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Boreal Region of Canada

The boreal represents one of the few opportunities remaining globally to proactively plan for truly sustainable human development and the maintenance and persistence of healthy, functioning ecosystems.

Fig 1. Circumpolar boreal forest, NRCAN 2008
The circumpolar boreal forest is the most extensive terrestrial ecosystem on earth. It contains at least 60% of the world's surface freshwater (Schindler 2001) and more than 50% of the world's forest carbon (Ruckstuhl et al. 2008). Canada's boreal region contains approximately one third of the world's boreal forest (~6 million km2), and one quarter of all intact forest remaining globally (Bryant et al. 1997). The boreal forest of Canada is comprised of 7 ecozones distinguished by abiotic and biotic factors (Marshall and Schut 1999) and is characterized by largely coniferous forest in the more northern regions with mixedwood forests more commonly found in the south. Spruce, fir, pine, and tamarack and the broad-leaved deciduous trembling aspen, balsam poplar, and birch are the dominant trees found in the Canadian boreal forest. Canada's boreal contains an estimated 1 - 2 million lakes and ponds (NRTEE 2005). Wetlands cover 20% of the land in the boreal (NRCAN 2009).

Fig 2. Fire - AFS photo
The boreal region of Canada is a relatively intact system that is still shaped by active natural disturbances. Natural disturbances in the boreal region are often regionally specific and occur at multiple spatial scales, but the wide-spread, large-scale disturbances have the greatest influence on the region. Common large-scale disturbances in Canada’s boreal include fire (Fig 2), flooding, ice storms, insect outbreaks, landslides, and wind storms. Fire and insect outbreaks are the two most prominent disturbances.

Fig 3. Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Canada's boreal region supports over one-third of the breeding populations of North American migratory land birds (Blancher 2003), a significant proportion of the continental breeding grounds for migratory waterfowl, and intact predator-prey assemblages that include the largest caribou herds in the world. Range contractions of many North American carnivores and ungulates (Laliberte and Ripple 2004) and the latent extinction risk of mammals in northern Canada (Cardillo et al. 2006) highlight the increasing contribution and importance of Canada’s boreal regions to the persistence of these species.

Governments, communities, resource industries, conservation organizations, and First Nations and local communities are the primary stakeholders in the boreal forest. Canada's boreal is comprised almost entirely of public lands and intersects 10 provincial and territorial government jurisdictions. The boreal is home to more than 500 First Nations communities which have strong cultural ties to the region. Boreal communities rely heavily on natural resources for economic development.

Fig 4. Boreal Region and Intactness

The boreal region has 690 protected areas greater than 1,000 ha (NRCAN 2008) which protect 7.3% of the boreal. Formal corridors between protected areas have not been designated. However, approximately 70% of the boreal matrix is intact based on Global Forest Watch Canada's (GFWC) intact forest landscapes (Fig 4). The majority of anthropogenic disturbance falls along the southern edge of the boreal where agriculture and forestry are the dominant activities. Other prominent human-caused disturbances include hydro-electricity in the eastern boreal, and oil and gas exploration and extraction in the west. These disturbances, along with others, are increasingly modifying the boreal matrix and its ecological processes (Schindler and Lee 2010). Development of the oil sands in west-central boreal is expected to affect an estimated 13.8 million hectares of boreal forest (Schneider and Dyer 2006). Further, interests are turning north to rich mineral deposits, oil and gas reserves, and untapped waterways.


Blancher, P. 2003. Importance of Canada's boreal forest to landbirds. Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Boreal Songbird Initiative, Ottawa. 48 pages.

Bryant D, Nielsen D, and L. Tangley. 1997. The last frontier forests: Ecosystems and economies on the edge. World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C. 57 pages.

Cardillo, M., G. M. Mace, J.L. Gittleman, and A. Purvis. 2006. Latent extinction risk and the future battlegrounds of mammal conservation. PNAS 103(11):4157-4161.

Laliberte, A.S.and W.J. Ripple. 2004. Range contractions of North American carnivoires and ungulates. Bioscience 54:123-138.

Marshall, I.B. and P.H. Schut. 1999. A National Ecological Framework for Canada – Overview. A cooperative product by Ecosystems Science Directorate, Environment Canada and Research Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 7 pages.

NRCAN (Natural Resources Canada). 2009. Atlas of Canada - forests and wetlands. Government of Canada, Ottawa, ON.

NRCAN (Natural Resources Canada). 2008. Atlas of Canada 1,000,000 National Frameworks Data, Protected Areas. Government of Canada, Ottawa, ON.

NRTEE (National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy). 2005. Boreal futures: governance, conservation and development in Canada's boreal. State of the Debate Report, National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, Ottawa, ON. 116pp.

Schindler, D.W. 2001. The cumulative effects of climate warming and other human stresses on Canadian freshwaters in the new millennium. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 58:18-29.

Schindler, D.W. and P.G. Lee. 2010. Comprehensive conservation planning to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services in Canadian boreal regions under a warming climate and increasing exploitation. Biological Conservation 143:1571-1586.



Jul 24 2017
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