Hudson Plains Ecozone+ Evidence for key findings summary
Theme: Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
- Intact landscapes and waterscapes
- Species of special interest: economic, cultural, or ecological
- Primary productivity
- Natural disturbances
- Food webs
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
Intact landscapes and waterscapes
Intact landscapes and waterscapes was initially identified as a nationally recurring key finding and information was subsequently compiled and assessed for the Hudson Plains Ecozone+. In the final version of the national report,Reference 3 information related to intact landscapes and waterscapes was incorporated into other key findings. This information is maintained as a separate key finding for the Hudson Plains Ecozone+.
The Hudson Plains Ecozone+ is one of Canada's ecozones+ with the least human influence to date. It is characterized by a small human population (see Ecozone+ Basicson page 2), a near-absence of commercial forestry (see Forestsbiome on page 13) and agricultureReference 252, and relatively little development in hydroelectric (see Lakes and rivers on page 16) or mining sectors (for more information on the ecozone+ 's single mine, see Wetlands on page 14). As such, the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ is comprised mostly of relatively intact landscapes and waterscapes, where ecosystem processes are presumed to be functioning well. Pressure for additional resource and transportation developments is, however, mounting and cumulative impacts from roads and hydroelectric developments are a concern.
The Hudson Plains Ecozone+ is the most intact (least anthropogenically fragmented) of all forested ecozones+ in Canada, with 97% of its area covered with "intact terrestrial landscape fragments" (i.e., intact landscape patches or units) of more than 10,000 haReference 253 in 2006 (Figure 20). Linear, anthropogenic fragmentation of the landscape is limited to a relatively small number of transportation and hydroelectric transmission corridors,Reference 14, Reference 76, Reference 164 including a major new transmission line that services the Victor mine.Reference 37 The western and eastern extremities of the ecozone+ are transected from the south by two railway lines (one each in Manitoba and Ontario) that terminate near the coast, but the ecozone+ is still nearly roadless. Winter roads seasonally connect the coastal communitiesReference 14, Reference 76, Reference 164 and one all-season road (James Bay Road) connects the coastal communities of Eastmain (1995) and Waskaganish (2001) in Quebec with the highway system in the south.Reference 166
Intact landscape fragments
The large tracts of intact natural landscapes found in this ecozone+ have high biodiversity value. The ecozone+ still supports top predator species such as grey wolf, as well as species of national conservation concern such as polar bear (see Polar bear on page 54), woodland caribou (see Caribou on page 56), and wolverine that require large tracts of unfragmented and/or unroaded landscape and are especially vulnerable to human disturbance. In fact, aerial surveys in the ecozone+ from 2003 to 2010 suggest further expansion of wolverine east (along with some likely increase in its population numbers), continuing the trend observed since 1970 of this species recolonizing its historical range.Reference 254, Reference 255 Wolverines in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ represent the eastern extension of the national Western population, which is assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as Special Concern.Reference 256 As such, they are strategically important for maintaining the Western population and recovering the Eastern population.
As well, the coastal habitats of Hudson and James bays are extremely important as spring and fall staging areas and migration corridors for many waterfowl, shorebirds, and other birds en route to and from their nesting grounds in the eastern and central Canadian arctic.Reference 73 Sea ducks (for example, scoters) and brant are known to follow the large rivers flowing into the south end of James Bay,Reference 257, Reference 258 which is critical moulting and staging habitat for them. Many Hudsonian godwits are thought to fly directly from the James Bay area to stopover areas in South AmericaReference 259 and James Bay is also a key area for the Endangered red knot.Reference 72, Reference 260 American white pelican (Threatened in Ontario) and double-crested cormorant are increasingly reported in the ecozone+ and both began breeding in Akimiski Strait in the last decade.Reference 261 -Reference 263
Rivers and lakes in the ecozone+ are relatively healthy and undisturbed compared to ecozones+ in more developed areas of Canada.Reference 45, Reference 46 While some of the ecozone+ 's large river systems are fragmented or otherwise affected by hydroelectric developments (see Lakes and rivers on page 16), other relatively large rivers remain unregulated.Reference 35, Reference 54 Such rivers include the Hayes, Severn, Winisk, Attawapiskat, Harricana, and Broadback rivers.
The many intact natural rivers and streams remaining in the ecozone+ are particularly important to anadromous fish species such as brook trout, lake whitefish, and cisco (found in coastal rivers and streams) and other migratory fish species such as lake sturgeon (found in all major rivers, their main tributaries, and connecting large lakes). Dams and other hydroelectric structures, unless constructed on existing natural barriers such as waterfalls, fragment waterscapes and affect these and other fish species by physically blocking their movements and restricting access to habitats important for critical life stages such as spawning.Reference 34 The ecozone+ is notably important for lake sturgeon, a species of national conservation concern that tends to be more deeply in decline or extirpated in more developed locales (see Lake sturgeon on page 61).
