Waterfowl of the Boreal Forest

Many of the ducks harvested in the United States are raised in this remote northern region

By Stuart Slattery, Ph.D.

The Prairie Pothole Region has long been known as the epicenter of North American waterfowl production, and for good reason. The prairies support the highest densities of breeding ducks on this continent. Ducks Unlimited's proud legacy of conservation work on the prairies has also added to this region's mystique among waterfowl enthusiasts. But if the prairies are the Duck Factory, then another region to the north—the boreal forest—is the Continental Reserve for waterfowl. This 1.4-billion-acre swath of woodlands and wetlands, which stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland, may not have the same density of waterfowl as the prairies, but the region hosts equally impressive numbers. 

About 12 million to 15 million ducks—comprising 23 species—use the western boreal forest during the spring breeding season. More than half this continent's American wigeon, green-winged teal, scaup, buffleheads, goldeneyes, scoters, ring-necked ducks, and mergansers are raised here. Large numbers of classic prairie nesters, including mallards, canvasbacks, and blue-winged teal, also nest in this region.

Not only are millions of ducks raised each year in the boreal forest, but large numbers of waterfowl also molt and stage in this region. In addition, boreal wetlands serve as a refuge for ducks when the prairies are gripped by drought. With so many ducks using boreal wetlands, there's a good chance that many of the waterfowl you see in the fall will have spent time there. In fact, there is a one in four chance that the next mallard you see will be from the western boreal forest, and a four out of five chance that the next ring-necked duck you encounter will have boreal origins. 

Waterfowl band recoveries help managers determine the origins of harvested birds, and these records reveal a lot about where boreal ducks go during migration and spend the winter. Roughly 10 percent of the 300,000 ducks banded in Canada's western boreal forest from 1924 to 2005 have been recovered, with reports coming from every Canadian province and territory and every U.S. state except Hawaii and Rhode Island. In addition, ducks banded in the western boreal forest have been recovered from Mexico to South America and throughout the Caribbean.

So what makes the boreal forest so important to waterfowl? The answer is simple: water. Wetland types here range from less productive bogs and fens—called peat lands—to highly productive marshes, swamps, and open-water basins. In total, Canada's western boreal forest has more than 100 million acres of surface water, with an additional 150 million acres of peat lands. This area is larger than the states of California and Texas combined. 

Peat lands are often highly interconnected. These "green rivers" can have little surface water, yet they transport water and nutrients to wetland types that are important to waterfowl. In northernmost regions, many boreal wetlands exist only because they are lined with frozen peat and mineral soil, which form a seal that keeps water from draining into more porous soil below. 

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.

Partners in Conservation

Given the great importance of the western boreal forest and the potential threats land-use changes there pose to waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited has designated this region as a top-tier conservation priority, a rank shared only with the Prairie Pothole Region. This designation recognizes that for DU to succeed in its mission, key waterfowl habitats in the western boreal forest must be conserved. 

Since roughly 90 percent of Canada's western boreal forest is owned by the government, influencing public policy is a major focus of DU's conservation work in this region. "We are taking a leadership role alongside our forward-thinking partners by using existing policy frameworks to obtain large protected areas and by helping to ensure that industrial activities occur in ways that sustain waterfowl," says Eric Butterworth, DU Canada's manager of territorial and boreal operations. "It's a big job that we could not do without partners such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, other environmental nongovernment organizations, various levels of government, industries, and aboriginal communities." The Pew Charitable Trusts is one of DU's strongest partners in the boreal forest, having invested more than $60 million in DU's conservation efforts in this region.

For thousands of years, aboriginal people have lived in the boreal forest, relying on its wetlands, lakes, and rivers for transportation, food, and cultural identity. Their understanding of the need for stewardship aligns well with DU's mission. "Not only do many aboriginal people share values with DU, but in northern jurisdictions they are becoming increasingly empowered and responsible for decisions that will shape the boreal region's future," says Jason Charlwood, acting manager of DU Canada's operations in the Northwest Territories. "The growing interest in northern resources brings opportunities to meet the economic needs of their communities, but development also brings great pressure to preserve the ecosystems that have sustained them for so long. DU is very fortunate to have been invited by many aboriginal groups to help them find this balance. In most cases we have become trusted allies, working toward—and achieving—our shared goals." 
Saving the Old Crow Flats One of the most productive areas in the western boreal forest for breeding waterfowl—the Yukon's Old Crow Flats—received permanent protection in 2009. This designation came after a six-year effort advanced with the help of DU. The North Yukon Planning Commission began developing a land-use plan for this area in 2003, as part of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nations' land claim agreement. DU, with financial support and input from the Pew Charitable Trusts, was the only nongovernmental organization invited to participate on the commission's advisory committee. This strategic position allowed DU to strengthen the case for protecting the area, while helping to define its boundaries to benefit waterfowl. 

