Progress and Peril in the Boreal Forest

Millions of acres have recently received protection in this region, but grave threats remain for wetlands and waterfowl.

by Frederic A. Reid, Ph.D.

While the contribution the prairies and parklands make to continental waterfowl populations is widely recognized, the importance of North America's boreal forest to ducks and geese remains a well-kept secret among waterfowlers. This is likely because relatively few people have traveled to this remote northern region other than a handful of adventurous sportsmen, pilot-biologists, and wildlife researchers. But those who have seen the boreal forest, especially from the air, know firsthand that it contains great wetland landscapes and abundant waterfowl.

In the past, many waterfowl biologists believed that few waterfowl were raised in the boreal forest and large numbers of birds occurred in the region only when the prairies were dry. But biologists now know the boreal forest and prairies are both vitally important "duck factories." The two regions complement one another in providing breeding, spring staging, molting, and fall migration habitat for the overwhelming majority of this continent's waterfowl.

North America's boreal region is the largest unspoiled forest and wetland ecosystem remaining on Earth. At 1.5 billion acres, the boreal forest stretches from western Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean, accounting for 25 percent of the world's remaining intact forest. The boreal forest is also ecologically diverse. While the cordillera and shield regions have low density waterfowl use, the boreal and taiga plains have a rich water and wetland component that is extremely important to waterfowl.

Based on averages of waterfowl breeding population estimates from 1960-2005, roughly 13-15 million ducks (including both paired and unpaired birds) use the western boreal forest of Canada and Alaska in spring. Five species of waterfowl had 79 percent or more of their surveyed populations in the western boreal forest, five had 55-75 percent, and three had 36-41 percent. From a numbers perspective, these averages include 3.4 million scaup, 2.1 million mallards, 1.4 million American wigeon, 1 million green-winged teal, 1 million scoters, 650,000 pintails, and 650,000 ring-necked ducks. More than 90 percent of the world's black ducks breed in the eastern boreal forest.

Until recently, conserving Canada's boreal forest was viewed as unnecessary relative to other priorities, largely because of the region's vast size and remote location. This perception changed because of agricultural expansion at the southern boundary, petroleum exploration and development, forestry, hydroelectric development, and mining expanded throughout the boreal forest. By 1999, a consortium of aboriginal, federal, provincial, and territorial governments; nongovernmental conservation organizations; and visionary industries began working toward the common goal of conserving a substantial portion of Canada's boreal region. Taking a leadership role in this effort, The Pew Charitable Trusts created a partnership ultimately known as the International Boreal Conservation Campaign (IBCC), of which Ducks Unlimited is a central partner. The Pew Charitable Trusts was able to secure significant partnership support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Lenfest Foundation Inc., Gordon E. and Betty I. Moore Foundation, and Campion Foundation. In addition, a Boreal Framework was developed by the Canadian Boreal Initiative and IBCC that called for the permanent protection of 50 percent of Canada's boreal forest and the conservation of the entire region through leading industrial practices. This framework has garnered support from over 120 indigenous bands and nations and two provincial governments.

The scale of this conservation effort is unlike any other in the world. During the past decade, more than 115 million acres of boreal habitat have received interim or permanent protection. Recently protected areas in the Northwest Territories include Upper Nahanni River Valley (1.9 million acres), East Arm Great Slave Lake National Park (8.3 million acres), East Arm Great Slave Lake Tribal Conservation Area (16 million acres), Ramparts National Wildlife Area (3.7 million acres), and Horn Plateau National Wildlife Area (6.2 million acres). In addition, all of the important wetlands in the North Yukon (the area north of Dawson City) have been designated for full protection or the next highest level of conservation through regional planning and land claims covering more than 3.8 million acres. DU biologists worked closely with local communities, governments, and other IBCC partners in making these conservation achievements possible.

Another huge victory for boreal conservation occurred when the government of Ontario announced in July 2008 its commitment to protecting at least 50 percent of the province's 110 million acres of boreal forest and conserving the rest of this area with high-level environmental standards. In neighboring Quebec, the provincial government has recently pledged to protect more than 140 million acres of boreal landscapes under a new "Plan Nord." DU and Canadian Boreal Initiative biologists and conservation planners are actively involved in these efforts as well.

Moreover, sustainable development plans have been crafted with certain industries, most notably the forestry sectors of Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia. Ongoing conservation planning efforts exist with Alberta Pacific on 28.4 million acres, Weyerhaeuser (12.4 million acres), Ft. Nelson, British Columbia (12 million acres), Louisiana Pacific (840,000 acres), and the Saskatchewan River Delta and Red Deer areas (1.1 million acres).

Building on these successes, it's conceivable that a substantial portion of Canada's boreal forest can be protected or conserved within the next decade. But much of the region's wetlands and watersheds remain threatened by various forms of development, pollution, and climate change. Going forward, we must continue to raise funds for protection efforts and garner support from conservation-minded industries; indigenous nations; and federal, provincial, and territorial governments. We must also continue to conduct research to gain a better understanding of where and how waterfowl use boreal wetlands to guide future habitat protection and land management. DU will continue to focus on conserving important wetland landscapes and watersheds of the boreal forest and raising greater public awareness about the importance of these habitats. Many waterfowl species including scaup, American wigeon, green-winged teal, scoters, goldeneyes, black ducks, and white-fronted geese depend on this effort.

Dr. Fritz Reid is director of conservation planning at DU's Western Regional Office in Sacramento, California.


Protecting the best of the boreal

A top priority of Ducks Unlimited and its partners in the boreal forest is conserving key wetland systems that support high densities of breeding, molting, and migrating waterfowl. Through the visionary efforts of conservationists, 22 million acres were protected in 1980 in seven new national wildlife refuges established under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Today, boreal habitats in Alaska's national wildlife refuges now comprise more than 85 percent of the land mass in the entire U.S. national wildlife refuge system.

In comparison, less than 6 percent of Canada's boreal forest had been permanently protected by the late 1990s. Only one-third of the Yukon's world famous Old Crow Flats has been secured, while the vast Peace-Athabasca Delta remains unprotected just outside Wood Buffalo National Park. There is also a paucity of national wildlife areas in Boreal Canada, especially in critical, wetland-rich areas like the MacKenzie River Valley, Saskatchewan River Delta, Manitoba's Great Lakes, and the Hudson and James Bay lowlands. DU and its partners are working closely with conservation-minded industries; indigenous nations; and federal, provincial, and territorial governments to ensure these important waterfowl habitats receive the protection they deserve.