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Taiga Plains Ecozone+ Evidence for Key Findings Summary

Key Findings at a Glance: National and Ecozone+ Level

Table 3 presents the national key findings from Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010Reference 3 together with a summary of the corresponding trends in the Taiga Plains ecozone+. Topic numbers refer to the national key findings in Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010. Topics that are greyed out were identified as key findings at a national level but were either not relevant or not assessed for this ecozone+ and do not appear in the body of this document. Evidence for the statements that appear in this table is found in the subsequent text organized by key finding. See the Preface on page i.

Table 3. Key findings overview

3.1 Theme: Biomes
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Taiga Plains Ecozone+
1. ForestsAt a national level, the extent of forests has changed little since 1990; at a regional level, loss of forest extent is significant in some places. The structure of some Canadian forests, including species composition, age classes, and size of intact patches of forest, has changed over longer time frames.Boreal forest is the dominant ecosystem type in the Taiga Plains. Fragmentation from roads and other linear development, resulting in loss of large intact blocks of forest, is most evident in northeastern British Columbia (B.C.). Climate-related changes in the treeline zone at the north of the ecozone+ include increased shrub growth, a small net increase in tree cover resulting from increased conifer cover at the northern part of the treeline zone balanced with reduction in coniferous forest in the south of the zone (1985-2006), and reduced growth rates, likely due to drought stress, of the majority of white spruce trees since the 1930s.
2. GrasslandsNative grasslands have been reduced to a fraction of their original extent. Although at a slower pace, declines continue in some areas. The health of many existing grasslands has also been compromised by a variety of stressors.Not relevant
3. WetlandsHigh loss of wetlands has occurred in southern Canada; loss and degradation continue due to a wide range of stressors. Some wetlands have been or are being restored.Wetlands are diverse and widespread in the ecozone+ and are vulnerable to anthropogenic threats including climate change. Periodic spring flooding along the Mackenzie River Basin, which maintains the diversity of delta lakes, has been shown to be more related to climate variables than to the influence of the upstream W.A.C. Bennett dam. There are, however, indications that spring flooding may be less frequent. Delta lakes are affected by the longer ice-free season but also by increased erosion from permafrost slumping, which causes abrupt changes in water quality.
4. Lakes and riversTrends over the past 40 years influencing biodiversity in lakes and rivers include seasonal changes in magnitude of stream flows, increases in river and lake temperatures, decreases in lake levels, and habitat loss and fragmentation.The most widespread hydrological change is a trend to increased minimum and winter flows, both in the Mackenzie River as a whole (including tributaries upstream of the Taiga Plains) and in several smaller rivers monitored within the ecozone+. While upstream tributaries to the Mackenzie River are generally exhibiting trends to earlier peak flows, there is no clear trend in timing at most sites on smaller watercourses within the ecozone+. There are indications of a trend to increased streamflow variability within the ecozone+, with implications for riparian habitat.
5. CoastalCoastal ecosystems, such as estuaries, salt marshes, and mud flats, are believed to be healthy in less-developed coastal areas, although there are exceptions. In developed areas, extent and quality of coastal ecosystems are declining as a result of habitat modification, erosion, and sea-level rise.Not Relevant (coastal region just to the north of this ecozone+ is in the Arctic ecozone+)
6. MarineObserved changes in marine biodiversity over the past 50 years have been driven by a combination of physical factors and human activities, such as oceanographic and climate variability and overexploitation. While certain marine mammals have recovered from past overharvesting, many commercial fisheries have not.Not relevant
7. Ice across biomesDeclining extent and thickness of sea ice, warming and thawing of permafrost, accelerating loss of glacier mass, and shortening of lake-ice seasons are detected across Canada’s biomes. Impacts, apparent now in some areas and likely to spread, include effects on species and food webs.Changes in permafrost, well documented for this ecozone+, include: increased temperatures of permafrost, changes in active layer depth, reduction of the continuous permafrost zone, and thawing of discontinuous permafrost in some areas. This has resulted in landscape changes, including loss of frozen peat plateaus. River ice within the Mackenzie Basin shows trends to earlier break-up; datasets are poor for both river and lake ice within the ecozone+.

