Changing Planet

Why Protecting Canada’s Boreal Forest is This Century’s Great Conservation Idea

A hundred years ago, the Migratory Bird Treaty helped shape North America’s conservation ethic. Today, new initiatives in Canada offer hope for a sound environmental future.

The boreal forest stretches to the horizon across Grass River Provincial Park in northern Manitoba. Credit: Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Historians would not consider 1916 a good year for the planet. The largest war the world had ever seen was raging in Europe, with millions of people killed and maimed and no end in sight.

But during that time of despair, a ray of hope shone through in international relations. Canada and the United States signed a treaty to cooperate in an ambitious effort to restore populations of shared migratory birds, including many species that were being hunted to near extinction.

Because there was little or no regulation in place before 1916, robins, doves, shorebirds, ducks, geese, and other birds were being shot at any time of the year and in unlimited numbers. The number of birds being killed each year took an enormous toll: for example, passenger pigeons, a species estimated to have once numbered in the billions, were driven into extinction. The Eskimo curlew, a small shorebird that nested in the Canadian Arctic, was also lost to extinction—its population decimated by the killing of entire flocks during migration.

With the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1916, Canada and the U.S. agreed to stop the carnage. The treaty set rules on what types of birds could be hunted and when, and created a structure to decide how many of each species could be killed. Within a couple of years, both countries had passed legislation to enact the promises of the treaty.

It worked.

Many species of birds hard-hit by the relentless market hunting soon rebounded and are with us today because of this remarkable 100-year-old treaty.

Migratory bird species such as the Common Loon became protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty. Credit: Jeff Nadler
Migratory bird species such as the Common Loon became protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty. Credit: Jeff Nadler

But this year, as we mark a century of North American cooperation on bird conservation, a new report released by the governments of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico shows the urgent need to add new ideas to achieve the same success in the next 100 years.

The report, “The State of North America’s Birds 2016,” was released May 18 and identifies a third of the continent’s bird species to be at high conservation risk.

And while the report cites the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska as the most ecologically intact forest region of North America, it also estimates that nearly 20 percent of the bird species there are of high conservation concern. That’s because vast areas of the southern boreal forest in Canada are within the footprint of large-scale industrial land use. What’s more, changes in climate are creating increased threats to forest habitat in the form of droughts, fires, and floods.

Simply put, the regulation of market hunting is no longer the issue that will decide the future of our shared bird populations and the broader environmental resources they represent. Today, the major factor affecting the fate of our birds is the loss and degradation of the habitats—the forests, wetlands, shrublands, grasslands, and other natural areas—upon which they, and we, depend.

But there’s good news.

Because large parts of the boreal forest region remain intact, there is still an opportunity—in fact, perhaps the last such opportunity in human history—to retain large portions of the landscape free of large-scale industrial disturbance.

The South Nahanni River tumbles over Virginia Falls in the boreal region of the Northwest Territories. Credit: Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts
The South Nahanni River tumbles over Virginia Falls in the boreal region of the Northwest Territories. Credit: Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Maintaining vast areas of healthy intact landscapes of forests, peatlands, marshes, and other habitats would allow birds to raise their young. It would also increase the resilience of various populations of birds and other animals and plants to the impacts of climate change.

Luckily, leaders from across the geographic, cultural, and political spectrum have begun implementing a new conservation vision for the next century. Its tenets are strikingly simple:

1.     Vastly raise the benchmark for the amount of land under conservation. Experts agree that at least half of the boreal forest region should be under permanent protection from industrial land uses, with the remainder subject to world-leading sustainable development standards. This goal, articulated in the Canadian Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, is endorsed by more than 1,500 scientists worldwide.

2.     Support the rights of indigenous communities to develop land use plans for, and manage, their ancestral lands through investment in a national indigenous “guardians” program. This would equip local indigenous people to actively monitor and protect the lands and wildlife under conservation, providing the best chance of maintaining ecological integrity over time.

Implementation of a new conservation vision has already begun in Canada, where the governments of Ontario and Quebec have articulated ambitious commitments to protect at least half of their northern landscapes through the Far North Act and Plan Nord, respectively. “The State of North America’s Birds 2016” cites the actions in Ontario and Quebec as particularly encouraging. But it’s critical that these policies are fully implemented and place community-based land use planning at their core.

The Canada Warbler is highly dependent on the boreal forests of Ontario and Quebec for breeding grounds. Credit: Jeff Nadler
The Canada Warbler, which has declined in recent decades, is highly dependent on the boreal forests of Ontario and Quebec for breeding grounds. Credit: Jeff Nadler

Indigenous governments and communities are also taking a lead in developing new land use plans and management models in places such as the Pimachiowin Aki site in Manitoba and Ontario and the lands of the Dehcho First Nations, Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, and Délı̨nę First Nation of the Northwest Territories; the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) in Quebec; and the Innu Nation in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Just as Canadian and U.S. leaders came together 100 years ago to forge a bold new idea—a treaty of mutual promise in the midst of war—the leaders of today from federal, provincial, and indigenous governments, corporations, and nonprofits need to embrace the new ideas of conservation that will ensure a future for our birds and our people.

Jeff Wells, science director at the Boreal Songbird Initiative, is an adviser to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international boreal conservation campaign.

Originally published in The Hill Times

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).
  • Jackie

    Thank you for speaking up.

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