Saturday, July 19, 2008

An incredible gift for birds

The boreal forest, a 55 million acres of which of which will be protected in Ontario (©Scott Weidensaul)

One of the biggest conservation stories ever emerged last week, but received relatively little press here in the States. The premier of Ontario has pledged to set aside half of the province -- about 55 million acres, an area the size of the entire UK -- for permanent conservation, with requirements that industry work with First Nations and the government to craft sustainable development plans for the rest.

Given that the boreal forest is the great bird factory of North America, producing billions of migratory songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors, this is arguably the single biggest win in history for bird conservation.

Anyone who enjoys the seasonal flow of warblers, thrushes, sparrows and other migrant songbirds passing through in the Lower 48 - and I'm guessing that's most of us -- owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty for his visionary move, which is part of the larger Boreal Forest Conservation Initiative, a collaboration of conservation groups, First Nations and industry that aims to protect at least half of the 1.4 billion-acre Canadian boreal forest.

Here's how my good friend Jeff Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative put it on his blog this week, sending an open letter of thanks to McGuinty:

Jeff Wells (©Scott Weidensaul)

"I don’t know if you have ever heard the soft flutely song of a Swainson’s Thrush," Jeff wrote, "but try to imagine three million of them singing at once. That’s the sound emanating into the sky on a June morning from the number of Swainson’s Thrushes that would be found in the 55 million acres of northern Ontario’s Boreal that you have just announced will now be protected. Even better yet, imagine 4.5 million renditions of the “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” song of the White-throated Sparrow echoing across the Boreal."

As Jeff went on to point out, the land that Ontario will permanently protect from timbering and mining is home to 5 million juncos, 4 million magnolia warblers, 3 million palm warblers and 2 million Tennessee warblers, just to name a few species.

The Boreal Forest Conservation Initiative is sweeping in its scope - but so is the forest its is so effectively protecting. The Canadian boreal is the largest intact forest left on the planet, bigger even than the Amazon. And while its southern fringes have been impacted by logging, roads and other development, most of it is still whole and functioning, home not only to birds but to grizzlies, wolves, caribou, moose, wild sheep and hundreds of Native communities. (The boreal, of course, also covers much of Alaska, where a significant portion is protected federal land.)

Two years ago, I had a chance to see some of the best of the boreal along with Jeff Wells, Pete and Linda Dunne, and National Geographic writer Mel White. We traveled up through the Northwest Territories, flying for hours across lake-studded muskeg forest, knowing that every one of the thousands of ponds we saw was home to scoters, loons, grebes and scaup, that every glance out the window of the small plane encompassed the territories of thousands of blackpoll or yellow-rumped warblers. It was staggering.

Déline at daybreak (©Scott Weidensaul)

At the small Sahtú Dene village of Déline, on the shores of Great Bear Lake, we watched an incredible dawn procession of birds pouring out of the north - Pacific loons, Arctic terns, shorebirds and sea ducks of a dozen species, and waves of warblers and sparrows in numbers beyond counting. At one point, a parasitic jaeger chased a lesser yellowlegs across the immense lake, only giving up when the smaller bird took refuge in the underbrush almost at our feet.

The Northwest Territories is also undertaking a protected area strategy of its own, as part of the boreal initiative, with First Nations communities setting aside huge chunks of environmentally and culturally sensitive land before a new natural gas pipeline is built through the region.

Other provinces are taking note; this week, Manitoba's meager efforts were called "shameful" by conservationists there, who are hoping Ontario's leadership will spark equally significant moves elsewhere in the boreal region.

You can find a story from the Toronto Star about the Ontario land deal here. You can also read a piece I wrote in 2007 for The Nature Conservancy on the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework here.

And finally, you can send a note of thanks to Premier McGuinty via BSI's website -- something every American birder who reaps the benefits of the boreal forest should take a moment to do.

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