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3.2 Theme: Human/Ecosystem Interactions
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Taiga Plains Ecozone+
8. Protected areasBoth the extent and representativeness of the protected areas network have increased in recent years. In many places, the area protected is well above the United Nations 10% target. It is below the target in highly developed areas and the oceans.In 2009, 5.6% of the ecozone+ had a high level of protection, by far the largest protected area being Wood Buffalo National Park, established in 1922. There was little change in protected areas from 1922 to the early 2000s when several, mainly quite small, protected areas were established. Candidate protected areas have been identified for the Mackenzie Valley in response to the proposed pipeline development. The aim is to maintain ecological integrity by developing buffer zones and connecting wildlife corridors through a network of protected areas.
9. StewardshipStewardship activity in Canada is increasing, both in number and types of initiatives and in participation rates. The overall effectiveness of these activities in conserving and improving biodiversity and ecosystem health has not been fully assessed.Stewardship in the ecozone+ is associated with aboriginal cultural and spiritual values, incorporated into land-use planning through, for example, community conservation plans. Public-private sector partnerships and national and international initiatives also contribute to stewardship of ecosystems.
10. Invasive non-native speciesInvasive non-native species are a significant stressor on ecosystem functions, processes, and structure in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments. This impact is increasing as numbers of invasive non-native species continue to rise and their distributions continue to expand.There is some incursion of non-native plant species, especially along roadways, in the Taiga Plains, with only a few being moderately invasive. An invasive non-native forest insect, the larch sawfly, has spread to the ecozone+, with regionally significant outbreaks in the 1990s. Increasing access, development, and climate change are liable to increase the rate of introduction and spread of non-native species in terrestrial and aquatic environments.
11. ContaminantsConcentrations of legacy contaminants in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems have generally declined over the past 10 to 40 years. Concentrations of many emerging contaminants are increasing in wildlife; mercury is increasing in some wildlife in some areas.Some legacy contaminants are declining in fish in the ecozone+ but the trends are not clear or consistent with, for example, DDTs increasing in recent years in Mackenzie River burbot. Brominated flame retardants in fish increased sharply up to the mid-2000s and then dropped, based on limited sampling. Mercury levels are naturally high in the Mackenzie Basin and have increased in fish, including in the Mackenzie River and Great Slave Lake within the ecozone+. Changes in aquatic ecology related to climate change may be either accentuating or masking trends in some contaminants.
12. Nutrient loading and algal bloomsInputs of nutrients to both freshwater and marine systems, particularly in urban and agriculture-dominated landscapes, have led to algal blooms that may be a nuisance and/or may be harmful. Nutrient inputs have been increasing in some places and decreasing in others.Not considered to be a concern for this ecozone+
13. Acid depositionThresholds related to ecological impact of acid deposition, including acid rain, are exceeded in some areas, acidifying emissions are increasing in some areas, and biological recovery has not kept pace with emission reductions in other areas.Not considered to be a concern for this ecozone+
14. Climate changeRising temperatures across Canada, along with changes in other climatic variables over the past 50 years, have had both direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems.The Taiga Plains ecozone+ has experienced some of the greatest increases in temperature of any Canadian region since 1950 – with the annual mean temperature increasing over 2°C and winter temperatures rising about 5°C at all stations since 1950. This warming has translated into some clear ecosystem trends, such as changes to permafrost landscapes and increases in terrestrial primary productivity. There are indications of other emerging, climate-related trends, such as the northward movement of some forest insect pests.
15. Ecosystem servicesCanada is well endowed with a natural environment that provides ecosystem services upon which our quality of life depends. In some areas where stressors have impaired ecosystem function, the cost of maintaining ecosystem services is high and deterioration in quantity, quality, and access to ecosystem services is evident.Provisioning services of the ecozone+ include harvest of fish, wildlife, and plants, of cultural, spiritual, nutritional, and economic importance. Reliance on these provisioning services is high and not declining, especially in rural communities. Quality of these services generally remains high, with the exception of declines in barren-ground caribou, leading to harvest restrictions and reduced harvest success in some communities.
3.3 Theme: Habitat, Wildlife, and Ecosystem Processes
