Values of the Boreal
Canada’s boreal forest supports a wide variety of wildlife. More than 85 different mammals reside in the boreal, including iconic species such as the Gray Wolf, both Black and Grizzly Bear, Woodland Caribou, Lynx, Moose and Wolverine. Around 130 types of fish capitalize on the abundance of lakes and rivers, as well as an astonishing 32,000 species of insect.1 Although the cold winters create obstacles for reptiles and amphibians, some have adapted to hibernate through winter. Several remarkable species, such as the Wood Frog, are able to burrow in leaf litter and use chemicals to become freeze-tolerant, remarkably thawing back to life each spring.
The Woodland Caribou is particularly symbolic of the boreal forest not only because its range is almost exclusively within the confines of the boreal border, but because it acts as an indicator species of the boreal forest. Its relative health and population is tightly linked to the overall health of its boreal forest environment. Its population has dwindled over the past century and nearly half of its historic range has been lost,2 unsurprisingly almost exclusively from areas facing the highest levels of anthropogenic disturbance.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is the boreal’s global contribution to supporting birds. Nearly half of North America’s birds (325 species) rely on the boreal forest region, more than 300 of which regularly breed there. This includes some of North America’s most rapidly-declining songbirds, such as the Rusty Blackbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Canada Warbler and Evening Grosbeak. The high density of lakes, ponds and rivers in the boreal form ideal habitat for waterfowl—an estimated 80 percent of North America’s waterfowl species breed there. In total, between 1 and 3 billion birds breed in the boreal every summer, expanding to 3 to 5 billion birds by the time the young are hatched and ready to fly.3
Canada’s boreal forest has been home to a variety of Aboriginal cultures and communities for thousands of years. In fact, some of the earliest groups to settle in the boreal may have been following migratory caribou, which have provided a vital source of sustenance to Aboriginal peoples throughout human history in the boreal. Approximately 1 million Aboriginal people—around 80 percent of Canada’s Aboriginal population—reside in the more than 600 First Nation communities scattered throughout the boreal.4
Beaver, Moose and Caribou are just a few of the many boreal mammals that provide food, clothing and tools for the Aboriginal peoples of the boreal. Fish and waterfowl make up a large portion of the diet in many of these remote communities. Native trees, shrubs, grasses, lichens and fungi also play a fundamental role in sustaining traditional ways of life, providing food, medicine and materials for shelter and tools throughout the Aboriginal communities of the boreal. In fact, as many as 49 types of plant, lichen and fungi are known to provide food, 47 are used for medicine, and an additional 32 are used for materials and tools, such as shelter and watercraft
construction, baskets and others.5 Because of these deep ties to the land, the boreal forest forms an integral part of the cultural and spiritual wellbeing for these communities and peoples.
Traditional knowledge of the land is also gaining recognition as an important and needed complement to traditional scientific data collection and analysis. In many remote regions, traditional knowledge serves as the best knowledge base for regional geographic features, species flux and changes in the landscape over time including the effects of climate change. Some scientific bodies and conferences have begun fusing the two forms of knowledge together. An example of this was the 2010 North American Caribou workshop, which hosted speakers and discussions focused on traditional knowledge of caribou.6
Ecosystem services are broadly defined as natural ecosystem functions and processes that benefit humans and society as a whole. This can range from crop pollination, water and waste filtration and the absorption of greenhouse gasses to things like recreation and spiritual enhancement.
Canada’s boreal forest provides immense contributions to human life every year. In fact, the natural capital of Canada’s boreal—which places monetary value on the services provided by the forest—is valued at more than $700 billion per year. This includes carbon storage, water filtration, flood control, pest reduction and recreational activities such as tourism. This far outweighs the annual market or extractive value of the boreal, estimated at $50.9 billion per year.7
The boreal forest’s importance in mitigating climate change cannot be understated. Per unit area, boreal forests store twice as much carbon in vegetation, soils and wetlands than do tropical forests, and 22 percent of the earth’s carbon stored in land surfaces. The Canadian boreal forest alone stores 208 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to 26 years worth of the world’s carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.8 This carbon is released upon deforestation and industrial development, making boreal protection a top priority in combating climate change.
Another conservation value for which Canada’s boreal forest is significant is fresh water. The retreat of the last ice age left the boreal immersed with millions of lakes, ponds and wetlands that comprise the largest such concentration of any major ecosystem on earth.9 Thousands of undammed rivers, particularly further north, provide some of the last strongholds for sea-run migratory fish, including Atlantic salmon. North-flowing boreal rivers are critical to forming sea ice and additionally provide an influx of nutrients for many arctic species ranging from plankton to whales and Polar bears.
1 Hinterland Who’s Who. Canada’s Boreal Forest: http://www.hww.ca/en/issues-and-topics/canadas-boreal-forest.html (accessed June 2012).
2 Keeping Woodland Caribou in the Boreal Forest: Big Challenge, Immense Opportunity. 2011. International Boreal Conservation Science Panel.
3 Wells, J.V., and P. Blancher. 2011. Chapter 2: Global role for sustaining bird populations. Pp. 7-22 in (J. V. Wells, ed.) Boreal birds of North America. Studies in Avian Biology (no. 41), University of California Press, Berkeley, CA; Blancher, P. and J. Wells. 2005. The Boreal Forest Region: North America’s Bird Nursery. Canadian Boreal Initiative, Boreal Songbird Initiative and Bird Studies Canada. Ottawa, Ontario, Seattle, Washington and Port Rowan, Ontario.
4 Environment Canada. The Boreal Region: https://www.ec.gc.ca/cei-iee/default.asp?lang=En&n=6FE09C10-1&offset=4&toc=show (accessed June 2012).
5 Karst, A. 2010. Conservation Value of the North American Boreal Forest from an Ethnobotanical Perspective. Canadian Boreal Initiative, David Suzuki Foundation and Boreal Songbird Initiative. Ottawa, Ontario, Vancouver, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington.
6 13th North American Caribou Workshop: http://www.nacw2010.ca/ (accessed June 2012).
7 Anielski, M. and S. Wilson. 2009. Counting Canada’s Natural Capital: Assessing the Real Value of Canada’s Boreal Ecosystems. Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Pembina Institute. Ottawa, Ontario and Drayton Valley, Alberta.
8 Carlson, M., J. Wells, and D. Roberts. 2009. The Carbon the World Forgot: Conserving the Capacity of Canada’s Boreal Forest Region to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change. Boreal Songbird Initiative and Canadian Boreal Initiative. Seattle, Washington and Ottawa, Ontario.
9 Pew Environment Group. 2011. A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal. Seattle, Washington.