Conservation in Canada

While great progress has been made in conserving Canadian waterfowl habitats, many challenges lie ahead for DU and its partners

By Mike Anderson, Ph.D.

As a North American, I carry two passports. One from the United States represents my heritage and continuing ties to the country of my birth. The second reflects the 37 years I have worked and lived in Canada since following the ducks north as a student researcher. I have been privileged to witness waterfowl conservation across the length and breadth of our continent. These reflections flow from that experience...

A Tale of Three Ducks

A mallard duckling hatches in a snowberry patch in the pothole-rich Allan Hills of central Saskatchewan. She first takes wing from a farm pond and, by fall, leaves the prairies heading south by southeast through Iowa and Missouri. Eventually, she winters along the Cache River and the flooded rice fields of eastern Arkansas. In spring, she travels back north through Nebraska, pausing to feed for a while in the Rainwater Basin, before continuing through the Dakotas and back to Saskatchewan to raise a brood of her own (on her second try). Flying south a little later the next fall after rearing a brood and replacing her wing feathers, her journey ends on a November morning when she is shot by a 12-year-old boy hunting with his uncle on Missouri's Duck Creek Conservation Area.

A pintail hatches at Yukon Flats. His mother, though Alberta-born, has settled in Alaska this summer after two years of prairie drought. He grows quickly in the perpetual light of the northern summer. In early autumn, he migrates south through Alberta, lingering to refuel on managed wetlands near Brooks. The young drake winters in California's Sacramento Valley, with thousands of his kind, taking advantage of recently restored wetlands and a smorgasbord of flooded rice fields. In March he picks his way north. Finally accepted by a mate staging in the flooded grasslands of southern Oregon, he follows her to wet prairie in the Dirt Hills south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. With his hen tending a nest, he joins a flock of other molting drakes on Old Wives' Lake. Back on the wing, he flies south early to northern Utah, where he is last seen swooping around Bear River Refuge.

A lesser scaup hatches at Cardinal Lake, southeast of Inuvik in Canada's vast boreal forest. Avoiding marauding gulls just after hatch, he and his siblings grow fat on abundant amphipods. With little time to spare, he migrates just ahead of the ice down the Mackenzie Valley, through the mighty Peace-Athabasca Delta, and across the broad prairies. Narrowly avoiding a fatal parasite infection during a stop on the Upper Mississippi River, the bluebill continues downstream past Keokuk and the confluence of the Missouri. The bird finally settles for the winter on catfish ponds in the Mississippi Delta, 4,059 miles from where he hatched.

What these three ducks share, along with us, is a continent—a continent blessed with the greatest populations of waterfowl anywhere on the planet—and as Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans we share the heritage and responsibility of being their stewards. The international borders the birds crossed on their long journey passed unnoticed below their wings. Similarly, those of us who care about ducks must focus not on political boundaries of arbitrary construction but instead on working together as North Americans to ensure that the birds' habitat needs are met throughout their annual cycle.

A Long-standing Commitment to Continental Conservation

For nearly a century, Canada and the United States have recognized the interdependency of migratory birds on habitats in both countries. That was an essential element leading to the Migratory Bird Convention in 1916. The principle that American users of the waterfowl resource would help conserve essential breeding grounds in Canada was formalized with the birth of Ducks Unlimited in 1937. It began with $100,000, and for the next 40 years DU's sole purpose was to raise money in the United States for investment in Canadian wetland conservation.

Some 25 years ago, as another generation of visionary leaders conceived the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), our two countries formally recognized that success in conserving Canadian habitat is essential to sustaining waterfowl populations and harvest opportunities in the United States. With a national population less than the state of California, Canada in the 1980s had too few resources and insufficient incentives to accomplish on their own the massive conservation works envisioned by waterfowl managers. With NAWMP, recognition of the imperative of U.S. support enabled the first significant flow of U.S. public funds to Canada (and Mexico), leveraging commitments already in place from Ducks Unlimited. The importance of international partnerships to Canada and the United States has only increased with time. A brief look at some numbers makes it clear why that is so.

Birds in Abundance

If you think like a duck, Canada is above all the world's greatest repository of fresh water. Some 25 percent or the world's wetlands exist here and attract tens of millions of breeding waterfowl every spring. The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), the annual home for 50-70 percent of North America's 30-40 million ducks, comprises 300,000 square miles of mostly agricultural land in the heart of the continent, stretching for a thousand miles from Iowa to Alberta. With landscapes variably wet from year to year, the numbers of birds north and south of the 49th parallel change. But two-thirds of the PPR lies in Canada, and 71 percent of prairie ducks settled there on average from 1955-2007.

Immediately north of the prairies is the western boreal forest, four times as large as the Canadian PPR. Its most productive parts, the boreal plain and taiga plain, cover some 500,000 square miles. The western boreal forest supports 11-15 million breeding ducks each summer, second only to the prairies in waterfowl production.

