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Western Boreal

Machtans Taiga Lake (photo: Craig Machtans)
The Western Boreal extends west from the Ontario-Manitoba border, skirting north of the Prairies, and includes most of the Northwest Territories and Yukon (most northern sections excluded). The Western Boreal is a large and diverse ecosystem, ranging from sparse, open forest along the northern treeline to dense, tall stands of spruce, birch and aspen in the south. Development pressures vary substantially within this huge region. Several billion birds of over 200 species breed every year in the Western Boreal. Almost 30% of Canada’s birds are characteristic to this region due to its diversity and size.

Bird's-Eye View

  • Limited monitoring data are available for most parts of the Western Boreal for species other than waterfowl (which are primarily surveyed from the air); only since 1990 have enough areas been surveyed to calculate trends for most groups.
  • Within the surveyed region of the Western Boreal, the population of all birds combined has changed little over the past 20 years, but many individual species have shown large increases or decreases.
  • The Western Boreal plays a critical role in supporting continental bird populations of many songbirds, water birds and waterfowl. In drought years, many ducks that usually breed in the Prairie Region move to the Western Boreal.
  • The permanent loss of forest due to development, including agriculture and energy extraction, is the biggest conservation concern in this ecosystem. The most intense industrial activities occur at the southern edge of the region, overlapping directly with the habitats containing the highest density and diversity of birds.

Trends

Photograph of a Spruce Grouse
Spruce Grouse are year-round residents of
boreal forests across Canada, found mainly in
regenerating spruce, pines and other conifers.
Little is known of their population status as
they are difficult to survey. (photo: May Haga)
Many individual species in all major bird groups are showing dramatic population changes with either large increases or large decreases, but overall the number of increasing and decreasing species is roughly equal, creating a generally stable indicator since 1990.
Line graph depicting the percent change in population size of various bird guilds in the Western Boreal since 1970 or 1990 Bar chart showing the number of species in each guild with increasing or decreasing population size
Indicators of the average population status of characteristic species (click on graphic for a larger version and associated data tables)

Photograph of a Lesser Scaup on the water
Lesser Scaup populations in the Western
Boreal have declined by more than 50% over
the last three decades, while other species
such as Green-winged Teal have doubled.
Shifts in aquatic food webs due to climate
change may be favouring generalist species
such as teal, instead of the more specialized
diving ducks. (photo: Nick Saunders)
The Western Boreal forest supports 12 to 14 million nesting ducks every summer. When drought affects the Prairie Pothole Region, more ducks fly northward and nest in the extensive wetlands of the Western Boreal. In these drought years, the region’s wetlands act as a “safety net” that keeps Prairie populations healthy and is vital for maintaining a sustainable harvest for hunters.

Threats

Photograph of a singing male Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warblers depend on patches
of mature forests. They are expected to decline
due to reductions in the amount of mature forest
on the landscape as a result of forestry practices.
(photo: Alan MacKeigan)
The southern forests in this region include some of the most intensively modified landscapes in North America. Forest is being lost to agriculture, urban expansion, forestry, peat mining, and oil and gas development. Much of this loss is effectively permanent and, although land-use planning is a partial solution, active reclamation would be needed to offset habitat losses.

Older forests support diverse bird communities. Forestry practices are changing the age structure of the forest, and several species are expected to decline over the next 50 years as the area of old forest declines.

Photograph of two Bonaparte's Gulls
Approximately 80% of the world population of
Bonaparte's Gulls nests in the Western Boreal
region, and their populations depend on healthy
wetlands. (photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada)
Changes in water levels and water flow associated with hydroelectric power generation are affecting crucial feeding and nesting areas for waterfowl and other wildlife, such as the Peace-Athabasca Delta, which is one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world and a globally important wetland.

The changing northern climate has already resulted in changes to forests, such as the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle and increasingly severe forest fire regimes, and more changes are expected.

Solutions

Photograph of a singing male Blackpoll Warbler
Blackpoll Warblers follow one of the longest
migration routes of any warbler, connecting forests
of the Western Boreal with forests of eastern
South America. Their conservation depends on
maintaining healthy habitats at both ends of this
migration route. (photo: Charles M. Francis)
Development, conservation and protection all need to come into balance to ensure healthy populations of birds in the Western Boreal into the future. To prevent complete transformation of regional ecosystems (e.g., agricultural conversion of the southern boreal mixed-wood forest), land-use plans involving all stakeholders are needed to ensure that sufficient areas of key habitats such as old forest and other features significant for birds remain on the landscape.

Water-level management on major river systems with hydro-electric developments must maintain the ecological health and functioning of critical waterfowl habitats such as the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

Photograph of three men examining a planning map together
Societal values need to be incorporated into
land-use plans so that resource use and
conservation are balanced with development.
(photo:Kevin Kardynal)
Wilderness protection is increasing but progress has been slower in some jurisdictions. Notable agreements that aim to protect 50% of the Boreal forest in Ontario and Quebec provide excellent examples for the Western Boreal.
Map showing the increase in Breeding Bird Survey coverage in the Western Boreal since 1990

The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), the main survey for most species of birds other than waterfowl, has only limited coverage in the region. In the 1970s, BBS routes were present only around the agriculture/boreal transition area. Since the 1990s, some additional coverage has been achieved but there are still substantial gaps. This means that large portions of some populations or ranges are not surveyed at all, and caution is warranted in interpreting the indicators for many species. In contrast, waterfowl have been well monitored by aerial surveys since 1955.