Skip booklet index and go to page content

Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary

Key Findings at a Glance: National and Ecozone+ Level

Table 2 presents the national key findings from Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010Reference 8 together with a summary of the corresponding trends in the Boreal 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. Refer to the Preface.

Table 2. Key findings overview

2.1 Theme: Biomes
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Boreal 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.Over 60% of the ecozone+was classified as forest including conifer (42%), deciduous (37%), and mixed (20%). Between 1985 and 2005 there was a 3% decrease in forest cover largely due to an increase in fire. In the agricultural landscape, woodlots were also converted to cropland over this period. Approximately 37% of forests are intact, larger than 100 km2. Forest fragmentation is the result of industrial development, such as: seismic lines, forest harvesting, access roads for oil and gas development, and forestry. Forest birds have remained stable between 1971 and 2006.
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.There is little information on native grasslands; most native grassland in the ecozone+ has been converted to agriculture. From 1986 to 2002, 15% of grasslands and rangelands were lost in Manitoba's Boreal Plains.
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.Few data were available for the status and trends for wetlands. Between 1986 and 2002, 15% of marshes and fens and 10% loss of treed and open bogs were lost in Manitoba's Boreal Plains.
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.Stream flows decreased, water levels lowered, and water withdrawals increased in the ecozone+. The main drivers of these trends were climate change and oil and gas development.
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
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.The limited data available suggest later freeze-up and earlier break-up in some lakes and rivers, reflecting increased air temperature, particularly in the spring. Permafrost in peatlands in the northern portion of the ecozone+ have thawed and degraded.

Top of Page

2.2 Theme: Human/Ecosystem Interactions
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey Findings: Boreal 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.Total area protected increased from 4.0% in 1992 to 8.0% in 2009; 7.2% of the ecozone+ is protected under IUCN categories I–IV. Protected areas are threatened by habitat fragmentation and loss in areas surrounding parks, climate change, over use, and invasive species.
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.Trends in stewardship initiatives are not well documented. Private organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada, have increased their holdings of privately owned protected areas over the past decade. There is increasing interest in the use of market-based instruments, such as conservation offsets, to mitigate impacts of industrial development, and to encourage stewardship of environmental values on private land.
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 no consistent long-term monitoring, ecozone+-wide lists or consistent control measures in place for invasive species. The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute have detected 75 invasive plant species in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in Alberta. Occurrences of invasive fish species appear to be increasing. Non-native earthworms are patchily distributed throughout much of the ecozone+ in Alberta and their range is expected to expand in the next 50 years with unknown consequences.
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.Contaminant levels have exceeded toxic levels in the Athabasca oil sands area. Continued expansion of coal-combustion power plants near Wabamun Lake, AB has resulted in increased mercury and trace metal concentrations in the watershed.
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.Lakes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ tend to be naturally eutrophic and shallow resulting in increased susceptibility to nutrient loading. Residual soil nitrogen on agricultural lands increased three-fold between 1981 and 2006, which represents a moderate risk.

Phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg, MB increased by 30% from 1969 to 2007, resulting in a five-fold increase in average biomass of phytoplankton and a shift in species composition to blue-green algae. Increases in phosphorus are due to intensification of agriculture, land clearing, wetland drainage, and rapid growth of the human population.
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.Although ecozone+-wide data were not available, acid deposition is an emerging issue in this ecozone+. Industrial expansion of oil and gas threatens to increase emissions and acid deposition, particularly in northwest Saskatchewan due to its downwind location and highly sensitive lakes.
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.Temperature has increased significantly in the ecozone+, especially in winter and spring. Snow depth and duration of snow cover has decreased since 1950. Changes in precipitation were variable. Broad-scale ecological impacts are projected based on continued warming related to changes in hydrological regimes, the forest biome, melting of frozen peatlands, and northward range expansions of species.
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.The ecozone+ provides a number of provisioning services. Fresh water allocation is increasing although still very low in monitored river basins. Timber harvesting continues to increase. Populations of species that are hunted or trapped are generally stable with the exception of grizzly bear and wolverine. Overfishing has resulted in the collapse of commercial and sport fisheries in Alberta, but Lake Winnipeg, MB walleye commercial fisheries are at an unprecedented high. Agricultural land cover remains stable at 24% of the ecozone+.

The ecozone+ also supplies a number of regulating services. With increasing air temperature, the boreal forest could become a carbon source rather than a sink. Wetlands, which function to purify and store water, have declined. National Park visitation rates have remained steady, reflecting a human-use value for the ecozone+. Efforts to value ecological services in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ have increased.

Top of Page

2.3 Theme: Habitat, Wildlife, and Ecosystem Processes
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Boreal 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.Agricultural land use, covering 21% of the ecozone+, is continuing to expand and intensify. The conversion of natural land cover to agriculture has resulted in a decrease in wildlife habitat capacity.
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.Grassland birds, certain duck species, boreal caribou, grizzly bears and bison have declined in geographic range and abundance across the ecozone+. Factors responsible for the declines included habitat alteration, disease, and changes in predator-prey dynamics.
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.The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index increased for 20.8% of the land area between 1985 and 2006 as a result of increased agricultural production, climate change (particularly precipitation), and fire. Nutrient loading in Lake Winnipeg has also resulted in increased productivity. Productivity declined on less than 1% of the land base, which was attributed to industrial activity surrounding the Athabasca oil sands.
19. Natural disturbanceThe 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.Fire is an important natural disturbance in the ecozone+. The amount of area burned peaked in the 1980s and then decreased. Trends are heavily influenced by people through fire suppression and ignitions. Climate has also influenced trends in fire.

Native insect outbreaks are also an important disturbance. Areas affected by spruce budworm may be increasing, although long-term data were lacking. Mountain pine beetles are also expanding their range into the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
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.Lynx-hare predator-prey population cycles are known to occur in the ecozone+, but few data were available. Boreal caribou populations have declined due to habitat fragmentation. In particular, linear features such as roads and seismic lines associated with oil and gas development increased vulnerability of caribou to wolf predation.

Top of Page

2.4 Theme: Science/Policy Interface
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Boreal 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.Cross-jurisdictional biodiversity monitoring is lacking in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Future reporting in the Alberta portion of the ecozone+will be improved by data collected through the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. Spatial and taxonomic coverage were poor in the other provinces in the ecozone+.
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 multiple stressors that may result in rapid, irreversible changes to ecosystems in the Boreal Plains, but few definitive examples. These include the outbreak of avian cholera in double-crested cormorants, the spread of mountain pine beetle to northern Alberta in 2005, the decline of boreal caribou and changes in their predator-prey dynamics due to industrial development, and the thawing of permafrost.


Reference 8

Federal, Provincial and Territorial Governments of Canada. 2010. Canadian biodiversity: ecosystem status and trends 2010. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. vi + 142 p.

Return to reference 8