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Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary

Theme: Human/Ecosystem Interactions

Key finding 8
Protected areas

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Both 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.

As of May 2009, there were 546 protected areas in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Figure 16). These protected areas are highly variable in size and shape. The southern half of the ecozone+ is characterised by many small parks, while protected areas become larger and more sparsely distributed to the north. This includes a portion of Wood Buffalo National Park, which is one of the world's largest national parks (44,807 km2) and a UNESCO world heritage site.

Figure 16. Distribution of protected areas in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, May 2009.
Map showing distribution of protected areas
Source: Environment Canada, 2009;Refernce 111 data from the Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System (CARTS), v.05, 2009Reference 112
Long description for Figure 16

This map shows that most protected areas were located in the northern half of the ecozone+, particularly in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

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Prior to 1922, two small category II protected areas had been established totalling 4 km2 (Figure 17). Prior to the 1992 signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 4.0%Footnote one i of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was protected.Reference 112 As of May 2009, protected areas increased to 8.0% of the ecozone+ (Figure 16 and Figure 17). These protected areas can be divided into two groups:

  • 7.2% (423 protected areas) as IUCN categories I–IV. These categories include nature reserves, wilderness areas, and other parks and reserves managed for conservation of ecosystems and/or natural and cultural features, as well as those managed mainly for habitat and wildlife conservationReference 113
  • 0.7% (123 protected areas) as IUCN categories V–VI. These categories focus on sustainable use by established cultural traditionReference 113
Figure 17. Growth of protected areas, Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1922–2009.

Data provided by federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions, updated to May 2009. Only legally protected areas are included. IUCN categories of protected areas are based on primary management objectives.Note: the last bar marked 'TOTAL' includes protected areas for which the year established was not provided.

Graph-Growth of protected areas, Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1922–2009.
Source: Environment Canada, 2009Reference 111 data from the Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System (CARTS), v.2009.05, 2009Reference 112
Long description for Figure 17

This bar graph shows the following information:
Growth of protected areas, Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1922-2009.
Cumulative area protected (km2)

Year protection
Categories I-IV
Categories V-VI

Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada was established in 1922, Prince Albert National Park of Canada in 1927, Riding Mountain National Park of Canada in 1930, several, including Duck Mountain Provincial Park, Richardson River Dunes Wildland, Chinchaga Wildland and Milligan Hills Park, in 1997-1999, and several, including Marguerite River Wildland, Birch Island Park Reserve in 2000.

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Most parks in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, particularly southern parks, are threatened by both internal and external stressors such as: habitat fragmentation and loss in areas surrounding parks, climate change, over use, and invasive species.Reference 114 For example, land cover changes for Prince Albert National Park, SK (centrally located in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+) and surrounding areas were analyzed from 1985 to 2001.Reference 115 Forest cover changed little inside the park boundary but declined from 19 to 14% in the greater park ecosystem due to forest harvesting and fires.Reference 115 Open water bodies declined in the park and surrounding areas as a result of drought, declining from 10 to 8% cover between 1985 and 2001.Reference 115 Sustainable land management strategies in areas surrounding parks play a critical role in maintaining the ecological integrity of the parks themselves.Reference 115

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Key finding 9

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Stewardship 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.

Information on stewardship activities in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was limited. Some stewardship areas in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ are owned and managed by non-governmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In addition, there has been growing interest in the use of market based approaches to conserve environmental values in the boreal forest, particularly in the oil sands region of Alberta,Reference 116 and to enhance stewardship of environmental values on private land. The Governments of Alberta and Manitoba are exploring market based instruments (e.g., conservation offsets, conservation auctions) as tools to enhance the stewardship of ecosystem services.

Model Forests

Two Model Forests, part of the Canadian Model Forest Network, are located in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. The Canadian Model Forest Network represents 14 non-profit member organizations nationwide to support resource-based communities overcome obstacles that affect their long-term social and economic well-being.Reference 117 The 3,670 km2 Prince Albert Model Forest (Saskatchewan) coordinates consultants, researchers, governments to work with First Nations on forest related projects.Reference 118 The 330 km2 Weberville Community Model Forest, located 25 km north of Peace River, Alberta, is comprised of privately-owned and crown land. The land managers collaborate on tree planting, recreational trail systems and woodlot inventories, and also future opportunities such as biomass energy projects and carbon credit trading.Reference 119

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Conservation offsets

Conservation offsets are actions intended to compensate for the residual, unavoidable harm to ecosystems caused by development.Reference 120 The Alberta Land Stewardship Act enables the implementation of a conservation offset program.Reference 121 No formal offset program is in place in Alberta; however, the Alberta Conservation Association implemented a voluntary, terrestrial conservation offset program in 2003. From 2003 to 2011, the program secured 19.65 km2 of private land for protection - to reduce the cumulative effects of oil sands development on ecosystems in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 122 Similarly, Alberta Agriculture and Development is coordinating the Southeast Alberta Conservation Offset Pilot to convert cropland into native pasture with wildlife habitat. Through this pilot, farmers and ranchers could be eligible for voluntary conservation offset payments from oil and gas firms with developments in southeastern Alberta. As of May 2014, however, no industrial partners had signed on.

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Key finding 10
Invasive non-native species

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Invasive 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.

Invasive non-native species are those that are naturalized to ecosystems outside of their natural range, and often are introduced intentionally or accidentally by humans.Reference 123 Non-native species threaten native biodiversity and cost millions of dollars annually for management and control.Reference 123 Invasive species compete with and/or displace native species, degrade habitat, alter ecosystem processes such as carbon sequestration, and introduce disease.Reference 124 Climate change is expected to intensify invasive non-native species impacts in the boreal region as temperature barriers are removed.Reference 125, Reference 126 Broad-scale reporting on invasive non-native species trends is lacking for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, but some information is available for non-native vascular plants, fish, and earthworms.

