Changing Planet

Good Migrants, and Good News, From Canada’s Boreal Forest

New protected areas provide a haven for migratory birds—and much more

Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve, Labrador. Photo: Larry Innes
Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve, Labrador. Photo: Larry Innes

Throughout the fall, migratory birds have been streaming through the United States, headed south from their breeding grounds in the boreal forest of Canada. Some will make very long journeys to places as distant as the Caribbean, Mexico, or South America. Many—an estimated 1 billion or more—will stop in the U.S. for the winter.

Along with the birds, some good news has come from Canada in recent months: plans to protect more than 11 million acres of boreal forest, which supports millions of migratory birds that can return next spring to nest in a “nursery” with no logging, mining, hydro development, or other industrial activities.

In July, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Canadian government created eastern Canada’s largest national park on the Atlantic Coast, more than 600 miles northeast of Maine.

Called Akami–uapishku-KakKasuak in the Innu-aimun language and Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve in English, the park encompasses 2.6 million acres of rugged landscape full of forest, tundra, lakes, rivers, and even a 50-mile stretch of sandy beach called the Wunderstrand. The Mealy Mountains’ many special breeding birds include the stunningly beautiful harlequin ducks that were hatched in the region’s rocky streams and will soon be arriving for winter along the New England coast.

Harlequin Duck. Photo: Peter Massas via Flickr
Harlequin Duck. Photo: Peter Massas via Flickr

The establishment of Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve followed news from northern Quebec a few weeks earlier that the provincial government had safeguarded more than 2 million acres of the Broadback River watershed. The Grand Council of the Crees had long advocated for the protection of these lands in traditional Cree territory.

Many rivers have been dammed in Quebec for hydropower, with negative impacts on fish, birds, and people. More dams are planned for still-pristine rivers, so protection of the Broadback River and its surrounding woods and wetlands is a positive step for birds and for the ecosystems on which they depend.

Wilson’s warblers and Cape May warblers—species that U.S. birders enjoy seeing during migration in September—breed in the Broadback River watershed, as do white-crowned and fox sparrows, which arrive in the U.S. in October along with many other bird species. The Quebec provincial government’s designation, unfortunately, left out some of the lands that the nearby Cree village of Waswanipi had asked to be protected—including some of the region’s last large intact blocks of forest.

White-winged Scoter. Photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada
White-winged Scoter. Photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada

The largest area in Canada to move closer to full protection in 2015 is the proposed 6.4 million-acre Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve in the southeastern part of the Northwest Territories. Common loons, white-winged scoters, surf scoters, and red-necked grebes are among the birds that fly south from Thaidene Nene to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States for the winter.

And as was the case with Mealy Mountains and the Broadback River, the leadership and initiative of the indigenous people who have been on the land for millennia have driven the move toward the protection of Thaidene Nene. The Dene community of Lutsel K’e has been working for several years to develop a plan for the area that would include an agreement to co-manage the reserve with Parks Canada and to staff it with rangers from the community. Negotiators from Lutsel K’e, the Canadian federal government, and the government of the Northwest Territories reached agreement over the summer on boundaries for the park, one of the final steps before it can be formally created.

These special areas not only provide vital habitat for birds; they also host an incredible diversity and abundance of other animals and plants. They are home to herds of threatened woodland caribou; healthy populations of fish, such as lake trout; and, in the case of Mealy Mountains, robust spawning runs of Atlantic salmon making their way upstream from the ocean. They also host vast and deep deposits of carbon under peatlands and permafrost, thick and lush forests, miles of free-flowing rivers, and massive stores of freshwater in lakes and wetlands.

The community of Lutsel K’e, on the east arm of Great Slave Lake, will co-manage Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. Photo: Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts
The community of Lutsel K’e, on the east arm of Great Slave Lake, will co-manage Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. Photo: Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Indigenous communities have put in many years of hard work to advance their conservation goals in the boreal. The Pew Charitable Trusts has been pleased to partner with First Nations in Canada to advance the shared goals of protecting land that is critically important to the health of traditional cultures and economies, and the planet.

More challenges lie ahead, but let’s hope that these habitat protection success stories inspire similar large-scale landscape conservation actions in other parts of the boreal forest—and around the world.

Jeff Wells is a science adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work in international boreal forest protection. He received a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, where he is a visiting fellow.

Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He earned his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and has published numerous scientific and popular articles, book chapters, and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk (2007), Boreal Birds of North America (2011) and Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (2017).
  • Marcos Luna

    Apparently the birds are the ‘good’ migrants. Who are the bad migrants?

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