Although the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ is highly intact at present, pressure for new resource developments is mounting, particularly in mining,Reference 148 , Reference 164 , Reference 264 -Reference 266 hydroelectric,Reference 35, Reference 55, Reference 57, Reference 58and wind-farmingReference 267-Reference 269 sectors. Recent discovery of world-class chromite deposits inland, within the Ring of Fire mineral field,Reference 264, Reference 266 especially portends more major mining-related infrastructure.Reference 148 Although likely to bring additional jobs to the ecozone+ 's wage economy, the high potential for additional resource developments in this ecozone+ is of ecological concern because it drives the establishment of roads and other infrastructureReference 37, Reference 164, Reference 166 that will increasingly fragment the landscape and facilitate further human access, along with associated influences on ecozone+ health.Reference 32, Reference 61, Reference 270 Similarly, cumulative impacts from multiple hydroelectric developments within the Hudson Bay watershed is a concern.Reference 59-Reference 63, Reference 189.
Irrespective of future resource developments, feasibility planning is in progress for an all-season road that would run along the western edge of the ecozone+ , from Gillam to Churchill, Manitoba and beyond to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.Reference 271, Reference 272 Likewise, a pre-feasibility study is in progress in Ontario to assess possible routes for an all-season road that would connect communities along the coast of James Bay with the provincial highway system in the south.Reference 273
Key finding 17
Species of special interest: economic, cultural, or ecological
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
Many species of amphibians, fish, birds, and large mammals are of special economic, cultural, or ecological interest to Canadians. Some of these are declining in number and distribution, some are stable, and others are healthy or recovering.
The Hudson Plains Ecozone+ has relatively few species considered to be of conservation concern nationally by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and most are migratory birds.Reference 30 Three species of conservation concern and otherwise of particular ecological interest are profiled below that are also culturally important to Aboriginal peoples in the ecozone+. The three species, polar bear, woodland caribou, and lake sturgeon, represent the marine-terrestrial interface, terrestrial landscapes, and waterscapes, respectively. Birds are also profiled as a group, given the high importance of this ecozone+ to migratory birds in general. Data are largely insufficient for assessing status and trends in species of lower taxa, including amphibians.
The polar bear is assessed as a species of Special Concern nationally by COSEWIC (2008).Reference 111, Footnote §As an apex predator in the marine system, it is a species that has already been negatively affected by climate change,Reference 274 making continued monitoring of polar bear populations critical. Polar bear is also of cultural significance to Aboriginal peoples.
Some 4,000 polar bears, or about 20% of the total world population, occur in the entire Hudson Bay region, of which about 1,800 individuals are associated with the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ .Reference 275 Polar bears use sea ice as a platform for catching prey (primarily ringed sealsReference 183). When sea ice in Hudson and James bays melts in the summer, the bears come ashore where they spend up to five months (eight months for pregnant females) before the sea ice re-forms.Reference 114 Polar bears of the Western Hudson Bay (WHB) subpopulation summer on land in ManitobaReference 276 and those of the Southern Hudson Bay (SHB) subpopulation summer on land in Ontario and on islands in Southern Hudson Bay and James Bay (Nunavut).Reference 277 The polar bears that use the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ are at the southern edge of the species' range, where the first effects of climate change on the species were predicted to occur.Reference 223
The WHB subpopulation of polar bears has already declined in abundance by 22% from about 1,194 individuals in 1987 to 935 in 2004.Reference 274 Coincident with this population decline, there were indications of declining body condition and reduced survival rates in some age classes.Reference 113, Reference 274 The adjacent SHB subpopulation of polar bears has shown significant declines in body conditionReference 225 (Figure 21) as well as evidence of declines in survival rates of all age and sex classes.Reference 217 Together, these observations suggest that this subpopulation, whose numbers have been stable from the mid-1980s until last assessed in 2003-2005, is likely to decline in abundance in the future.Reference 217 Under respective provincial legislation, Manitoba declared the WHB subpopulation Threatened in February 2008, and Ontario declared the SHB subpopulation Threatened in September 2009.
Abbreviations: SF, solitary adult females; AF, adult females with young; M, adult males; SA, subadults; ALL, all classes combined. See Cattet et al., 2002Reference 278 for a description of the Mean Body Condition Index.