Terrestrial non-native invasive plants

The majority of known invasive non-native species in the Boreal Plains are vascular plants, typically of Eurasian origin.Reference 17, Reference 126, Reference 127 As of 2008, 93 invasive non-native plant species have been documented in the Boreal Plains Ecozone.Reference 128 Noxious weeds (i.e., plants designated as injurious to agricultural or natural habitats; often non-native) are spreading in northeastern AlbertaReference 129 (Figure 18). The spread of invasive plants is likely to continue, however, surveys and treatment methods were rarely systematic and so trends were unknown.

Figure 18. Of 217 sites surveyed, (a) the percentage of sites with infestations of noxious weeds, 2002-2006 and (b) the percentage of infestation in 2005 and 2006 in northeastern Alberta.
Graph-Percentage of sites with infestations of noxious weeds,
Source: Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, 2006Reference 129
Long description for Figure 18

a) The first bar graph shows the following information:

(a) the percentage of sites with infestations of noxious weeds from 2002 to 2006.
Yearsites with infestations (%)

b) The second bar graph shows the following information:

(b) the percentage of infestation in 2005 and 2006 in northeastern Alberta.

Amount of infestation (%)

Amount of infestation (%)

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The ABMI detected 75 non-native plant species within 343 monitoring sites surveyed from 2003–2011 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in Alberta.Reference 130 Non-native species were present at 48% of the sites surveyed with between two and three (average of 2.55) non-native plant species detected per site. The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was almost twice as abundant as any other invasive plant (Table 3). Common dandelions were often found at sites without human influence, indicating that this species can colonize areas without human disturbance.  Six of the 10 most abundant non-native invasive plants are commonly planted as forage crops for livestock and have become naturalized to the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 131

Table 3. The 10 most abundant non-native species detected in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in Alberta, the number of sites detected (out of 343), and the percent occurrence.
Common nameScientific nameNumber of sitesPercent occurrence (%)
Common dandelionNote * of Table 3Taraxacum officinale13439.1
Kentucky bluegrassNote ** of Table 3Poa pratensis8123.6
TimothyNote ** of Table 3Phleum pratense6819.8
Asike cloverNote ** of Table 3Trifolium hybridum5516.0
Canada thistleNote * of Table 3Cirsium arvense4011.7
White cloverNote ** of Table 3Trifolium repens3811.1
Smooth bromeNote ** of Table 3Bromus inermis3510.2
Red cloverNote ** of Table 3Trifolium pratense339.6
Common plantainNote * of Table 3Plantago major329.3
QuackgrassNote * of Table 3Crepis tectorum226.4

Source: Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute 2009Reference 131

Notes of Table 3

Note * of Table 3

Species listed in Alberta's Weed Control Act

Return to note * referrer of table 3

Note † of Table 3

Species planted as forage crops in Alberta

Return to note ** referrer of table 3

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The ABMI also detected non-native plants at 32% of their sites in the Athabasca oil sands area. Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), found in 25% of the sites, was the most common of the 38 non-native species found – most occurred infrequently. When present at an ABMI site, an average of 2.1 non-native species were detected. Three plants listed as noxious weeds listed under the Alberta Weed Control Act, perennial sow-thistle (Sonchus arvensis), creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense), and tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris), were present on 6%, 5%, and 3% of the ABMI sites in the Athabasca oil sands area, respectively.

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Other invasive non-native species of concern

Native fish species can be impacted through competition with and/or predation by invasive fish species. There is limited information on the distribution and abundance of invasive fish in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. However, occurrences of non-native fish appear to be increasing in British Columbia's portion of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+; of 15 water bodies surveyed, non-native fish were present in one water body in 1950, one in 1975, and four in 2005.Reference 132 Introduced rainbow smelt in Manitoba disrupt food webs, alter zooplankton communities, and compete with shortjaw cisco (Coregonus zenithicus) for food.Reference 133

Earthworms are not native to the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Non-native earthworms are patchily distributed throughout much of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in Alberta and their range is expected to expand in the next 50 years.Reference 134, Reference 135 Earthworms are considered an ecosystem engineer that cause the loss of soil carbon, decrease soil organic content, and decrease the diversity and abundance of microarthropods and understorey plants.Reference 135 Given that the earthworm invasion of the boreal forest is relatively recent, long-term consequences to ecosystem structure and function are unknown.Reference 126, Reference 134

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Key finding 11

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Concentrations 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.

Contaminants can harm species and ecosystems and impair ecosystem services. Contaminants were not monitored at the scale of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. However, there is evidence that contaminantsFootnote two ii are increasing in certain parts of the ecozone+ and may be negatively affecting biodiversity and human settlements in those areas.Reference 52 Two major sources of contaminants include surface mining in the oil sands and coal-fired power plants.

Oil sands development

The production of synthetic crude oil derived from bituminous sands in northeastern Alberta is energy intensive and results in the emission of toxic pollutants. The oil sands industry releases the 13 elements considered priority pollutants under the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and its watershed.Reference 136 The pollutants enter the environment through seepage from tailings ponds and discharge into the air.Reference 52 These pollutants include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids (NA), and other elements such as mercury (Hg), lead (Pb), and arsenic (As). In 2012, the governments of Canada and Alberta released an implementation plan for enhanced environmental monitoring in the oil sands regionReference 137 (Figure 19).

Figure 19. Existing monitoring during the 2010-11 baseline year in the Alberta and Saskatchewan oil sands areas.
Map showing existing monitoring during the 2010‐11 baseline year
Source: Government of Alberta and Government of Canada 2012Reference 137
Long description for Figure 19

This map presents the monitoring which occurred (air, biodiversity and contaminants, and water) during the 2010-11 baseline year in the Alberta oil sands area. Monitoring sites were concentrated around Fort MacKay and Fort McMurray, and consisted primarily of air monitoring sites.

