May 21, 2013 _ From caribou herds to landlocked seals, Canada’s boreal forest is rich in biodiversity treasures and just as worthy of global attention and protection as the Amazon, according to two leading conservation groups.
A report to be released Wednesday by the Boreal Songbird Initiative and Ducks Unlimited lists 10 top biodiversity hot spots in Canada’s boreal forest, which encompass large swaths of the landscape.
“We are trying to get people – especially people who live in these northern lands – to realize they have areas as special as the tropics,” says co-author Jeff Wells, science and policy director at the Boreal Songbird Initiative, a non-profit based in the United States.
More than 10 million birds a day are now streaming across the Canada-U.S. border to summer in Canada’s boreal, he says, noting that as many as three billion birds make the trip during spring migration.
“All these birds are coming north from South and Central America into the boreal forest precisely because it has some really special globally important biodiversity features,” says Wells.
Most notable, the forest is “still largely intact,” he says.
The report, released for the UN’s International Day for Biodiversity, says more than 25 per cent of the world’s “never-before harvested” forest is in Canada’s boreal, including seven of the 10 largest blocks of unfragmented forest in the world.
It also “holds more surface freshwater than any other place on Earth.” Of the millions of lakes and ponds, Great Bear Lake in the N.W.T. is “arguably the world’s largest pristine lake, only featuring a single community of 300 people living on its shores.”
The boreal also has more free-flowing, undammed rivers than the rest of North America combined, the report says. The rivers are “among the last strongholds” of migratory fish such as the Pacific salmon that swim up the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena rivers into the Sacred Headwaters of northern British Columbia, one of the 10 hot spots on the list.
The Hudson and James Bay Lowlands, a huge swath running from Northern Manitoba, across Northern Ontario and into Quebec, is also on the list. It is one of the largest wetlands on Earth, and a massive storehouse of terrestrial carbon.
The boreal, with all its fish and insects, supports more than 300 species of birds, the report says. And it has healthy populations of grizzly bears, timber wolves and wolverines, which have disappeared from most of their historic North American range. It is also home to migratory caribou herds, some of which travel thousands of kilometres from calving grounds in the tundra to wintering areas in the boreal.
There are also what the report calls “biodiversity oddities,” such as the landlocked, freshwater harbour seals in Quebec’s Tursujuq National Park, and the “New World and Old World evolutionary lineages of both caribou and wolves.”
Some of the 10 hot spots in the report are protected or are in the process of being protected, while most are threatened by the mining, energy and resource developments pushing further north. Wells, who is based in Maine, does not oppose development completely but says a concerted effort is needed to ensure it’s done in a sustainable way with minimal impact, and in consultation with First Nations.
“The boreal is unique in that it is possible to think in big-scale ways about conservation,” says Wells. “Most of the world doesn’t have that option anymore.”