Source: redrawn from Obbard et al., 2006 Reference 225 under license with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, © Queen's Printer for Ontario, 2006
Long description for Figure 21
|Age and reproductive class||1984-1986||2000-2005|
|-||-||Body condition index|
The declines in body condition, survival, and abundance of the polar bear subpopulations that use the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ are correlated with significant trends toward earlier break-up of sea iceReference 113, Reference 216, Reference 225, Reference 274 that are, in turn, attributed to climate change (see Ice across biomes on page 26). These trends in sea ice in Hudson and James bays are projected to continue (see Climate change on page 42) and will have negative impacts on polar bears.Reference 215 A reduction in the annual duration of sea ice decreases the time that polar bears have on the ice to hunt and feed on seals and, therefore, to put on fat stores for their seasonal period on land, where they eat only opportunistically (for example, berries, goose eggs, and flightless geeseReference 279 -Reference 283 ). Changes in diet as a result of reduced sea ice duration may also be responsible for higher concentrations of some contaminants in the bears (see Contaminants on page 38). Some evidence of changing prey relationships is discussed in the Food webssection on page 66. Though harvest is currently not the key factor affecting population trends, harvest is a recognized anthropogenic stressor on polar bear subpopulations, and it must be closely monitored in the future. Harvest will be particularly challenging to manage in the future, when these subpopulations are projected to decline in abundance in association with climate change.Reference 284
Woodland caribou are ecologically and culturally important in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+. Ecologically, their status serves as an indicator of general ecosystem integrity. In general, they require large patches of undisturbed, mature coniferous forest and are sensitive to human disturbance.Reference 285-Reference 287 Within the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ they also require undisturbed coastal and tundra habitats, which are used from calving through rut.Reference 254, Reference 288 Woodland caribou are also culturally important to local Aboriginal peoples, forming an important part of their traditional subsistence lifestyle.Reference 238
Two ecotypes of woodland caribou regularly inhabit the Hudson Plains Ecozone+: the more southerly and sedentary, forest-dwelling ecotype and the more northerly and migratory, forest-tundra ecotype (Figure 22). During some winters, barren-ground caribou from the Qamanirjuaq herd occasionally migrate into the western part of the ecozone+ Reference 289 (Figure 22), but this herd may be only minimally influenced by its limited use of the ecozone+ and it is not discussed further here.
Forest-dwelling ecotype of woodland caribou
In 2002, COSEWIC assessed the Boreal population of the forest-dwelling ecotype of woodland caribou as Threatened, due to population declines throughout most of the range and threats from habitat loss and increased predation, possibly facilitated by human activities.Reference 290 This population occurs in both the Ontario and Quebec portions of the ecozone+ Reference 291, Reference 292 (Figure 22).
There is currently no information to suggest range recession or population decline of this ecotype in the relatively remote Hudson Plains Ecozone+, as there is elsewhere in Canada.Reference 254, Reference 287, Reference 290, Reference 293, Reference 294 Winter densities of 0.015 to 0.141 caribou/km² were reported from systematic surveys conducted periodically since 1959 throughout the Ontario portion of the ecozone+. Reference 254 Although it was not possible to detect any trends or changes during that period because study areas and methods varied among surveys, preliminary data from a 2008 winter survey in the southern part of the ecozone+ in Ontario, in which methods and study areas were similar to earlier work, suggests that caribou densities have increased there from 0.01 caribou/km2 Reference 295 to 0.04 caribou/km2, Reference 296 since 1983-1984. The western range of the Jamésie herd (~600 animals) also occurs within the ecozone+ Reference 297 (Figure 22) and this herd is currently considered stable.Reference 298
Forest-tundra ecotype of woodland caribou
The migratory forest-tundra ecotype of woodland caribou has not been assessed by COSEWIC. This ecotype occurs in Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec portions of the ecozone+ and includes the Cape Churchill, Pen Islands (represented in Figure 22 as Hudson Bay Coastal Lowland), George River, and Leaf River herds. The ecozone+ comprises only the western periphery of the annual ranges of the latter two herds (Figure 22) and they are not considered further here (see the Taiga Shield Ecozone+ Key Findings SummaryReference 33 for more information on these herds).
The Cape Churchill herd has not been well studied but no recent changes are suggested. In 1997/98 its minimum population size was estimated to be 3,013 adults.Reference 299 Parks Canada conducted an aerial survey on May 28/29, 2005 and along flight lines over the known calving area counted 644 animals.Reference 300 Three counts of an opportunistic aerial photograph survey taken on July 20, 2007 averaged 2,937 adult animals, suggesting no change in the minimum population size of this herd from 1997/98.
Conversely, a recent eastward shift and possible decline is suggested for the Pen Islands (Hudson Bay Coastal Lowland) herd. This herd increased from a minimum of 2,300 animals in 1979 to a high of 10,798 animals in 1994,Reference 288 but numerous aerial surveys conducted since 2000 have shown that these animals are no longer present in large aggregations in their traditional area (Manitoba-Ontario border region) (as defined in the 1990s) at calving time or during the summer as previously documented, raising uncertainty as to the current status of this herd.Reference 254 An eastern shift in summer use of coastal areas by forest-tundra caribou has been occurring since the late 1990s,Reference 254 with 2008 and 2009 systematic surveys showing >80% of observed forest-tundra caribou now near Cape Henrietta Maria.Reference 301 These surveys also suggest the possibility of a significant decline in the number of these forest-tundra caribou, with observed numbers of just 3,529 (2008) and 3,304 (2009).Reference 301 These results (eastward shift and lower numbers) may represent: a shift in range use and behaviour of the Pen Islands herd within the broader Hudson Plains Ecozone+ ; an independent decrease in numbers of caribou in the former Pen Islands range coupled with an independent increase in numbers in the east; or some combination of those and other population or behavioural changes.