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Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons enter the environment via natural sources such as volcanoes and forest fires, or through anthropogenic sources, such as industrial development.Reference 138 Oil sands development is increasing concentrations of PAHs through the emission of airborne particulates that are deposited on land, snow and surface water, or that enter water directly in dissolved forms.Reference 136 The concentrations of these contaminants increase in the summer months and may be elevated further during snowmelt and heavy rains. In a study of six lakes north of Fort McMurray, PAH concentrations and fluxes from lake sediment records increased markedly since the ∼1960–1970s, coinciding with over four decades of oil sands development in the Athabasca oil sands area.Reference 139 Lakes that were closer and downstream/downwind of oil sands operations had the highest concentrations. Specifically, Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines (CISQGs), which are available for 13 specific PAHs (30), have been exceeded for seven compounds [i.e., phenanthrene, pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, chrysene, benzo(a)pyrene, dibenz(a,h)anthracene, 2-methylnaphthalene] at the site receiving the highest deposition of PAHs.Reference 139 Sediments within oil sands deposits from downstream portions of the Athabasca, Ells, and Steepbank rivers, and a wastewater pond, were toxic to early developmental stages of common forage fish native to northern Alberta such as white sucker (Catostomus commersoni) and fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas).Reference 139 Other native forage fish, such as yellow perch (Perca flavescens), slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus), and pearl dace (Semotilus margarita), displayed lower levels of gonadal steroids at reference compared to exposed sites.Reference 139

In 2008, snow was collected from 12 sites along the Athabasca River and 19 sites along its tributaries. Dissolved PAH concentrations were sufficiently high to be toxic to minnow embryos at some of these sites.Reference 136 Between 1999 and 2009, PAH concentrations increased in the sediment of the Athabasca River Delta.Reference 138 The 2009 sediment levels in the lower Athabasca River were 1.72mg/kg, which exceed, by a factor of about 2-3, the threshold observed to induce liver cancers in fish.Reference 138, Reference 140 Fish exposed to PAHs found in Athabasca sediments have also exhibited hatching alterations, increased mortality, spinal malformations, reduced size, cardiac dysfunction, edema, and reductions in the size of the jaw and other craniofacial structures.Reference 141 Reference 142, Reference 143 Although some linkages between PAH exposure and the health of sentinel fish species are evident, less is known regarding the potential effects of PAH exposure to other members of aquatic ecosystems.Reference 139 The ultimate ecological consequences of decades-long increases in aquatic primary production, coupled with greater PAH loadings to lakes in the oil sands region, are unknown and require further assessment.Reference 139

Naphthenic acids

At high concentrations (~50–100 mg/L), NAs, a by-product of oil sands production, are toxic and reduce survival in mammals, fish, landbirds, water birds and amphibians.Reference 144 Reference 145,Reference 146,Reference 147,Reference 148,Reference 149,Reference 150, Currently, oil and gas facilities are not required to report NA levels to the National Pollutant Release Inventory.Reference 151 As a result, there are few data on the status and trends of NAs in the environment. Naphthenic acids have been found at concentrations of 1–2 mg/L in natural surface waters, ~60 mg/L in a wetland formed from tailings seepage effluent, and in excess of 100 mg/L in oil sands tailings ponds.Reference 148, Reference 152

Mercury and other toxic elements

Guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven priority pollutants--cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc--in melted snow and/or water collected near or downstream of Athabasca oil sands area.Reference 136 Concentrations of mercury, lead, and arsenic increased by 63%, 29%, and 28%, respectively, across all tailings ponds in the oil sands region between 2006 and 2009.Reference 153 These increases were intentional (as part of reclamation strategy) and unintentional (e.g., tailing pond casing leakage or dyke breaches).Reference 88, Reference 154

Mercury poisoning reduces reproductive success and affects brain and kidney function for birdsReference 155 and mammals,Reference 156 reduces the growth, behaviour, and survival of fish,Reference 157 and has severe health impacts on humans.Reference 158 Because of biomagnification, long-lived predatory fish such as walleye (Sander vitreus) and other top predators in aquatic food chains (e.g., mink (Neovison vison))Reference 159 are at greatest risk of elevated dietary mercury exposure (in the form of methyl mercury). Between 1977 and 2009 mercury burdens in California gull (Larsus californicus) eggs from Lake Athabasca increased by 40%.Reference 160

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Coal-fired power plants

Energy generation through coal combustion is increasing in Alberta, with the Wabamun region in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ hosting power plants which are among the largest mercury emitters in Canada.Reference 161 Over the last 150 years, mercury in Wabamun Lake has increased 7-fold, compared to 2–4 fold increases in remote lakes in North America.Reference 161 Annual increases of mercury to Wabamun Lake before coal combustion began (1840–1956) was 1.6%; as industrial development increased (1956–2001), mercury increased annually by 3.9%.Reference 161 Increased concentrations of other trace metals (Cu, Pb, As, Sb, Sr, Mo, and Se) also coincided with power plant and other industrial developments in the Wabamun Lake watershed. Although emission controls were implemented, the expansion of coal-burning in the Wabamun Lake region at the rate of one power plant per decade (1960–2000) means that collective emissions from this region will increase.Reference 161

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Other sources of contaminants

Sewage effluent, pulp mill effluent, agricultural spraying and run-off, mineral exploration and mining activities (e.g., uranium mining in Northern Saskatchewan) reduce water quality in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. The cumulative effects of these multiple contaminant sources are unknown.Reference 162, Reference 163

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Key finding 12
Nutrient loading and algal blooms

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Inputs 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.

