sustainable manner that will not adversely affect wetland systems and waterfowl populations.
While the impacts of natural resources development are readily apparent, a more insidious threat possibly facing waterfowl and other boreal wildlife is climate change. Temperatures in parts of north-central Canada are predicted to increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius-among the highest temperature increases on the continent.
This is expected to lead to greater annual variations in climate, including more frequent droughts and flooding. Vegetation zones and wildlife species may shift northward, and as much as 60,000 square miles of the bush may become suitable for small grain farming. The ongoing expansion of agriculture in the southern half of the western boreal forest has already resulted in extensive losses of forest cover and wetlands.
The warming trend may also cause subtle, yet significant changes in wetland ecology in the region, disrupting food webs that support breeding waterfowl and other waterbirds.
Research supported by DU's Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research is presently studying whether or not ecological changes in the western boreal forest are responsible for the sharp decline of lesser scaup numbers in the region, where the majority of these ducks breed.
"A major challenge facing DU is not only to understand individual development impacts in the western boreal forest, but also the cumulative effects associated with multiple disturbances," says Gary Stewart, DU Canada's manager of conservation programs for the boreal region. "DU is working to identify the most important wetland resources in this vast region and to find ways of working with resource managers, owners, and users to ensure that the region continues to support an abundance of waterfowl and other wildlife in perpetuity."
An initial priority of DU's Western Boreal Forest Initiative is to map wetlands across this vast region. Utilizing geographic information systems (GIS), which project layers of landscape data in a user-friendly map format, DU is creating a comprehensive waterfowl habitat inventory of the western boreal forest.
DU biologists and government mapping specialists also are conducting extensive air and ground surveys to verify satellite land cover images, classify wetland habitats, determine baseline water chemistry parameters, and monitor waterfowl populations throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
To date, DU has mapped or is mapping more than 164 million acres of wetlands and associated uplands across the western boreal forest, including 140 million acres in Alaska and 24 million acres in northwestern Canada.
Additional research will study the importance of these habitats to waterfowl and other wildlife, and the potential impact resource development will have on the ecological health of boreal wetlands. This information will be used by DU and its partners to prioritize, plan, and deliver future efforts to conserve wetland and waterfowl habitats in the region.
Although waterfowl production in the western boreal forest will never match the numbers of birds raised on the prairies during wet years, the region is a critical breeding, molting, and staging area for several species, especially when the pothole country is dry.
Since large-scale development has just begun to impact the western boreal forest, DU and its partners are seizing this opportunity to begin to preserve and sustain the ecological health of the region for breeding waterfowl and a wide variety of other wildlife for future generations.