Multiple factors (not examined) may be responsible, including deterioration of range condition in the Pen Islands area leading to decreased food availability, increased predator densities, disturbance, and harvest. However, the learned avoidance of areas of high harvest pressure and/or high disturbance is suspected to be contributing because of the pattern of change (see Abraham et al., 2011Reference 4 ). Still, no comprehensive estimate of forest-tundra caribou population size or true population trend currently exists for this ecozone+. Therefore, the sustainable harvest level is unknown, and no clear cause-effect relationship can be ascribed.
Future landscape fragmentation associated with a high potential for new resource development in this ecozone+ (see Intact landscapes and waterscapes on page 51) is a concern for the long-term health of both ecotypes of woodland caribou. Human developments, including linear disturbances such as electricity transportation corridors and winter and all-season roads, allow hunters and predators greater access to caribou, and can also create barriers to their movement and distribution.302-305 Another emerging issue is the effect of climate change on caribou habitat in the ecozone+ with the potential consequence of changing caribou status.Reference 306 , Reference 307
As Canada's largest wetland complex and the third largest in the world, the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ provides critical habitat for many breeding bird populations.Reference 28 The large and diverse assemblage of birds (over 340 species) supported by this ecozone+ is comprised of mostly migratory species in four basic groups: landbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, and waterbirds (including seabirds)Reference 14 , Reference 90 , Reference 151 , Reference 308 , Reference 309 (but see Niemi et al., (2010)Reference 15 regarding seabirds in the pelagic portion of the geographic area). Populations of such migratory species are also affected by anthropogenic factors outside the ecozone+ , along migration routes and in their wintering areas further south. There are no ecozone+-wide bird trend monitoring programs in place; bird monitoring activity is a mixture of programs undertaken by various agencies.Reference 4 Waterfowl is the best monitored of the four bird groups, and waterbirds probably the least well monitored. Some changes or trends in bird populations are evident (see below) but northward shifts in species breeding distributions are not apparent in this geography.Reference 151
In Ontario, the draft Bird Conservation Region (BCR) 7 conservation plan for landbirdsReference 309 lists 124 species that regularly breed or winter in the ecozone+ (no comparable plans have been prepared for the Manitoba or Quebec portions of the BCR). Five species are assessed by COSEWIC as species at riskReference 130 : olive-sided flycatcher (Threatened), Canada warbler (Threatened), common nighthawk (Threatened), rusty blackbird (Special Concern), and short-eared owl (Special Concern). Another two species are listed as species at risk by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO)Reference 310 : golden eagle (Endangered) and bald eagle (Special Concern). In Quebec, golden eagle, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon are species at risk.Reference 311 In Manitoba, the only landbird regularly occurring in the ecozone+ that is listed is the peregrine falcon (Endangered).Reference 312 The bald eagle has increased in the ecozone+ since the 1980s, both as a breeding species in the southern portion and as non-breeding birds along the coasts during summer.Reference 313 , Reference 314
Most species of waterfowl breeding in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ have stable or increasing populations. The Canada geese that use the ecozone+ belong to four populations: two populations (Eastern Prairie and Mississippi Valley) have increased over the past four decades but they have been stable (Eastern Prairie) or declining (Mississippi Valley) in recent years, and two populations (Southern James Bay and Atlantic) declined from the 1970s to 1990s but have been stable since.Reference 315 , Reference 316 Lesser snow goose nests in the ecozone+ in discrete colonies, of which there were three in the 1970s,Reference 318 , Reference 318 but, with the quadrupling over the last four decades of the Mid-Continent population of lesser snow goose to which these colonies belong, there has been much expansion of those as well as establishment of three more colonies.Reference 318 -Reference 320 Intensive foraging by this increased population has led to much damage to the ecozone+ 's coastal salt marshes over the same period (see the Coastalbiome on page 20). Three of the Canada goose populations (Eastern Prairie, Mississippi Valley, and Southern James Bay) have been affected locally in terms of reproductive success or nesting density by the growth of the lesser snow goose population.
Although it does not breed in the ecozone+, the entire Atlantic population of brant stages there and relies on the eelgrass beds and salt marshes of the coastal zone of James Bay during spring and fall migrations.Reference 321 Its dependence on eelgrass, which has shown a decline in the ecozone+ (see the Coastalbiome on page 20), suggests a re-distribution of brant within the ecozone+ over the past two decades.