Although spatial coverage data on nutrient loadings across the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is incomplete, available data suggest that nutrient inputs from agriculture, industry, and urban development have increased. The Lake Winnipeg, MB watershed, in particular, receives high nutrient loads, and algal blooms occur annually in the lake.

Nutrient loading

Nutrient loading may result in algal blooms that can harm or even kill other aquatic organisms in two ways. First, algal blooms can deplete oxygen that other plants and animals need to survive. Second, toxic algal blooms (primarily blue-green algal species in freshwater systems) produce toxic compounds that can kill other organisms.Reference 8 Because of their naturally high nutrient levels, many Boreal Plains lakes are highly susceptible to nutrient loading and algal blooms when additional nutrient inputs (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus) from agriculture, human settlement, and logging are added.Reference 164 For example, approximately 67% of lakes monitored across the province of Alberta are hypertrophic or eutrophic (hypertrophic lakes experience significant algal blooms), 26% are mesotrophic, and only 7% are oligotrophic.Reference 87

A national assessment of nutrients in Canada's watersheds documented their 2004–2006 trophic status and 1990–2006 trends in phosphorus.Reference 165 Nutrient concentrations including total phosphorus (TP), total dissolved phosphorus (TDP), nitrate-nitrite (N-N), and total nitrogen, increased in 5 out of 10 rivers (Table 4). For example, the Athabasca River site downstream from Fort McMurray, AB, was eutrophic with increasing TDP, TP, and N-N, which increases the risk of high nutrient loads in the Peace–Athabasca Delta.Reference 165 Two sites in the Nelson River drainage, which includes Lake Winnipeg, MB, also receive high nutrient loads and the two other sites with stable nutrient trends but a high risk of nutrient loading have already reached nutrient saturation (Table 4).

Table 4. Trophic status and nutrient trends by drainage area in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+including: the Great Slave Lake drainage, the Western and Northern Hudson Bay drainage, and the Nelson River in 2004–2006.
DrainageSites in Boreal PlainsNote *of Table 4 Ecozone+Total dissolved phosphorus
Total phosphorus
Total nitrogen
StatusAt risk of nutrient loading
Great Slave Lake, NWTPeace River at Peace Point, ABStableStableIncreasedStableEutrophicHigh risk of algal blooms
Great Slave Lake, NWTAthabasca River 160 km downstream of Fort McMurray, ABIncreasedIncreasedIncreasedStableEutrophicHigh risk of algal blooms
Great Slave Lake, NWTAthabasca River below Snaring River, ABDecreasedStableStableStableOligotrophic-
Great Slave Lake, NWTAthabasca River at Athabasca Falls, ABStableStableIncreasedIncreasedOligotrophic-
Western and Northern Hudson's Bay, MB and NUBeaver River at Beaver Crossing, ABDecreasedStableStableStableEutrophic-
Western and Northern Hudson's Bay, MB and NUCold River at outlet of Cold Lake, ABStableStableStableStableMesotrophic-
Nelson River, MBSaskatchewan River above Carrot River, MBStableStableStableStableEutrophicHigh risk of algal blooms
Nelson River, MBCarrot River near Tumberry, SKIncreasedIncreasedStableStableHyper-eutrophicHigh risk of algal blooms
Nelson River, MBRed Deer River at Erwood, SKIncreasedIncreasedStableStableMeso-eutrophicHigh risk of algal blooms
Nelson River, MBAssiniboine River, SKStableStableStableStableHyper-eutrophicHigh risk of algal blooms

Source: data summarized from the Water Science and Technology Directorate, Environment Canada, 2011Reference 165

Note * of Table 4

Sites are arranged from north to south within each drainage area (refer to Figure 20).

Return to note * referrer of table 4

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Figure 20. Boreal Plains Ecozone+ regions and Water Survey of Canada designated major drainage basins.

Three drainages partially within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ are 07 (Great Slave Lake); 06 (Western and Northern Hudson Bay); and 05 (Nelson River).

Map showing regions and Water Survey of Canada designated major drainage basins
Source: Water Survey of Canada, 2006
Long description for Figure 20

This map shows that the Great Slave Lake basin occupies most of the ecozone+'s northwest. The Arctic drainage area occupies a very small area on the northwest boundary of the ecozone+. The Western and Northern Hudson Bay area is half the size of the Great Slave Lake area and is located in the northcentral part of the ecozone+. The Nelson River drainage area occupies the rest of the ecozone+along its southern boundary.

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Nitrogen from agricultural land

Residual soil nitrogen (RSN; i.e., nitrogen left in the soil post-harvest) is used to identify the agronomic regions that are at medium to very high risk of accumulating nitrate. Residual soil nitrogen may accumulate in the soil as a result of inputs from nitrogen fertilizer and manure, legume nitrogen fixation, and atmospheric deposition. It may then leach into ground and surface waters which can be harmful to freshwater ecosystems and subsequently pose a health risk to humans. In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, nitrogen inputs increased steadily over time from 40.8 kg/N/ha in 1981 to 69.3 kg/N/ha in 2006.Reference 166 Risk of accumulation was very low (8.1 kg N/ha) in 1981, but this risk increased to medium (22.1 kg N/ha) by 2006; although this was a reduction from the maximum concentration of 26.4 kg N/ha in 2001.Reference 166 As of 2006, there was an increased risk of residual soil nitrogen accumulation in almost all agricultural areas of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Figure 21a); RSN risk levels were highest in the Alberta and Manitoba portions of the ecozone+(Figure 21b).