16. Agricultural landscapes as habitatThe potential capacity of agricultural landscapes to support wildlife in Canada has declined over the past 20 years, largely due to the intensification of agriculture and the loss of natural and semi-natural land cover.Not relevant
17. Species of special economic, cultural, or ecological interestMany 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 Taiga Plains ecozone+ is important nationally for boreal woodland caribou, who are dependent upon intact blocks of mature boreal forest. Trends are unknown for half of the populations; populations in the more fragmented, southern part of the ecozone+ are decreasing, although one population is reported as being stable. Bluenose-West barren-ground caribou have declined precipitously in recent years. Several waterfowl species that breed in the ecozone+ are declining; causes are not clear. The Taiga Plains is home to most of the global populations of two iconic species that were nearly driven to extinction in the early 20th century and are still considered at risk: the whooping crane and the wood bison.
18. Primary productivityPrimary 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.Overall, primary productivity increased on 22.7% and decreased on 1.5% of the land area of the Taiga Plains from 1985 to 2006. Increased primary productivity was mainly in the north part of the ecozone+, where studies show increased growth of shrubs along with some impairment of growth of lichens and of some white spruce. The large fires characteristic of the ecozone+ influence primary productivity but do not account for the overall increase.
19. Natural disturbancesThe 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.Natural disturbances in the Taiga Plains show signs of change related to climate. On a decadal basis, the area of forest burned increased from the 1960s then declined again in the most recent decade, though data are incomplete for this latter decade. There are indications of a trend to more fires earlier in the season, a pattern consistent with the observed temperature trends. The main forest insect pest, spruce budworm, is endemic in the southern part of the ecozone+ and there are indications that it may be moving northward. Both the forest tent caterpillar and the mountain pine beetle, relatively new to the ecozone+, show signs of becoming more abundant and expanding northward.
Wildlife disease and parasites
(ecozone+-specific key finding)
-Wildlife disease is of importance to the Taiga Plains ecozone+ for ecological, economic, and human health reasons. Bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis affect a high percentage of wood bison and present risks to human health and to economic activities. There is emerging evidence and growing concern that some wildlife diseases and parasites (including anthrax, ungulate parasites, and viruses and funguses affecting frogs) may be increasing in prevalence and/or range, or may do so in the future, in response to warmer weather and changes in wildlife species distribution.
20. Food websFundamental 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 information on changes in food webs in the Taiga Plains. Abundance of many mammals in the Taiga Plains is cyclic, driven or influenced by food web effects as well as drivers like climate. Changes in small mammal cycles have been reported in other northern regions, and a recent dampening of snowshoe hare and lynx cycles is noted in the NWT. Northern tundra caribou wintering in the Taiga Plains have declined in abundance which may reflect a low period on a population cycle. Declining boreal caribou populations in the south of the ecozone+ may be affected by changes in predator-prey dynamics related to habitat alteration.
21. Biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, and reportingLong-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.Important data sets collected through broadscale monitoring programs for the ecozone+ are mainly at the non-biological level: climate, hydrology, and permafrost monitoring. In addition, data on some species groups, notably some caribou populations, small mammals, and waterfowl, provide good trend information. A combination of remote sensing and short-term research projects, often extending into the past through the use of proxy records, provides some data on landscape-level changes. A priority often identified for the region is improvement of the use of Traditional Knowledge along with results from science-based studies.
22. Rapid change and thresholdsGrowing understanding of rapid and unexpected changes, interactions, and thresholds, especially in relation to climate change, points to a need for policy that responds and adapts quickly to signals of environmental change in order to avert major and irreversible biodiversity losses.There are signals of rapid ecosystem change in the Taiga Plains, related to climate change. Loss of frozen peatlands is occurring in some areas; increasing permafrost temperatures at several sites is an early warning that other areas will cross the phase-change threshold leading to permafrost degradation, altering terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Other large-scale changes observed in recent years include increases in primary productivity, mainly in the north of the ecozone+, and alteration of vegetation communities in the treeline zone.