Species or groups of ducks that occur in the ecozone+ and for which there is continental concern about declining populations include greater and lesser scaup, northern pintail, and sea ducks (for example, scoters).Reference 151 , Reference 315 There are insufficient data to analyze trends of scaup and pintail in the ecozone+. However, surveys of the Atlantic subpopulation of black scoters that moults in the nearshore areas of James Bay suggest that its numbers have not changed significantly between 1977 and 2009.Reference 315 , Reference 322
The vast lowlands lying behind the coastlines of Hudson and James bays support a number of breeding species of shorebirds. Very little information is available on their breeding population trends. Shorebirds have, however, been studied extensively at Churchill and nearly all studies have reported widespread declines.Reference 323 , Reference 324 Declines were particularly notable in the semipalmated sandpiper, which used to be the most abundant breeding shorebird in the Churchill region up to the 1940s, but by 2004 could no longer be found breeding in that area.Reference 325 -Reference 327 Breeding whimbrel, for which the ecozone+ is of particular importance, are also thought to have declined in abundance in the Churchill region.Reference 90 , Reference 323
The coasts of Hudson and James bays remain a key migration area for arctic breeding shorebirds of many species. The vast mudflats and coastal lagoons and wetlands provide critical resting habitat and food resources for replenishing fat and protein reserves needed for migration to breeding areas in the spring and for migration to wintering areas in the fall. James Bay remains a key migration area for Hudsonian godwit and red knot, the latter species assessed by COSEWIC as Endangered.Reference 72 , Reference 73 , Reference 259 , Reference 260
Waterbirds are a mixed group that includes loons, grebes, gulls, terns, jaegers, herons, pelicans and cormorants, rails, and cranes. Overall, as a group about two thirds of the regularly occurring species are stable or increasing.Reference 90 , Reference 308 In terms of species assessed by COSEWIC,Reference 30 Ross's gull (Threatened) has declined in the Manitoba portion of the ecozone+ ,Reference 313 and yellow rail (Special Concern) may have declined in the Ontario portion Reference 328 and locally in the Manitoba portion. Reference 90 In both provinces snow goose habitat degradation may be affecting local nesting densities of yellow rail. American white pelican recently established breeding in Akimiski Strait, illustrating the easterly expansion of this species that is designated by COSSARO (Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario) as Threatened. Reference 263 Double-crested cormorants also established a breeding colony in Akimiski Strait. Reference 261
Lake sturgeon reaches the northern limit of its range near the northern most extent of the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ in Manitoba and Ontario, and just north of the ecozone+ in Quebec.Reference 329 -Reference 331 Within the ecozone+ it occurs in all major rivers and their main tributaries and connecting large lakes. Reference 34 , Reference 64 , Reference 65 , Reference 330 , Reference 332 , Reference 333 The species is a culturally important and valued food resource for local Aboriginal peoples. Reference 37 , Reference 334 , Reference 335
Ecologically, lake sturgeon is a sensitive indicator of the health of aquatic environments because it is a long-lived species thought to have strong site fidelity for spawning and other habitat requirements. Reference 330 Because it commonly migrates up to 100 km or more between these sites, Reference 336 it is sensitive to river fragmentation. The slow growth rate of this species, late age to maturity (15 to 25 years), and infrequent spawning behaviour also make it very vulnerable to over-harvest and habitat change more generally. Reference 329 , Reference 337
Through most of the Hudson Plains Ecozone+, lake sturgeon is assessed by COSEWIC as Special Concern.Reference 330 However, reduced populations of the Churchill and Nelson rivers are assessed as Endangered, due to historic harvest activities and current hydroelectric development. Reference 330 The segment of the Nelson River within the ecozone+, downstream of the Limestone Dam, is the longest stretch (100 km) of unimpounded water remaining on that river and the lake sturgeon there may represent perhaps the last true riverine stock on the river. Reference 338 The lack of older, larger fish and low numbers of larvae, however, suggest a stressed population with low recruitment. Reference 330 At least one additional hydroelectric development is proposed for that segment of the river. Reference 55 , Reference 56
Deterioration of lake sturgeon populations is also evident near hydroelectric developments elsewhere in the ecozone+. The abundance of lake sturgeon strongly declined in the Eastmain and Opinaca rivers following diversion of most of the flow from these rivers north to the La Grande River (see Lakes and rivers on page 16). Reference 32 , Reference 34 Declines in lake sturgeon abundance in the Eastmain and Opinca rivers are attributed to very low recruitment, believed to result from reduced quality of, and/or access to, spawning grounds, along with increased harvest (new road access and increased ease of net fishing associated with the reduced flow).Reference 32 , Reference 34 The species was almost totally absent from catches in 1998. Reference 339
Still, lake sturgeon is thought to be in comparatively good condition in the ecozone+ as a whole, owing to the overall limited amount of human disturbance there and presence of many rivers still free from hydroelectric development, especially in the majority of the ecozone+ that lies in Ontario (see Intact landscapes and waterscapes on page 51). Certainly, the species tends to be more deeply in decline or even extirpated in more developed areas of North America, Reference 340 due primarily to habitat degradation and loss and over-exploitation. Reference 341
The high potential for additional hydroelectric development in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ (see Lakes and rivers on page 16and Intact landscapes and waterscapes on page 51) is a concern for the long-term health of the lake sturgeon populations found there, as such development may further fragment lake sturgeon habitat and facilitate other human disturbance.