Figure 21. Map of a) residual soil nitrogen risk classes assigned to farmland in 2006 and b) change in risk class between 1981 and 2006.

a) Residual Soil Nitrogen (RSN) risk values correspond to the following risk classes: very low <10kgN/ha; low= 10–19.9kgN/ha, medium=20–29.9kgN/ha; high = 30–39.9kgN/ha; very high >40kgN/ha

b) Green represents a decrease from a higher to a lower risk class, yellow represents no change, and orange represents an increase from a lower to a higher risk class.

Map showing residual soil nitrogen risk classes assigned to farmland
Source: Drury et al., 2011Reference 166
Long description for Figure 21

The first of these two maps shows that the southern half of the ecozone+ is in the low to medium risk classes . The second map shows that almost all classified land increased from a lower to higher risk class.

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Algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg, MB

The eastern shoreline of Lake Winnipeg, MB, is the Boreal Plains Ecozone+'s eastern boundary. The Lake Winnipeg watershed is home to 6.6 million people and 20 million livestock, with 68% of the watershed as cropland and pastureland.Reference 2 Intensification of agriculture, land clearing, wetland drainage, and rapid growth of human populations has led to an overall 30% increase in phosphorus in the lake from 1969 to 2007; most (73%) of the phosphorus load to Lake Winnipeg comes from the Red River, MB.Reference 3 Nitrogen is also increasing, but at a more variable rate.Reference 5 Reference 6 Concentrations of both nitrogen and phosphorus vary depending upon the location of the sampling site but, in general, nutrient concentrations are highest in the southern basin of the lake (Figure 22 and Figure 23).

Figure 22. Average annual total phosphorus concentrations in 1969 and from 1992-2007 in Lake Winnipeg, MB and b) spatial trends in average total phosphorus concentrations at 14 long-term monitoring stations on Lake Winnipeg, MB (data are averages from 1999- 2007 at each station).
Graph showing average annual total phosphorus concentrations
Source: Brunskill et al., 1969Reference 5 and Manitoba Water Stewardship, 2008Reference 6
Long description for Figure 22

The bar graph shows fluctuating but overall increasing total phosphorus concentrations, from 0.07 mg/L in 1969 to just over 0.1 mg/L in 2007. The map shows low phosphorous concentrations in the northern and high concentrations in the southern end of the lake.

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Figure 23. Average annual total nitrogen concentrations from 1992-2007 in Lake Winnipeg, MB and b) spatial trends in average total phosphorus concentrations at 14 long-term monitoring stations on Lake Winnipeg, MB (data are averages from 1999-2007 at each station).
Graph showing average annual total nitrogen concentrations
Source: Manitoba Water Stewardship, 2008Reference 6
Long description for Figure 23

The bar graph shows fluctuating but overall increasing total phosphorus concentrations, from 0.055 mg/L in 1992 to 0.07 mg/L in 2007. The map shows low nitrogen concentrations in the northern and high concentrations in the southern end of the lake.

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One effect of nutrient loading in Lake Winnipeg has been the development of large surface algae blooms comprised mostly of blue-green algae. Between 1969 and 2003, the average biomass of phytoplankton increased five-fold (Figure 24). The increase in algal blooms, and shift in species composition towards blue-green algae, has been occurring since the 1940s but has been particularly pronounced since the mid-1990s. Algal blooms have been as large as 10,000 km2, covering much of the north basin of the lake.Reference 6 Toxic blooms of blue-green algae in August 2010 prompted public health advisories to be posted at beaches, as water from Lake Winnipeg was not safe to drink.Reference 167

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Figure 24. Average phytoplankton biomass and species composition (mg/m3) from late July and early September in Lake Winnipeg, MB, in 1969, 1994, 1999, 2003 and 2007.
Graph showing average phytoplankton biomass and species composition
Source: Brunskill et al., 1969Reference 5 Kling et al., 2011Reference 168
Long description for Figure 24

This bar graph shows the following information:

Average phytoplankton biomass and species composition (mg/m3) from late July and early September in Lake Winnipeg, MB, in 1969, 1994, 1999, 2003, and 2007.
phytoplankton biomass19691994199920032007

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Key finding 13
Acid deposition

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Thresholds 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.

Acid deposition is produced when sulphur and nitrogen-based pollutants react with water in the atmosphere and are deposited on earth.Reference 169 The pollutants originate from industrial processes and can travel thousands of kilometres. It is the combination of acid deposition and the sensitivity of the land, water, flora, and fauna to acid that determines the severity of the impact on biodiversity. There were no data for acid deposition across the Boreal Plains Ecozone+; however, the north-central regions of the ecozone+ are sensitive to acid due to their geology and soil type (fn).

Critical Load is the maximum level of acid deposition that terrain can absorb without experiencing impairment; it differs across ecosystems depending on geology and soil type.Reference 170 Acid sensitive terrain, which has less buffering capacity, is generally underlain by slightly soluble bedrock and overlain by thin, glacially-derived soil.Reference 171 The northern boundary of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, from northwestern Saskatchewan east to central Manitoba is fairly sensitive to acid deposition with a critical load of <300 (Figure 25).

Figure 25. Combined aquatic and terrestrial critical loads, 2008.

<400 indicates acid sensitive terrain.

Map showing combined aquatic and terrestrial critical loads
Source: adapted from Jeffries et al., 2010Reference 172
Long description for Figure 25

This map of Canada has the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ delineated. The northern boundary of the ecozone+, from northwestern Saskatchewan east to central Manitoba, is fairly sensitive to acid deposition with a critical load of <300 (<400 indicates acid sensitive terrain).