There are good reasons why DU has identified the PPR and western boreal forest as the continent's top-priority conservation regions. In 2007, DU's senior conservation planners reaffirmed, simply but profoundly, that we will not achieve our conservation vision of abundant waterfowl unless we are successful in these crucial places. And DU's greatest task is to sustain the productive capacity of these vital lands for waterfowl in both the United States and Canada.

Farther east, the Great Lakes lowlands, eastern boreal forest, and Atlantic Canada remain important nurseries for the eastern flyways. Most of the continent's black ducks nest and raise their young from northern Ontario to Newfoundland. In addition, breeding wood ducks, mallards, ring-necked ducks, green-winged teal, and other duck species that are vital to the continent's eastern flyways rely on Canadian habitat. The Great Lakes/St. Lawrence lowlands provide important habitat for breeding, migrating, and even wintering ducks.

Besides familiar dabblers and divers, all of the world's greater snow geese along with Atlantic Canada geese and a variety of sea ducks stop here during the spring and fall. The vast majority of geese (ironically, except for Canada geese and emperor geese) hatch in Canada, and combined with Alaska, nearly all of North America's sea ducks renew their populations here.

And renewal is critical. Recent studies have confirmed that most duck populations are more sensitive to changes in their rates of reproduction (nest success usually and duckling survival under other circumstances) than to fluctuations in other vital rates like over-winter survival.

Challenges Aplenty

Breeding habitat is vital to the sustainability of North America's ducks, but landscapes are constantly changing. In British Columbia, urban development squeezes remnant farmland and coastal marshes vital to wintering wigeon and pintails, while aquaculture competes with wintering sea ducks for space and food. In the western boreal forest, rapid oil and gas development, oil sands projects of staggering scale, and intensive forest management are fundamentally reshaping the land, and average temperatures have soared by nearly 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years. Agriculture continues to gnaw away at the southern edge of the forest where soils and warmer temperatures can support annual cropping. In Prairie Canada, wetland drainage remains the single greatest threat to sustaining waterfowl populations.

Larger farm machinery, higher input costs, and tighter margins motivate farmers to remove the "wet areas" in their way. Ten-thousand-year-old native grasslands are endangered too with commodity prices periodically inflated by short-sighted dreams of biofuel rewards. The same pressures on prairie wetlands apply on more commercially valuable lands in southern Ontario and Quebec. All along the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence lowlands agriculture competes with urban expansion for land, and natural areas like wetlands are often squeezed dry in the process. In Atlantic Canada, add the effects of rising seas on coastal wetlands to the litany of challenges. Without the support of our continental partners, Canada's conservation community would simply be overwhelmed by the breadth and scale of these challenges.

Canada's active waterfowl hunters numbered about 126,000 in 2008, down from 411,000 just 30 years ago. DU Canada has been steadily adding supporters (172,000) and volunteers (7,400), but with a smaller conservation community, a tax base only 10 percent as large as that of the United States, and a citizenry spread out across the globe's second largest country, Canada is indeed challenged to achieve large-scale conservation results.

A Snapshot of North American Waterfowl Hunting

Recent data on waterfowl hunter numbers and harvests in Canada and the United States show interesting differences that affect national attitudes toward duck numbers and habitat conservation. Active waterfowl hunters (people who bought a migratory game bird permit and say they hunted) in the United States outnumbered those in Canada by a wide margin—about 9.5 to 1 in 2007 and 2008. Over those same seasons, hunters in the United States bagged about 90 percent of the total waterfowl harvest taken in both countries combined. In addition, nonresident U.S. hunters accounted for 31 percent of the birds in the total Canadian harvest. Clearly, U.S. hunters have a huge stake in the success of habitat conservation north of the 49th parallel.

Creating Positive Change

In a country with so many challenges and limited resources, how does DU create positive change on the land in Canada? According to Dr. Henry Murkin, DU Canada's director of conservation programs, the formula is actually quite simple. "We invest in science, often with university partners, in order to understand both the landscape conditions conducive to good duck production and the functions of wetlands in relation to things like water quality that most Canadians care about," Murkin says. "Then we incorporate what we learn into our conservation plans, directing our dollars to the most promising projects, while encouraging government leaders to develop policies and incentive programs to make additional conservation gains."

The approach is paying off, as demonstrated recently in Manitoba, where wetland drainage led to increased nutrient pollution in Lake Winnipeg. "An information campaign to tell both government leaders and the public about research on wetland drainage and nutrient loading has helped move the government to act," reports Greg Bruce, DU's government relations lead in Manitoba.

So DU pursues a two-pronged approach: 1) enlist as many duck-minded supporters as we can, in both Canada and the United States, to generate financial and political support for conservation work, and 2) engage as many other citizens as possible based on all the values derived from habitat conservation, like improved water quality, flood control, carbon storage, and benefits to wildlife. By attracting a broad coalition of conservation supporters, DU can muster the public awareness, private support, and political clout needed to devise and implement conservation-friendly public policies. Essential dollars from all our sponsors help pay for the kinds of habitat projects that keep DU a trusted conservation company.

