For those of us who live in parts of the world that have a long history of large-scale human impacts to the land, it may be hard to imagine there are still a few parts of the world where the land has not experienced such impacts. One of the most important of these, especially for those of us in the Americas, is the vast area to our north called the Boreal Forest biome. We co-authored a new scientific paper that describes the amazing features and globally significant conservation values of the Boreal Forest. The paper, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, is available online here.
The most striking feature we identified is that this continent-wide landscape is over 80 percent intact.
The Boreal Forest biome is vast—1.5 billion acres in size, dotted with millions of lakes and ponds including some of the largest in the world, and the longest undammed rivers left in North America. The world’s second largest peatland, stretching over 91 million acres is found in the Boreal Forest and the area is thought to have more surface freshwater and wetlands than just about anywhere else on earth. The biome is estimated to support within in its lands, at least 500 billion trees. These trees and all the habitats that they are part of in the Boreal make it an incredible place for all sorts of amazing wildlife.
One of the most special features of the Boreal Forest biome is the fact that, as the paper describes, less than 20 percent of its 1.5 billion-acre area has been subjected to the large-scale impacts of industrial forestry, mining, oil and gas extraction, large hydro, agricultural conversion and other factors. The 300 million acres of the biome that have been impacted are largely concentrated in its southern edges that are most accessible to roads and other infrastructure and, fortunately, within this area there are many leading-edge sustainable development initiatives underway.
Still, more than 1.2 billion acres of the Boreal Forest biome remains ecologically intact. That means that it is one of the last opportunities in the course of human history on this planet, to protect as much habitat as science tells us we need to protect in order to maintain the birds and other wildlife and plants and the ability of the forest to clean the air and water. The most recent published analyses place the protection level of the Canadian portion of the biome at between eight and eleven percent and well below recommended conservation benchmarks.
The most visible of the wildlife of the Boreal Forest biome are the 3-5 billion birds that, at the end of the summer nesting season, begin spilling south across the border on their way to wintering grounds in the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. In southern Canada and the U.S., the first of those Boreal Forest breeding birds begin arriving in early July with the arrival of shorebirds like Short-billed Dowitchers and Lesser Yellowlegs that may winter in Central America and the Caribbean.
By late August and September, the numbers passing through become immense—warblers, flycatchers, swallows, woodpeckers, kinglets, and more shorebirds. The Canada Warbler that migrates through the eastern U.S. in September will be on its way to Colombia perhaps for the winter. In October and November come the dense flocks of ducks and geese—birds like the Surf Scoter that may winter in San Francisco Harbor--and the loons and grebes that winter near the crashing surf of both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the clouds of sparrows that fly up from brushy field edges.
The paper goes on to describe the amazing work being led by Indigenous governments and communities across the Boreal Forest biome in Canada to carry out the largest land conservation actions in modern history. Their efforts have resulted in tens of millions of acres of newly protected habitat over the last fifteen years, areas that together provide nesting habitat for tens of millions of the migratory birds that we so love to see as they pass through each spring and fall.
And Indigenous governments and leaders are not done with their work as there are dozens of new areas being proposed for protection every year and new land stewardship initiatives called Indigenous Guardians programs blossoming across the Boreal Forest biome. They deserve our thanks and our continued support as they ensure our birds will forever have homes to return to each summer to raise their young. We also identify the risks to the Boreal Forest biome in Alaska and the urgent need to enable Indigenous-led conservation efforts, which can be informed by the success of the efforts in Canada.
Recommendations in the paper highlight the need to support and encourage, including through higher levels of federal government funding, the land-use planning and protected areas work being carried out by Indigenous governments as well as Indigenous Guardians programs modeled after the successful Indigenous Rangers program in Australia. In the Boreal Forest region of Alaska, there is a need and an opportunity to enable and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples to decide on future management for lands within their traditional territories.