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In aquatic communities, algae, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and waterbirds are affected by increased acidity through direct effects such as reduced survival, growth and reproductive success, and indirect effects such as loss or alteration of prey species.Reference 169, Reference 173, Reference 174, Reference 175, Reference 176, Reference 177 Acidification of aquatic systems can also lead to increases in methylmercury, which bioaccumulates and reduces survival in embryos and young animals.Reference 178, Reference 179, Reference 180, Reference 181 Biodiversity is impacted when critical loads are exceeded. This happens when acid is deposited on sensitive terrain or when acid deposition is high on less-sensitive terrain. The risk of exceedance of critical loads is high in northwest Saskatchewan because 68% of the 259 lakes assessed in 2007–2008 were highly sensitive to acid and are located downwind of acidifying emissions from energy developments.Reference 182 Similar concerns exist for other areas on sensitive terrain near these developments making this an emerging issue in the ecozone+, Reference 183

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Key finding 14
Climate change

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Rising 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 Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has experienced an increase in temperature, decrease in snow depth, and decrease in the duration of snow cover since the start of detailed record keeping in 1950. Broad-scale ecological impacts are projected as the climate continues to change, including: changes to the forest biome, melting of frozen peatlands, and shifts in species' phenology and ranges. Climate trends from 1950 to 2007 are summarized in Table 5.

Table 5. Trends in climate variables from 1950–2007 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+(temperatures represent changes in average temperature across the ecozone+.
Climate variableEcozone+ wide trend
Comments on regional variation
TemperatureSpring: 2.3°C increase
Summer: 0.7°C increase
Fall: no trend
Winter: 3.5°C increase
Temperatures increase in spring and summer at stations but magnitude of increases variable across the ecozone+, particularly in the summer

Temperatures increase in winter at stations throughout ecozone+
Growing seasonNo ecozone+-wide trend in timing of start or finish of the growing season, or length-
Annual precipitation (rain and snow) amount (33 stations)No trend in any seasonPrecipitation decrease at majority of sites except for an increase at one site near the southeast boundary of the ecozone+
Palmer drought severity index (12 stations in ecozone+)No significant ecozone+-wide trendDecrease trend (becoming significantly drier) in southwestern region of the ecozone+
Snow cover duration
(# of days with >2cm of snow cover)
February to July: significant 16.7 day Decrease in duration

August to January: no trend
Maximum annual snow depth (7 stations)11.3 cm decrease in snow depthDecrease of >40 cm near northeastern boundary of ecozone+ at the SK/MB border
Snow to total precipitation ratio (33 stations)No significant trendDecrease in the proportion of precipitation falling as snow at 5 stations in the west and central areas of the ecozone+

Unless otherwise indicated, data from 15 weather stations across ecozone+. Also refer to Figure 26 and Figure 27.

Only significant (p<0.05) trends were reported.

Source: Zhang et al., 2011Reference 53 and supplementary data provided by the authors.

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Between 1948 and 2007, the average annual temperature increased by 1.7°C across the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 184 The most significant temperature increases were observed in the winter and spring (Figure 26). Since 1950, precipitation has generally been increasing across Canada; however, precipitation did not change in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in any season (Figure 27). It is possible that no trend in precipitation was observed because the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is located between the Prairies Ecozone+, where precipitation declined, and northern Canada, where precipitation increased. There were, however, regional changes in precipitation. Precipitation increased in the eastern section, particularly in Manitoba, and decreased in west central Alberta.Reference 185

Figure 26. Change in average temperature, 1950–2007.

Seasons: spring=March–May; summer=June–Aug; fall=Sept–Nov; winter=Dec–Feb. Significant (p<0.05) trends in bold.

Maps showing dhange in average temperature
Source: Zhang et al., 201153 and supplementary data provided by the authors.
Long description for Figure 26

This figure shows a map of each season with icons representing individual monitoring stations that indicate an increase or decrease in seasonal temperature, the degree of change, and whether observed trends were significant. Spring, summer, and winter temperatures increased significantly at the majority of sites. In the fall, most sites decreased in temperature, but none significantly. Across the ecozone+ as a whole, temperature increased between 0.5 and >3 °C.

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Figure 27. Change in the amount of annual precipitation, 1950–2007.

Expressed as a percentage of the 1961–1990 average.

Map showing dhange in the amount of annual precipitation
Source: Zhang et al. 2011Reference 53 and supplementary data provided by the authors
Long description for Figure 27

This figure shows a map of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ with icons representing individual monitoring stations that indicate an increase or decrease in annual precipitation (expressed as a percentage of the 1961-1990 average), the degree of change, and whether observed trends were significant. Annual precipitation mostly decreased throughout the ecozone+ by 10-40 %, though some sites recorded an increase of 10-40%. None of the data was significant except for one site showing a slight increase in annual precipitation in the southeast of the ecozone+.

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Climate change impacts on ecosystems

Changes to major biomes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+are predicted under continued climate change. Over the next 50 years, 12–50% of Alberta's boreal forests may be converted to parkland (that is, fewer trees) coupled with a northward shift of grasslands into existing parkland.186 Although large burns presently regenerate into mixedwood forest, changes to the bioclimatic envelope will result in parkland as trees fail to regenerate.Reference 186 In the southern portion of the ecozone+, massive tree die offs related to drought have already been documented.Reference 23, Reference 187, Reference 188, Reference 189 Tree mortality in the western regions of the boreal forest increased by 4.9% per year from 1963 to 2008, mainly as a result of water stress created by regional drought.Reference 190

Changes to climate in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ have already affected physical and biological processes across the region. For example, although permafrost has always been patchily distributed in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+,Reference 108 the southern edge of the permafrost zone has completely thawed over the last 100 to 150 years as a result of increasing temperatures (refer to the Climate change section).Reference 103 This results in the release of methane hydrates (a greenhouse gas) and changes wetland hydrology.Reference 108, Reference 191, Reference 192, Reference 193, Reference 194 Warmer temperatures and decreasing snow pack have affected streamflow dynamicsReference 61, Reference 62 and lake levels,Reference 74, Reference 76 altering the salinity and changing the composition of aquatic communities (refer to the Climate change impacts: stream flows, temperature and water levels section). Finally, much like the rest of the country, species have responded to climate change through northward range shifts and changes in phenology.Reference 195, Reference 196 All of these effects are predicted to continue under future climate change re the frequency and/or severity of fire and increases in the incidence of forest insect infestation, fungus, and disease infection.Reference 23, Reference 24

