A living sea of a billion or more birds swept north through the U.S. to Canada and Alaska this spring. Warblers, vireos, sparrows, shorebirds, ducks, hawks—they have since built nests and are now busily feeding nestlings on their extraordinary breeding grounds: the vast green swath of northern forest known as the Boreal Forest, North America’s largest and one of the world’s most intact forest regions. Stretching from interior Alaska across the Canadian North and all the way to the icy North Atlantic coast, the Boreal Forest is more than a billion acres in size. It hosts more than half of a trillion trees and millions of lakes that include some of the world’s largest. The Boreal also stores decades’ worth of carbon emissions.
While these billion or more boreal birds are building nests, laying eggs, and raising their young, the government of Canada is nearing final decisions on a massive funding commitment that has the potential to ensure a healthy future for birds and the communities that rely on the Boreal Forest.
The bright blue and yellow magnolia warblers that birders saw at High Island near Houston in April are right now searching for insects in the fragrant balsam firs of Quebec. Red-cheeked Cape May warblers that fed eagerly among the scraggly moss-draped live oaks at Fort Desoto Park near Tampa after an overnight flight from the Caribbean in early May are tending to young in the tall spruces, perhaps of northern Ontario. The same squeaky songs of blackpoll warblers that rang through Rock Creek Park in D.C. and Central Park in New York City in late May as they migrated north from their Amazon Basin wintering grounds are now ringing across the peatlands and barrens of northern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.
We in the U.S. should not forget that their future rests on the future of the Boreal Forest.
Certainly, our Canadian neighbors haven’t forgotten. In particular, the Indigenous peoples of Canada, who have stewarded these landscapes for thousands of years, remember well.
Take the Sahtúgot’ine Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories. Long-time stewards of Great Bear Lake, one of the world’s largest lakes and perhaps the most pristine, they are developing conservation plans for an area larger than many U.S. states – 22 million acres surrounding this gargantuan body of water. These lands support tens of millions of birds, including those blackpoll warblers that passed through the U.S. just a few weeks ago, the vast majority of which will be migrating back south through the U.S. in a few months.
We can also look to the Sayisi Dene First Nation of northern Manitoba. This group is proposing to protect the entire 12 million-acre Seal River Watershed that is a critical breeding ground for tens of millions of birds, including perilously declining species like olive-sided flycatchers and rusty blackbirds. This area is essential stopover habitat for waterfowl like black scoters and American black ducks.
Meanwhile in northern Ontario, the Moose Cree First Nation is proposing protection for one of the last undammed river watersheds—the North French River—within their territory. At more than a million acres, this northward flowing river and its surrounding forests and peatlands support millions of birds including magnolia, Canada, and Cape May warblers.
Through a funding initiative called the Challenge Grant program, the Environment Climate Change Canada agency within Canada’s federal government is currently weighing proposals for new protected areas. The biggest opportunities to create large-scale conservation gains come from Indigenous governments. Together these proposals encompass more than a hundred million acres. Canada has the chance to be a global example of leadership in environmental conservation by investing Challenge Grant funds in these projects that protect one of the remaining large forest regions on Earth.
The Canadian government deserves great admiration for having committed to the global biodiversity treaty goal of protecting at least 17% of its lands by 2020. As host to the world’s largest expanse of still intact boreal forest—and the billion or more nesting migratory birds that call it home—Canada should take the next vital step. Supporting Indigenous governments and communities through this Challenge Grant opportunity should be among its highest priorities.