Anthony Kovats // CAF
Tuesday March 11, 2008
The ritual is as old as the giant and enveloping forest itself.
Every spring, the shores of Lesser Slave, Peerless and North and South Wabasca Lakes explode with colour and sound as North America’s migratory songbirds return to the continent’s vast northern forest.
American robins with their robust red breasts join the cacophony of sounds generated by Tennessee, Connecticut and Canada warblers as they gorge on caterpillars and insects in the budding branches.
This is the boreal forest.
Along with the Amazon rain forest and Siberian taiga, the boreal ranks among the largest remaining forests on the planet and is a gateway to one of Earth’s last great avian breeding grounds.
A recent study conducted by the Canadian Boreal Initiative entitled Boreal Forest Conservation Framework is highlighting the need to conserve this refuge as advancing development threatens the very wildlife the forest has shielded for millennia.
The University of Alberta’s Dr. Brad Stelfox and Dr. Erin Bayne teamed with the CBI’s science co-ordinator Matt Carlson, to pen the document which explores the forest’s relationship with songbirds and the woodland caribou.
The report, unveiled at the U of A Jan. 31, examined that relationship and the detrimental effects to two specific regions in the forest if a business-as-usual approach to development continued.
The Mackenzie Basin watershed may be profoundly altered and risks regional extinction of woodland caribou as well as a sharp decline in bird populations.
“What we did was use computer models to look at the future effects of development in the Mackenzie watershed,” said Carlson.
The team documented and analyzed the oil sands of northeastern Alberta already rift with extensive industrial development and the relatively undeveloped and under-populated Dehcho territory of the southern Northwest Territories.
The report was not intended to impede development, but to bring to light the need to preserve half of the boreal area to sustain wildlife and to responsibly steward the remainder.
In conjunction with the U of A and Forem Technologies, the CBI’s blueprint for the boreal seeks to find the balance between the inevitable development and the natural habitat’s role pertaining to caribou and songbirds.
“We find that as development expands in the region, the boreal forest is likely to decline while the area of industrial disturbances will increase. The woodland caribou would disappear from this region,” Carlson said.
Computer simulations concluded that growing industrial disturbances would fragment intact areas of older forest. These changes would eliminate woodland caribou populations in the region and would reduce the abundance of songbirds, such as the black-throated green warbler, by as much as 60 per cent.
Carlson said the study’s case scenarios provided researchers with a "conservation first" simulation for the southern NWT. The simulation predicted woodland caribou declines could be avoided and songbird declines reduced. This finding confirms the importance of work by the federal, territorial, and First Nations governments to establish a system of protected areas in advance of proposed large-scale development such as the Mackenzie gas pipeline.
The research also demonstrates that strategies for conservation within the oil sands region need to set more ambitious goals for increasing the protected area networks across northeastern Alberta.
“The research shows that implementing strategies consistent with the framework can maintain habitat in the region and still allowing for economic growth.”
The report models the impacts of implementing the proposed Dehcho Land Use Plan, which prescribes protection for approximately half of the Dehcho region and sustainable management over the remaining landscape.
“This study demonstrates the profound impacts of industrial development in the Mackenzie Basin ecosystem,” said Larry Innes, CBI Executive Director. “It is increasingly important to plan and strike a balance with conservation efforts before development takes place.”
Last November, governments within the region announced plans to protect more than 10 million hectares in three regions of the NWT, one of the largest conservation “set-asides” in North American history. This is the first time the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework has been tested through applied modeling to a large region of Canada's boreal forest.
Currently, 10 per cent of the forest is protected.
“We certainly will be making our research available to government and industry and we look forward to working with them to improve the conservation strategies being used in the region.”