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Key finding 15
Ecosystem services

Theme Human/ecosystem interactions

National key finding
Canada 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 Boreal Plains Ecozone+ provides an abundance of ecosystem services. Provisioning services, such as forest harvesting, hunting, fishing, trapping, and agriculture, are activities in the Boreal Plains which provide economic benefits. The boreal forest as a whole (including the Boreal Plains Ecozone+) provides a range of other ecosystem services (e.g., water as well as regulation and cultural services) that have not been quantified or valued to date; most notable of these services is the globally important role of the boreal forest as a carbon sink.Reference 197

Provisioning services

Fresh water

In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, the amount of water allocated for human use was increasing as of 2006 yet still remains below 1% of the average annual flow for four of the five river basins monitored, includingReference 86, Reference 87 Peace/Slave, Saskatchewan, North Saskatchewan, and the Churchill basins. In 2006, 4% of the Athabasca River Basin's average annual flow was allocated for human use, mainly for oil and gas and commercial developments (refer to Figure 13 in the Water stresses section). However, there is concern that continued development in the oil sands region in Alberta, combined with climate change, will compromise water security in the Athabasca River Basin in the future.Reference 89


Timber harvesting within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+has continued to increase since softwoods were first extensively harvested in the 1950s. Up until the past 20 years, the majority of harvested forest was spruce for lumber and pulp production; however, the harvest of hardwoods, such as trembling aspen, has increased significantly since the late 1980s.Reference 21,

Subsistence benefits

There is limited information on the trends of subsistence benefits of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ including hunting, trapping, and fishing. In general, populations of hunted species appear to be stable in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+,Reference 198, Reference 199 with the exception of grizzly bear. Grizzly bears are "at risk" in Alberta, and some populations are probably declining.Reference 200

Most fur-bearing species are considered stable in Alberta having recovered from intensive trapping in the early part of the 1900s.Reference 198 The exception to this is the wolverine which is listed as "may be at risk" in Alberta, and is thought to be declining.Reference 201 Furbearer pelt harvests by trappers has been variable but declining in recent years, mainly as a result of lower fur prices, weather, and declining trapper interest (Figure 28).Reference 202

Figure 28. Total income ($) and number of animals harvested in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ of British Columbia, 1984- 2006 and Saskatchewan, 2000- 2007.
Graph showing total income ($) and number of animals harvested
Source: annual returns compiled from BC Ministry of Environment, 2008,Reference 203 Saskatchewan Environment, 2008, Reference 204, Reference 205, Reference 206, Reference 207, Reference 208, Reference 209, Reference 210, Reference 211 and Haughland, 2008Reference 212
Long description for Figure 28

This line graph represents the following information:

Total income and number of animals harvested in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ of British Columbia from 1984 to 2006 and Saskatchewan from 2000 to 2007.
YearBC incomeNumber of BC peltsSaskatchewan incomeNumber of Saskatchewan pelts

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Fishing and commercial fisheries harvests likewise have variable information with inconsistent reporting among jurisdictions in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. In Alberta, there has been unsustainable harvesting pressure in many fish-bearing lakes where access has increased dramatically over the last 50 years.198 Since the 1960s, overfishing has resulted in the collapse of commercial fisheries, such as the goldeye (Hiodon alosoides) (Figure 29).Reference 213, Reference 214 Similarly, sport fishing has also contributed to declines in fish populations in some lakes; for example, walleye populations were significantly reduced in several lakes in northern Alberta as a result of overfishing.Reference 215 In contrast, commercial catches of walleye in Lake Winnipeg are high (Figure 30), suggesting that this species is abundant in the lake (refer to Lake Winnipeg fishery section below).Reference 216 The Lake Winnipeg sauger (Sander canadensis) commercial fishery, however, has declined since the 1980s and population trends for the 2000s are unknown (Figure 30).Reference 216 Refer to the Fish section on page 58 for more information on fisheries.

Figure 29. Total commercial fisheries harvest in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ of Alberta and Manitoba.

Circles depict 5-year averages and whiskers are 95% confidence intervals. Temporal extent of data varies by region according to data availability.

Alberta provincial values 1931–1975 are used and corrected downwards using a conversion factor (84%) derived from a comparison of total harvests to Boreal Plains-specific data from 1987–2007.

Graph showing total commercial fisheries harvest
Source: Haughland, 2008Reference 217 from Alberta Recreation Parks and Wildlife, 1976,Reference 214 Bodden, 2008,Reference 218 Department of Justice, 2007Reference 219 Manitoba Water Stewardship, 2006Reference 220
Long description for Figure 29

This graph shows the following information:

Total commercial fisheries harvest in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ of Alberta and Manitoba.
YearAlberta 5-year mean
Total harvest (kg)
Manitoba 5-year mean
Total harvest (kg)

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Lake Winnipeg fishery

Lake Winnipeg supports the largest commercial fishery in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. It represents 40% of the total fish production in the province of Manitoba and is an important component of Manitoba's economy (the Lake Winnipeg fishery annual landed value is approaching $25 millionReference 1 ). The three most commercially valuable species harvested from Lake Winnipeg are walleye, lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), and sauger. Commercial catches of walleye are at unprecedented highs, sauger catches have declined since the late 1980s and lake whitefish catches show no trend in either direction Figure 30).

