Nestled deep within northern Manitoba lies a 12-million-acre landscape of forests, wetlands, lakes, streams, and rivers—waters that flow for more than 200 miles until they reach their destination of Hudson Bay. This area is known as the Seal River Watershed, and it is a very special portion of the Boreal Forest in Canada. The Seal River has no dams on its length, which allows harbor seals to follow fish up the river, traveling far inland and giving the river its name. The entire watershed is rich in biodiversity supporting iconic species like polar bears, wolverines, gray wolves, and barren-ground caribou. It is also a critically important breeding and migratory stop-over location for millions of birds of hundreds of species including many that people in the U.S. enjoy seeing during spring and fall migration, as well as during winter months.
A report published in 2020 by Ducks Unlimited Canada, Oceans North Canada, and the Manitoba Government shows that the Seal River Watershed is home to huge numbers of waterfowl. The numbers are impressive and include many seaducks. Black Scoters are one of the most abundant of the breeding and migrating ducks documented in the report with thousands estimated to occur in the area. Numbers of other seaducks and diving ducks are also present in high numbers, including Long-tailed Ducks, scaup, and migrating Common Goldeneye. Dabbling ducks like Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Mallards are also found in the thousands. The observers in the planes doing the surveys also noted seeing loons and Sandhill Cranes.
Waterfowl are not the only birds found in the Watershed. The Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas notes that the watershed’s landscape supports significant numbers of land birds as well. Birds like Blackpoll Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Palm Warblers are among the many species that call the Seal River Watershed their summer breeding grounds. A few land birds that nest in the watershed are quite range-restricted and are particularly sought after by birders including the Harris’s Sparrow and the Smith’s Longspur.
Luckily for these birds and all of the wildlife that rely on the watershed, the Sayisi Dene who live within the watershed are coming together in partnership with their Cree and Dene neighbors to permanently conserve the ecosystem. They are collectively called the Seal River Watershed Alliance, and they want to keep the region protected from outside development and destructive practices and designate the watershed as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA)
An important factor in their case for permanent protection is the strong prevalence of birds. That’s why the Alliance is co-leading a research project that surveys the remote avian habitats of the Seal River Watershed. Sound-monitoring devices are placed in bird-rich areas to determine which species are present. Indigenous elders select the sites and, working with youth and land-users, deploy the machines in the spring, and collect them in late summer or fall. The data are then analyzed by Audubon’s Boreal Conservation team and a report of findings is created which can be used to showcase the global importance of the region to the public and in discussions with the Canadian and provincial governments. This ongoing bird monitoring project not only shows the abundance of species currently present in the region but will also help us understand any changes taking place over time due to factors such as climate change and habitat quality.
Establishing an enormous IPCA like the Seal River Watershed is no small feat and takes a lot of time and effort. But progress is being made. In December of 2022 at COP15, the Seal River Watershed Alliance, the Canadian government, and the provincial government of Manitoba announced their shared commitment to working together on a feasibility study. This is a huge step forward in what can be a long and arduous process. But the efforts are well worth it to ensure that future generations can continue traditional practices and have access to the generous bounty of these amazing lands and waters. To learn more and support these efforts, please visit sealriverwatershed.ca.