Spreading Our Wings in the Boreal

An innovative partnership will expand efforts to conserve vital habitat in this important waterfowl breeding area

© Chris Jennings

By Kevin Smith and Fritz Reid, Ph.D.

An expanded partnership between Ducks Unlimited Inc., Ducks Unlimited Canada, and The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to conserve an unprecedented 1 billion acres of wetlands and associated upland habitat in North America's Boreal Forest. This partnership is built on 13 years of close collaboration between Canadian First Nations, progressive industries, governments, Pew, DU, and other groups. Working together, we can help ensure that millions of waterfowl raised each year in the Boreal continue to fill the skies across this continent for generations to come.

A Global Treasure 

North America's Boreal region spans 1.6 billion acres from the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska to the granite cliffs of Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. Its extensive wetlands, forest, and associated habitats annually produce an estimated 5 billion waterfowl, songbirds, shorebirds, and other species, the majority of which are migratory. In addition, the Boreal's myriad lakes, rivers, ponds, fens, bogs, swamps, and streams contain nearly 25 percent of the earth's fresh water, and Boreal habitats also capture and store nearly 40 percent of the world's carbon.

A Haven for Waterfowl 

As our understanding of waterfowl abundance and distribution in the Boreal has grown, so has our understanding of the region's importance to waterfowl and other wildlife. Although waterfowl densities are lower here than on the prairies, the Boreal's extensive wetlands and associated upland habitats annually support from 12 to 17 million—or up to 40 percent—of North America's surveyed breeding ducks. More than half of several species—including green-winged teal, American wigeon, black ducks, scaup, ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, goldeneyes, scoters, and mergansers—breed here, while 25 to 50 percent of this continent's mallards, northern pintails, and white-fronted geese rely on Boreal wetlands for breeding habitat. Moreover, millions of additional waterfowl find refuge on Boreal wetlands during migration and the molting period.

Change Is Coming

The contiguous United States and southern Canada have suffered severe waterfowl habitat losses with some areas having lost more than 90 percent of their historical wetlands. In contrast, the Boreal region, along with its extensive wetland and water resources, remains one of the world's most pristine ecosystems. While the majority of the Boreal remains untrammeled, new pressures are changing the landscape on an unprecedented scale. Climate change is reducing the size, number, and diversity of wetlands in some regions. Along the Boreal's southern boundary, where a milder climate and fertile soil are suitable for agriculture, wetlands and forest are being converted to cropland at an alarming rate. In addition, some of the world's largest oil reserves are located in the Boreal and Arctic regions. As natural resources development expands across these areas, many of the habitats that support breeding waterfowl and provide other important ecological services face new threats.

The Opportunity Is Now 

The Boreal region of North America represents one of the best opportunities for conservation on this planet. For more than 15 years, Ducks Unlimited's Boreal program has been working to conserve and advance our understanding of this region's wetlands and associated habitats. This renewed $60 million partnership between The Pew Charitable Trusts, DU Inc., and DU Canada, along with a broad consortium of industry partners, researchers, First Nations, and governments, is leading the charge to conserve the Boreal for future generations. This partnership will provide the resources needed to achieve a better understanding of how Boreal habitats function; influence policies that conserve wetlands and other vital waterfowl habitats; and increase public appreciation of the region's cultural, ecological, and economic importance. Such a comprehensive effort would not be possible without a collaborative approach involving many diverse partners, united by their commitment to conserving this important ecosystem.

SAVING THE BEST OF THE BEST The proposed Ts'ude niline Tu'eyeta (Ramparts) National Wildlife Area is a good example of how Ducks Unlimited and its partners are working to protect the most important waterfowl breeding areas in the Boreal region. This 3.8-million-acre tract in Canada's Northwest Territories includes more than 30,000 wetland basins as well as vast peatlands and associated forest that sequester large amounts of carbon. DU biologists surveyed more than 60 duck pairs per square mile on wetlands in this area, one of the highest densities of breeding waterfowl outside of the Prairie Pothole Region.

This area has also been designated as a special cultural and ecological site by the Sahtu Dene and Métis people, and a Key Migratory Bird Terrestrial Habitat site by Environment Canada. DU is working collaboratively with the Sahtu Dene, the Métis, the government of the Northwest Territories, and Environment Canada through a multi-step process to achieve permanent protection of this important waterfowl breeding area.

A Balanced Approach to Conservation

One solution alone will not be enough to conserve the vast Boreal region, which spans multiple jurisdictions, including international, federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, and First Nations areas of governance. More than 98 percent of the Boreal is publicly owned, with private ownership existing only along the region's southern borders and surrounding communities. More importantly, these governments have the rule of law, which ensures that any legislated protection or conservation will be fully enforced. Consequently, influence via policy will be the main vehicle to achieve conservation in the Boreal region. Two main conservation approaches stem from this: Protected Areas Strategies, which works to set aside 50 percent of the 1-billion-acre goal in large blocks of permanently protected habitat, and Environmentally Sustainable Land Use in economically important areas, which aims to conserve the other 50 percent through sustainable practices by finding the right balance between economic resource development and maintaining the ecological function of the Boreal region. The strength of this framework is that it not only allows for strict protection, but also strives to ensure that the Boreal Forest continues to produce economic benefits in perpetuity by employing world-class resource management standards and practices and comprehensive conservation planning. This framework also respects the lands, rights, and traditional uses of more than 600 First Nations groups that reside in the Boreal region. DU was an original signatory to this "50-50" Boreal conservation framework.

You Can Be Part of the Solution

The Boreal is a diverse landscape rich in waterfowl and other natural resources as well as challenges and opportunities for conservation. The Boreal partnership has been developed to meet the region's conservation challenges and to keep the millions of waterfowl raised here flying south. The path to success is through a partnership-based collaborative approach, with continued support from DU members, volunteers, major donors, and other partners. We now have the unprecedented opportunity to protect 1 billion acres of Boreal wetlands and other wildlife habitat if we can find the resolve and resources to make our conservation vision a reality. For more information about DU's Boreal conservation work, visit the DU website at ducks.org/Boreal.

Kevin Smith is national manager of Boreal programs for DU Canada. Dr. Fritz Reid is director of Boreal and Arctic conservation for DU Inc.

BUILDING BETTER ROADS IN THE BOREAL Wetlands in the Western Boreal Forest are often intricately connected systems, transporting water and nutrients that are vital to the productivity of many important waterfowl habitats. In areas where natural resources development is occurring, however, road construction can disrupt these natural systems. Ducks Unlimited Canada is working with forest industry partners Louisiana-Pacific Canada (LPC), Weyerhaeuser Canada, FPInnovations, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative in an effort to develop more ecologically sensitive road construction techniques and minimize impacts of road construction on different types of Boreal wetlands. The results of this project will be available in early 2014, with best management practices to be implemented shortly thereafter.