Figure 30. Fish production (kg) of the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery, 1883–2006.
Graph showing fish production (kg) of the Lake Winnipeg commercial fishery
Source: adapted from Manitoba Water Stewardship Fisheries Branch as cited in Kling et al., 2011Reference 168
Long description for Figure 30

This line graph presents fish production for walleye, whitefish, sauger, and the total fish production. Walleye increased over time from 0 to 4,000 tonnes. Whitefish had higher fish production until 1940 and then decreased and remained below 2,000 tonnes. Sauger data began in the 1930s and rose to over 4,000 tonnes in 1940 before declining. Total fish production increased from 1,000 tonnes in the early 1880s to 10,000 tonnes in 1940, before dropping significantly in 1970. Subsequently, total fish production remained relatively steady around 6,000 tonnes until 2006.

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Agriculture including grain farming, production of forage crops, and livestock production, has dominated the economy of some areas of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. In the Peace River region, agricultural land cover increased from 23 to 46% between 1961 and 1986.Reference 198 Between 1985 and 2005, agricultural land cover remained stable at 24% for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ as a whole. Refer to the Agricultural land cover section.

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Regulating services

Carbon storage

Boreal forest carbon storage is globally significant.Reference 197 Much of this carbon is held within peat deposits and organic forest floor material.Reference 221, Reference 222 However, the status of the boreal forest as a net sink in a given year is affected by other factors, such as forest fires which increase carbon release and decrease carbon uptake.Reference 106 Reference 223 For example, forests in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ acted as a net source of carbon from 2001 to 2007 (Figure 31). Future trends of climate warming and permafrost thaw due to increased air temperature could perpetuate a trend of atmospheric carbon release in the coming years.Reference 224 Refer to the Permafrost section.

Figure 31. Cumulative change in carbon stocks from the land use, land-use change, and forestry sector in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1990–2007.
Graph cumulative change in carbon stocks
Source: Environment Canada, 2009Reference 225
Long description for Figure 31

This bar graph shows the following information:

Cumulative change in carbon stocks from the land use, land-use change, and forestry sector in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1990-2007.
YearForest Land

Carbon Stock (Gg)

Carbon Stock (Gg)

Carbon Stock (Gg)

Carbon Stock (Gg)

Carbon Stock (Gg)

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Water purification and regulation

Wetlands in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ provide numerous environmental and human benefits, includingReference 197 water purification, flood control, and carbon storage. In addition, wetlands provide critical habitat for many components of biodiversity, such as: migratory birds (e.g., American white pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos);Reference 226 fish (e.g., shortjaw cisco and lake sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens);Reference 227 and mammals (e.g., American beaver, Castor canadensis).Reference 228, Reference 229, Reference 230, Reference 231 Wetlands (peatlands, marshes, and fens) covered approximately 15% of the total area of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in 2005Reference 17 (refer to the Wetlands section on page 17).

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Cultural services

Human use, enjoyment and valuation of natural systems are difficult to quantify, but the creation, maintenance and visitation rates of parks and protected areas are often used as surrogates for these values. Of the three national parks in the ecozone+, data was only available for Prince Albert National Park, SK, where the number of visitors increased from 1987 to 2007 (Figure 32).Reference 232 The number of protected areas in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+also increased, from 4 to 8% between 1992 and 2009.Reference 112

Figure 32. Total visitorship to Prince Albert National Park, SK.
Graph showing total visitorship to Prince Albert National Park
Source: Corrigal, 2008Reference 232
Long description for Figure 32

This line graph shows that visitors to the park nearly doubled from 130,000 in 1986 to 240,000 in 2004.

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Valuation of ecosystem services

Efforts to value ecological services in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ have increased in recent years,Reference 233, Reference 234 as has the interest in the use of market based approaches to conserve the boreal forest, particularly in the oil sands region of Alberta.Reference 116 Alberta and Manitoba are exploring market based instruments as tools to enhance the stewardship of ecological services. Ecosystem services, goods and assets were identified and qualitatively ranked for southern Alberta,Reference 235 which included parts of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Manitoba applies the ecological goods and services concept in the development of future agri-environment policy through the Manitoba Ecological Goods and Services Initiative Working Group. For example, Growing Assurance – Ecological Goods and ServicesReference 236 provides financial assistance to local Conservation Districts to help implement best management practices on farms to restore, conserve and enhance ecological goods and services on the agricultural landscape.

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Footnote i one

Note that there is 15,340 km2 of protected land in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ with no information on the year of establishment. If all of this land was protected prior to 1992, then 6.2% of the ecozone+ was protected prior to 1992.

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Footnote ii two

Emerging contaminants are newer chemicals, or substances that have been in use for some time but have only recently been detected in the environment –they are usually still in use and/or only partially regulated. Legacy contaminants (e.g., PCBs, DDT) have been banned or restricted but still may be widespread in the environment.

Return to footnote two ii


Reference 1

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Reference 2

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Bourne, A., Armstrong, N. and Jones, G. 2002. A preliminary estimate of total nitrogen and total phosphorus loading to streams in Manitoba, Canada. Report No. 2002-04. Manitoba Conservation, Water Quality Management Section, Water Branch. 49 p.

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Brunskill, G.J., Schindler, D.W., Holmgren, S.K., Kling, H.J., Campbell, P., Graham, B.W., Stainton, M.P. and Armstrong, F.A.J. 1969. Nutrients, chlorophyll, phytoplankton and primary production in Lake Winnipeg.Unpublished data.

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Reference 6

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Reference 17

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Reference 21

Peterson, E.B. and Peterson, N.M. 1992. Ecology, management and use of aspen and balsam poplar in the prairie provinces, Canada. Special Report No. 1. Nortwest Region, Northern Forestry Research Centre, Forestry Canada. Edmonton, AB. 252 p.

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Reference 23

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