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3.4 Theme: Habitat, Wildlife, and Ecosystem Processes
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Taiga Plains Ecozone+
16. Agricultural landscapes as habitatThe potential capacity of agricultural landscapes to support wildlife in Canada has declined over the past 20 years, largely due to the intensification of agriculture and the loss of natural and semi-natural land cover.Not relevant
17. Species of special economic, cultural, or ecological interestMany 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 Taiga Plains ecozone+ is important nationally for boreal woodland caribou, who are dependent upon intact blocks of mature boreal forest. Trends are unknown for half of the populations; populations in the more fragmented, southern part of the ecozone+ are decreasing, although one population is reported as being stable. Bluenose-West barren-ground caribou have declined precipitously in recent years. Several waterfowl species that breed in the ecozone+ are declining; causes are not clear. The Taiga Plains is home to most of the global populations of two iconic species that were nearly driven to extinction in the early 20th century and are still considered at risk: the whooping crane and the wood bison.
18. Primary productivityPrimary 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.Overall, primary productivity increased on 22.7% and decreased on 1.5% of the land area of the Taiga Plains from 1985 to 2006. Increased primary productivity was mainly in the north part of the ecozone+, where studies show increased growth of shrubs along with some impairment of growth of lichens and of some white spruce. The large fires characteristic of the ecozone+ influence primary productivity but do not account for the overall increase.
19. Natural disturbancesThe 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.Natural disturbances in the Taiga Plains show signs of change related to climate. On a decadal basis, the area of forest burned increased from the 1960s then declined again in the most recent decade, though data are incomplete for this latter decade. There are indications of a trend to more fires earlier in the season, a pattern consistent with the observed temperature trends. The main forest insect pest, spruce budworm, is endemic in the southern part of the ecozone+ and there are indications that it may be moving northward. Both the forest tent caterpillar and the mountain pine beetle, relatively new to the ecozone+, show signs of becoming more abundant and expanding northward.
Wildlife disease and parasites
(ecozone+-specific key finding)
-Wildlife disease is of importance to the Taiga Plains ecozone+ for ecological, economic, and human health reasons. Bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis affect a high percentage of wood bison and present risks to human health and to economic activities. There is emerging evidence and growing concern that some wildlife diseases and parasites (including anthrax, ungulate parasites, and viruses and funguses affecting frogs) may be increasing in prevalence and/or range, or may do so in the future, in response to warmer weather and changes in wildlife species distribution.
20. Food websFundamental 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 information on changes in food webs in the Taiga Plains. Abundance of many mammals in the Taiga Plains is cyclic, driven or influenced by food web effects as well as drivers like climate. Changes in small mammal cycles have been reported in other northern regions, and a recent dampening of snowshoe hare and lynx cycles is noted in the NWT. Northern tundra caribou wintering in the Taiga Plains have declined in abundance which may reflect a low period on a population cycle. Declining boreal caribou populations in the south of the ecozone+ may be affected by changes in predator-prey dynamics related to habitat alteration.

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3.5 Theme: Science/Policy Interface
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Taiga Plains Ecozone+
21. Biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, and reportingLong-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.Important data sets collected through broadscale monitoring programs for the ecozone+ are mainly at the non-biological level: climate, hydrology, and permafrost monitoring. In addition, data on some species groups, notably some caribou populations, small mammals, and waterfowl, provide good trend information. A combination of remote sensing and short-term research projects, often extending into the past through the use of proxy records, provides some data on landscape-level changes. A priority often identified for the region is improvement of the use of Traditional Knowledge along with results from science-based studies.
22. Rapid change and thresholdsGrowing understanding of rapid and unexpected changes, interactions, and thresholds, especially in relation to climate change, points to a need for policy that responds and adapts quickly to signals of environmental change in order to avert major and irreversible biodiversity losses.There are signals of rapid ecosystem change in the Taiga Plains, related to climate change. Loss of frozen peatlands is occurring in some areas; increasing permafrost temperatures at several sites is an early warning that other areas will cross the phase-change threshold leading to permafrost degradation, altering terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Other large-scale changes observed in recent years include increases in primary productivity, mainly in the north of the ecozone+, and alteration of vegetation communities in the treeline zone.

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