In 2003, DU conducted breeding waterfowl surveys in parts of the Old Crow Flats that are not covered by annual waterfowl surveys. The following year, DU hosted a workshop with First Nations representatives to determine the value of specific wetland systems to waterfowl outside of the breeding season. They identified the Porcupine River as a key migration area for waterfowl, information that DU subsequently corroborated with aerial waterfowl surveys. These surveys also identified the significance of the Whitefish and Bluefish wetland complexes to waterfowl. In the end, this information, along with DU's active participation on the advisory committee, helped shape the North Yukon Land Use Plan, which ultimately conserved 2.64 million acres of pristine boreal wetlands and wildlife habitat.—Jamie Kenyon and Stuart Slattery

Since 1997, DU has developed habitat maps covering more than 196 million acres of the western boreal forest, pioneering innovative wetland mapping techniques to aid conservation decisions. DU's duck distribution maps have helped focus conservation work in the areas most important to waterfowl, assisting in the short- or long-term conservation of about 47 million acres of wetlands and associated wildlife habitat. In the process, DU has established a solid reputation as a trusted and balanced advocate for conservation in the Canadian boreal region. 

Planning for the Future 

While great progress has already been achieved in conserving waterfowl habitat in the boreal forest, DU's work is far from over. First, there are many key uncertainties that must be addressed. Current knowledge of basic waterfowl ecology in the boreal region is at least 50 years behind that of the prairies. In the western boreal forest, waterfowl biologists are only beginning to understand which habitat types are most important to ducks, what the real threats to these habitats are, and how landscape changes affect waterfowl survival and productivity. Research is hindered by this remote region's immense size, challenging terrain, and harsh climate. These realities have made studying boreal wetlands and waterfowl logistically challenging and expensive. 

Fortunately, waterfowl research has advanced considerably in recent decades, and new concepts and techniques developed in other regions can be applied in the boreal forest to help close these knowledge gaps. DU's highest scientific priority in the western boreal forest is to evaluate which landscape changes have the greatest influence on duck abundance and productivity. This research will allow DU and its partners to further increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its conservation work by clearly identifying the types and amounts of landscape change that are negative for ducks. In addition, analyses are under way to improve DU's ability to predict the probability of habitat loss, so future conservation work can be focused on the most important habitats that are at greatest risk. DU's goal is to reduce these fundamental uncertainties in its conservation planning and delivery, and to ensure that it's doing the right things in the right places.

Conservation in the boreal forest is by the nature of its political and socio-economic landscapes a long-term prospect. The policies that create opportunities for conservation on a grand scale also require much time and effort to navigate. Thus far, DU has largely been successful in securing interim protection for boreal habitats. This means that development in these areas has been halted while policymakers investigate the need to grant these areas permanent protection. To meet its conservation objectives in the boreal forest, DU must continue to help advance these evaluation efforts and garner the political will necessary to achieve long-term protection of important habitats for waterfowl. 

DU is also working to encourage sustainable land-use solutions that will help conserve waterfowl habitat outside of protected areas, where the majority of this region's ducks are raised. This will also require long-term planning, starting with clearly understanding the impacts of specific types of land use on duck habitat and ending with revised practices that sustain both ducks and the profitability of industry. 

"If we are to continue making significant conservation progress in the boreal, we need to be persistent, think long term, and garner steadfast support from many sources," Butterworth says. "In other words, we need to keep doing what DU does best."

Great challenges undoubtedly lie ahead for DU and its partners in the boreal forest, but we all share an opportunity to do something unique in North America: conserve a landscape before large portions of it are permanently altered by development. It's the cheapest, smartest—and perhaps only—option for those who care about the region's waterfowl and other wildlife. 


Dr. Stuart Slattery is western boreal leader of conservation science and planning at DU Canada's national headquarters at Oak Hammock Marsh.