Partners for the Forest

Saving breeding habitats in the vast western boreal forest

by Eric Butterworth, Ph.D.

Annual breeding waterfowl surveys, jointly conducted in May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), have documented that the western boreal forest, extending from Alaska to western Ontario, is the second most important waterfowl breeding area in North America. On average, 40 percent of all waterfowl surveyed on the continent occur in this vast region north of the prairies, giving it the well-deserved nickname "the other duck factory."

Until recently, the western boreal forest remained largely untouched by development. In recent years, however, a dramatic increase in logging, oil and gas production, mining, hydroelectric development, and agricultural production has occurred in the region, threatening its wetlands and waterfowl populations. Several waterfowl species that breed in the region already are in trouble. Continentally, scaup have declined by about 40 percent from long-term average populations, and combined estimates of white-winged, surf, and black scoters have declined by 58 percent since the late 1970s. Declines have been greatest in the Northwest Territories, where scoters have fallen by a staggering 70 percent. Waterfowl researchers are now wondering if these species are serving as “canaries in the coal mine” for the ecological health of the boreal forest as a whole, just as declining pintail numbers have raised alarm about waterfowl habitat conditions on the prairies.

In 1997, Ducks Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited Canada founded the Western Boreal Forest Initiative, dedicated to protecting wetland and waterfowl habitats in the region. Since that time, many other partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, numerous resource development companies (forestry, oil, and gas), and The Pew Charitable Trusts, have joined this effort. In the northern portion of the region (above the 60th parallel), DU and its partners are working to permanently protect wetland and waterfowl habitats with the support of aboriginal communities that wish to maintain traditional ways of life, including hunting, fishing, and trapping.

Western Boreal ForestFarther south, below the 60th parallel, in the so-called boreal plain, DU and its partners are working closely with natural resource managers in both the public and private sectors to ensure that development activities are conducted in accordance with best management practices that have minimal impacts on wetlands and waterfowl populations. In 2002, DU signed a five-year, $1 million agreement with Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries to develop a watershed-based conservation plan for their 14.3 million-acre forest management area. This exciting project is the first step in the development of a far-reaching conservation blueprint for industrial forests on the boreal plain.

Partnerships are extremely important to the Western Boreal Forest Initiative. The success of this very important endeavor would not be possible without the support of numerous aboriginal communities, provincial and federal government agencies (especially the U.S. Forest Service), corporations, and foundations. The Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, has recently committed $12 million to DU in support of the boreal forest initiative, the largest grant ever received by the organization. DU’s corporate partners include Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, BC Hydro, SaskPower, Suncor Energy, Syncrude, Temebc Industries, TrueNorth Energy, and Weyerhaeuser Canada.