Key finding 18
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
Primary productivity has increased on more than 20% of the vegetated land area of Canada over the past 20 years, as well as in some freshwater systems. The magnitude and timing of primary productivity are changing throughout the marine system.
Remote sensing analyses based on leaf area index and land cover type across the entire Hudson Plains Ecozone+ have estimated net primary productivity (NPP) there at 138 ± 84 g C/m² /yr (based on the year 1994). Reference 342 This estimate falls within the range of the ground-based measurements of NPP from the eastern part of the ecozone+ (~50 to 100 g C/m² /yr) Reference 343 and northern Manitoba (~125 to 275 g C/m² /yr). Reference 221
A complementary analysis of trends in the Normalized-Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, a measure of gross primary photosynthesis and a proxy for green leaf area based on remote sensing) found that over the period 1985 to 2006 NDVI increased significantly over 4.9% of this ecozone+ 's land surface and decreased over 0.1% of its land surface. Reference 9 , Reference 334 Some increase in primary productivity may also be suggested by observations of increased tree and shrub cover above the treeline (in the tundra), as near Churchill.Reference 107 Overall, however, to date increases in productivity appear to be much less in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ than for some other areas of Canada, including the eastern portion of the neighbouring Taiga Shield Ecozone. Reference 9 , Reference 344 Changes in primary productivity in the north are likely to be climate-driven, given the few changes in land use.Reference 344
Note that satellite observations cannot provide information on belowground processes affecting soil carbon and nitrogen dynamics. Reference 345 Understanding carbon-cycling in this ecozone+ (complex and currently poorly understood) is critically important because of the implications any changes in the massive store of carbon in this ecozone+ have for regional and global carbon budgets and climate change (see Climate change on page 42and Climate regulation, a regulating ecosystem service on page 49).
Key finding 19
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
The dynamics of natural disturbance regimes, such as fire and native insect outbreaks, are changing and this is reshaping the landscape. The direction and degree of change vary.
There is little evidence to suggest that the extent, frequency, or severity of natural disturbances from fire, native insect oubreaks, or extreme weather have changed in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ to date. Information about these types of natural disturbances is, however, very limited, most notably for native insect outbreaks. Such disturbances are expected to occur more frequently in the future in association with climate change.
The fire regime of the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ is effectively natural, with a strong predominance of lightning-caused firesReference 8 and almost no fire suppression. Reference 346 , Reference 347 Although data are limited, fire frequency tends to increase inland, away from the coast. Reference 8 , Reference 348 Large fires in this ecozone+ tend, however, to be less frequent and of smaller maximum size than in neighbouring Boreal Shield and Taiga Shield ecozones+, Reference 347 , Reference 349 , Reference 350 presumably owing to an overall humid, cool climate and a predominance of wetlands and related effects on horizontal fuel discontinuity and overall fire resistance. Reference 350
Early data from the Canadian Large Fire Database are inaccurate for this area until the mid-1970s.Reference 349 Based on available data from 1980 onward, no trends are apparent in analyzed elements of the large fire (≥ 2 km² ) regime, including: annual area burned, 1980 to 2007 (highly variable; Figure 23); causes of fire, 1980 to 1999 (predominantly lightning, ~92%); seasonality of fire, 1980 to 1999 (May-August, with activity peaking mid-period); and duration of the active fire season, 1980 to 1999 (~55 days). Reference 8 Although the available data and analysis are limited in terms of temporal scale, the results are consistent with studies of long-term trends in the July monthly drought code, an indicator of wildfire risk across circumboreal forests. Reference 351 , Reference 352 The apparent stability in the overall fire regime in this ecozone+ since the early 1900s contrasts with other areas in Canada, of which the southeastern and southwestern boreal show diminishing wildfire risk and area burned, and other areas show increases. A trend towards decreasing dryness (reduced wildfire risk) is evident at the extreme southern end of the Hudson Plains Ecozone for the period 1901 to 2002, but not for the more recent period since 1951. Reference 351
Data from 1960-1979 are screened-out to denote probable inaccuracy; these data are from a period when fire detection was non-existent or limited in this Ecozone+. Reference 349
Source: Krezek-Hanes et al., 2011Reference 8
Long description for Figure 23
|Years||Area burned (km²)|
If climate change leads to an increase in the annual area burned in the ecozone+ as projected, Reference 214 , Reference 233 the increased fire activity could exacerbate the release of carbon as well as mercury from the ecozone+ 's extensive peatlands (see Climate change on page 42), in addition to altering vegetative succession (shifting forests to younger age classes) and other ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling. Limited evidence for the southern part of the ecozone suggests that the projected increase in future fire risk in this area may, by 2100, move the burn rate towards the upper limit of its range of natural variability during most of the Holocene (over at least the last ~ 7,000 years). Reference 214
Native insect outbreaks
The role of insects as disturbance agents in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ is poorly understood. Few forest insect surveys have been conducted there and they were limited to the most southerly portion of the ecozone+. Reference 353 These surveys, along with available tree ring studies, Reference 354 , Reference 355 do, however, suggest that spruce budworm and larch sawfly are the two main (but not only) defoliators in this ecozone+ .
