Thursday, July 17, 2008

Good News from the Boreal Forest

A recent study compared breeding populations of 14 songbird species in natural clearings versus recent clearcuts in Canada's boreal forest. The study, published in Avian Conservation and Ecology - Écologie et conservation des oiseaux, found that most of the species were resilient enough to survive and breed in both types of landscapes. A few, however, had significantly lower survival rates or had higher rates of site abandonment in clearcut habitats. Yellow-rumped warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet were particularly sensitive to landscape changes. Despite the resiliency of many species, it is still important to maintain landscapes in as natural a state as possible, especially prime wilderness areas such as the boreal forest.

That is why it is so exciting to see the recent news from Ontario. The provincial government of Ontario just announced that it would preserve half of its Northern Boreal region – 225,000 square kilometers (roughly 87,000 square miles or 56 million acres)! Over the next 10-15 years, government officials will work with scientists and local communities to identify which areas of its boreal forest are in greatest need of preservation and which are most appropriate for mining and logging. The government will also reform its mining law so that future mines will need the approval of local First Nations and will need to share profits with them.

One neat thing about the announcement is that it was inspired in part by a petition sent to the Canadian government on behalf of 1500 scientists. Activism does bring results!

Preservation of the boreal forest is crucial for two major reasons. First, it is one of the largest undeveloped forest and wetland tracts on earth. As such, it gives prime habitat to many animal species, including over 300 species of birds. Many of those birds spend the winter in our area, such as dark-eyed junco and the rapidly-disappearing rusty blackbird, or migrate through like Swainson's thrush. Other bird species, such as gray jay and boreal chickadee, live year-round in the boreal. New York shares 89 species with the boreal forest, and DC has 86 species that breed there.

The second reason is that preservation of the boreal contributes towards a climate change solution. Ontario's Northern Boreal region absorbs 12.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – roughly 2% of Canada's total emissions. Intensive development in that region would release the carbon that is currently sequestered and reduce the ability of the boreal forest to absorb emissions.

This looks like a win for boreal birds and a win for the planet. I hope that other provinces will follow Ontario's example.

Update (7/21): Ontario continued its environmentalist streak over the weekend by joining the Western Climate Initiative.