Wetlands remain key in both strategies. In a recent analysis of habitat trends, DU's Jim Devries and colleagues demonstrated that over the past 20 years the amount of annually tilled land in Prairie Canada has decreased by some 10 million acres as farmers have converted marginal cropland to forage and pasture. If wetland numbers present in the early 1970s had been maintained, this increase in nesting cover would have likely achieved NAWMP's long-term waterfowl population goals. But because of wetland loss, we have achieved only about 25 percent of those goals on the prairies—a good start, but there is much left to do.

Another successful avenue for change is working with agriculture to promote waterfowl-friendly cropping practices. DU's preference is to encourage conversion of annual cropland to perennial grass. Where that is not an option, we encourage alternatives like winter wheat and other fall-seeded cereals that provide fairly attractive and safe nesting cover for ducks. DU's work with plant breeders at the University of Saskatchewan has resulted in the development of winter wheat varieties that are better adapted to Canadian landscapes. As a result, the acreage of winter wheat planted in Prairie Canada has jumped during the past five years from 420,000 acres to 1,245,000 acres.

The conservation challenges in the boreal forest are completely different. In this remote region, DU is working to identify the most important waterfowl habitats and then learn what makes these places special. In this way, we can offer industry and governments ideas about "best management practices" that will avoid or minimize development impacts on productive wetlands. This approach also provides information that can help aboriginal communities and governments secure protected area designation for the "best of the best" waterfowl habitats, like Hume-Ramparts and Old Crow Flats. In the past six years alone, this dual approach of land-use planning and protected area designation has conserved 13 million acres of wetlands and associated ecosystems in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

In eastern Canada, habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation represent the greatest threats to waterfowl. In some agricultural and urban zones of Ontario and Quebec, 90 percent of historic wetlands are gone. Here, retention and restoration of inland wetlands are essential for breeding waterfowl. Another priority is to protect Canada's remaining 82,000 acres of Great Lakes coastal wetlands to ensure staging habitat is available to meet the needs of migrating waterfowl.

In Atlantic Canada, a remarkable new partnership has come together to ensure the long-term productivity of DU's wetland projects. Thanks to generous support from U.S. state and federal partners, DU, and local volunteers, 111,000 acres of wetland projects were completed years ago in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. But as DU's wetland inventory grew, so did requirements to manage these habitats. A novel partnership, championed by New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, has enlisted matching support from each province, Canada's federal government, and private sources to create a $6 million fund that will generate revenue in perpetuity to ensure sound management of these wetland assets. This commitment is great testimony to the appreciation Canadians have for this heritage collection of DU projects originally built with U.S. help.

Making it Happen

DU Canada and its continental partners comprise a dedicated force for conservation. As of 2008, DU and its NAWMP partners have completed more than 8,400 projects. Canadian partners have invested some $735 million while receiving $377 million in matching U.S. federal funding and $402 million from state agencies, foundations, and other private sources like DU members. This partnership has been a great deal for conservation in Canada and for American duck hunters, given that 90 percent of the continental waterfowl harvest occurs in the United States (see sidebar).

DU's leadership 70 years ago established the principle of sharing the load as well as sharing the bounty. Subsequent creative mechanisms like the matching funds formula for U.S. federal wetland grants have enabled continuing investment in habitat conservation in both countries. Remarkably, this notion of partnering across borders has survived even recent wrenching funding cutbacks in most state governments. Despite the challenges faced at home, most of our state partners in the United States have found ways to continue supporting conservation in Canada. Given the choices many have had to make, that commitment is remarkable indeed.

Our three symbolic ducks, of course, never knew about all this. They and their kin only knew that as they traveled the breadth of this continent, seeking food, safety, and other necessities of life, they found sufficient wetlands, grasslands, and other habitats to meet their needs. May we work together to ensure it is always so—despite all that we humans do to diminish the land and water we have borrowed from our children and the obstacles that our invisible political boundaries put in the way. May we remain committed to doing the very best we can for the birds.

Dr. Mike Anderson is director of science and adaptation at DU Canada headquarters at Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba.

Conservation Without Borders

The distribution of breeding ducks across North America varies considerably on an annual basis. The habitats the birds use are highly dynamic, and their breeding numbers, distribution, and production follow suit. The proportion of breeding ducks in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) during the past two decades has ranged from 45 percent in 1991 to 67 percent in 1997. Dramatic shifts in duck distribution also occur from year to year within the PPR in response to changing wetland conditions. In 2009, a record 34 percent of all surveyed ducks were tallied in the U.S. portion of the PPR. Wetland habitats improved dramatically in the Great Plains states this spring following several relatively dry years, and the ducks responded accordingly.

In other years, when water is more abundant in the Canadian PPR, a greater proportion of ducks settle in this region. And when both the U.S. and Canadian prairies are dry, as they were during the late 1980s and early 1990s, wetlands in the boreal forest and Arctic play an especially important role in sustaining duck populations. That's why a continental perspective is required when planning and delivering habitat conservation for waterfowl.