The available forest insect surveys report occasional episodes of defoliation by spruce budworm and forest tent caterpillar in the southern part of the ecozone+. Reference 353 However, these episodes would be considered too short, too scattered, and too separated in time to expect substantial tree mortality or otherwise be considered an important disturbance if they had occurred further south. Reference 356 , Reference 357
Conversely, tree ring studies suggest that larch sawfly (distributed widely over the ecozone+ Reference 358 ) sporadically produces substantial impacts on eastern larch right up to the treeline. Reference 359 Moreover, the eastern larch beetle tends to follow outbreaks of the larch sawfly, further increasing the mortality of eastern larch when it does. Indeed, Langor and Raske (1989) Reference 360 reported widespread mortality of eastern larch in 1960 between Englehart and James Bay, Ontario, which includes part of the Hudson Plains Ecozone+. Although not confirmed, eastern larch beetle may be the cause of recent mortality of eastern larch in the Churchill area, an observation made by Manitoba provincial staff in 2008. Reference 361
Clearly, it is difficult to assess current trends in insect outbreaks (types, severity, frequency, etc.) for this ecozone+ directly from the limited information available. Even if this were possible, it becomes dangerous to extrapolate such trends into the future because they ignore climate change, and climate change will almost certainly be a major driver of future such trends (for example, Soja et al., (2007); Reference 362 Volney and Fleming (2007); Reference 356 see also Climate change on page 42); increases in insect disturbance are likely.
Direct information about extreme weather events and the impacts of such events is very limited for the Hudson Plains Ecozone+. Reference 4 The only trend information available is for indicators or indices of extreme weather derived from daily temperature and precipitation data, which suggest limited potential changes in extreme weather to date.Reference 351 , Reference 352 , Reference 363 -Reference 367 At both ecozone+ and sub-ecozone+ scales, the occurrence rate of extreme drought years did not increase over the period 1901 to 2002 when estimated from July monthly drought code. Reference 351 , Reference 352 However, over the period 1950 to 2003, climate stations at Churchill and Moosonee both showed significant increases in diurnal temperature range (with Churchill additionally showing an increase in the standard deviation of temperature mean) and the Moosonee station showed significant trends for more warm days (days with daily maximum temperature, Tmax >90th percentile) and more summer days (Tmax >25 °C) (but not cold or frost days). Reference 365 Unlike temperature indices, precipitation indices showed no significant trends over the 1950 to 2003 period at either Churchill or Moosonee stations, Reference 365 albeit some increase in precipitation intensity is suggested for at least part of the ecozone+ if station-level indices are area-averaged across the ecozone+ by grid-interpolation. Reference 365 Like elsewhere, the frequency of extreme weather events in this ecozone+ is forecast to increase with climate change Reference 368 (see also Climate change on page 42).
Key finding 20
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
Fundamental changes in relationships among species have been observed in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments. The loss or reduction of important components of food webs has greatly altered some ecosystems.
There is little evidence for broad-scale changes in primary production (base of foodwebs) in the Hudson Plains Ecozone+ (see Primary productivity on page 62) and the ecozone+ still supports large predator species such as polar bear and grey wolf (top of foodwebs). However, some changes in food webs, including fundamental changes in relationships among species, have been observed in the ecozone+. Loss or serious reduction of several important components of the coastal salt marsh food web is evident, reflecting the severe damage that has occurred to these salt marshes over the last four decades. As well, changed predator-prey relationships involving polar bear are evident that are implicated with climate change and associated changes in wildlife phenology. However, predator-prey cycles are not being monitored and food web structures otherwise remain largely unstudied.
Coastal salt marsh food web
The severe damage caused to much of the ecozone+ 's coastal salt marsh habitat by the excessive grazing and grubbing of a greatly increased lesser snow goose population has led to an apparent trophic cascade, creating a bare sediment alternate state along much of the coast (see the Coastalbiome on page 20). Several components of the food web have been affected by the changes to vegetation, soils, and water as a result. Invertebrate abundance and community diversity have been altered. A sharp decline in soil invertebrate abundance, especially spiders and beetles, has occurred.Reference 369 In shallow ponds in the supratidal marsh, five species of five genera of Chironomidae were found in brackish ponds in undamaged salt marsh, while only one species was represented in the hypersaline ponds of damaged salt marsh. Reference 370 These changes affect foraging opportunities of passerine birds and shorebirds, which are primarily insectivorous during the breeding season. The herbivorous Canada goose has also been adversely affected. On Akimiski Island, for example, gosling Canada geese raised in areas with greater damage have significantly smaller body size and lower first year survival than those raised where snow geese do not occur. Reference 371
Predator-prey relationships and cycles
There is a paucity of detailed information on most predator-prey relationships and cycles in the ecozone+,Reference 4 because monitoring of predator-prey interactions has not been part of a regular wildlife management program there. The general relationships are recognized but the drivers and regularity of cycles, where present, are largely unknown. Changed predator-prey relationships involving polar bear are, however, evident (see below).
Climate change may be affecting the relationship between polar bear and ringed seal, its primary prey. Reference 183 As already noted, deteriorating trends in polar bear are correlated with the shortening sea-ice season in Hudson and James bays, implying that the effect is related to less total time available for polar bears to hunt seals on the sea ice each year (see Polar bear on page 54). However, trends in polar bears may, to some extent, also reflect synchronous changes in both the population numbers and reproductive rates of ringed seals, Reference 372 , Reference 373 which are also dependent on the sea ice and may be affected by similar climatic patterns. Reference 374 , Reference 375 In Hudson Bay, the sea-ice regime, snowfall patterns, and spring temperatures may be driving a decadal cycle in ringed seal abundance and reproductive performance, with lows in the 1990s and improvements again in the 2000s. Reference 374 -Reference 378
Reduced sea ice duration may also be responsible for changes in the relative amounts of ice-associated bearded seals and open water-associated harbour and harp seals in the diet of polar bears, which may in turn have affected contaminant concentrations in the bears (see Contaminants on page 38). Ice-associated ringed seals (primary prey), however, continue to make a relatively steady contribution to the diet of these bears, suggesting that other species may not be sufficiently abundant or available to replace ringed seals in the polar bear's diet. Reference 170 , Reference 183 Thus, if the abundance or reproductive rates of ringed seals declines over the long-term due to continued and projected climatic warming in the Hudson Bay region (see Climate change on page 42), additional declines in the body condition, reproductive success, and abundance of polar bears might be expected. Reference 224 Currently, however, the effect of climate change on this predator-prey relationship remains uncertain. Reference 183 , Reference 216 , Reference 224 , Reference 284 , Reference 375
New or uncommonly reported predator-prey relationships are being increasingly documented by people who live in or frequent the Hudson Plains Ecozone+. Reference 281 , Reference 379 , Reference 380 Polar bear is observed stalking and chasing woodland caribou in Wapusk National Park Reference 379 and consuming eggs from lesser snow goose and Canada goose nests as well as moulting geese and flightless goslings along the coast. Reference 281 , Reference 282 As demonstrated at Cape Churchill Peninsula, mean hatching date of lesser snow goose is advancing more slowly than the advance of sea ice break-up, such that the earlier arrival of polar bears from sea ice onto land may be increasingly coinciding with the period when snow geese are still incubating eggsReference 283 (Figure 24). This may provide early arriving polar bears with an exploitable and abundant food source not utilized in the past, Reference 280 , Reference 281 , Reference 283 albeit the significance of this food source for altering the observed deteriorations in polar bear subpopulations is unknown. Near-term forecasting (25 years into the future) with a stochastic model suggests that all but trivial rates of polar bear egg predation will, however, reduce (but not eliminate) the size of the local nesting population of lesser snow goose. Reference 283 Canada goose nesting dates are also advancing, on the order of 0.5 days/yr over the period 1993 to 2010 at Akimiski Island. Reference 210 Most of these observations have been indirectly attributed to a changing climate as, for example, goose nest initiation is correlated with temperature and snow cover and, therefore, occurs earlier in earlier years of melt. Reference 381 As the climate continues to change and environmental components are altered, predator-prey dynamics are likely to change through all trophic levels of the subarctic food web. Reference 382
As the advance of onshore arrival of polar bears is much faster than the advance in the nesting period of the geese (~4.5 times in this analysis, or 3.7 times faster when assessed with a stochastic regression model in Rockwell et al., 2010 Reference 283 ), the amount of energy available to the bears from snow goose eggs will increase as the overlap with the nesting period becomes earlier. The energy profile of eggs and the date on which the first polar bear was seen in the nesting area are averages for the period 2000 to 2007. The mean hatching date is June 21 and mean date for the first bear's arrival is June 23.
Source: redrawn from Rockwell and Gormezano, 2009 Reference 281 (p 544, fig 4) with permission from Springer Science+Business Media
Long description for Figure 24
|Julian Date||Available kilocalories (millions)|
The mean date of first polar bear in the nesting area is shown on the graph to be on Julian day 174, advancing faster (0.72 day/yr) than the onset of snow goose egg availability (0.16 day/yr).
- Footnote §
Although this report considers status and trends up to December 2010 only, note that the polar bear was listed as a species of Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (Schedule 1) in November 2011 (see Canada Gazette Part II 145 (23): 2232-2384).
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