Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary
Theme: Habitat, Wildlife, and Ecosystem Processes
- Agricultural landscapes as habitat
- Species of special economic, cultural, or ecological interest
- Primary productivity
- Natural disturbance
- Food webs
Key finding 16
Agricultural landscapes as habitat
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
The 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.
The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is second only to the Prairie Ecozone+ in area of agriculture land. Agricultural landscapes comprise a mosaic of wildlife habitats and support many components of biodiversity. However, the wildlife habitat capacity of agricultural lands declined in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from 1986 to 2006 mainly due to the loss of natural land cover.Reference 237
Agricultural land cover
Agricultural land in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+expanded from 1986 to 2006 (130,000 to 135,000 km2) to comprise approximately 21% of the ecozone+Reference 238 (Figure 33). This increase was mainly the result of forest conversion to pasture and cropland (refer to the Forests section on page 11). Most of the agricultural land (~75%) is concentrated in the Boreal Transition and Peace Lowlands Ecoregions. The two dominant land cover types, Unimproved Pasture and Cereals, declined between 1986 and 2006 from 27 to 24% and from 26 to 19%, respectively. Tame Hay (6 to 16%), Improved Pasture (8 to 12%) and Oilseeds (10 to 11%) gained a greater share of farmland while Summerfallow (10 to 3%) and All Other LandFootnote three iii (14 to 13%) decreased.
Potential wildlife use of agricultural lands
A total of 314 species (235 birds, 63 mammals, 6 reptiles, and 9 amphibians) potentially use agricultural land in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 237 However, not all agricultural land cover types meet all life requisites for these species; further, the value of agricultural habitat is affected by the ability of adjacent habitats to provide required resources. Of all the land cover categories within the agricultural landscape, the "All Other Land" category, which includes wetlands, riparian zones, and forests, was the most valuable cover type for wildlife; it accommodated both breeding and foraging requirements for 280 (89%) species.Reference 237 The next most valuable cover type was Unimproved Pasture which provided breeding and foraging requirements for 62 (20%) species; this percentage was improved to 40% when requisite breeding habitat was nearby. Only 11 (4%) species met breeding and feeding requirements entirely on cropland (e.g., Tame Hay, Cereals, Oilseed land cover categories). However, when other breeding habitat was present, 90 (29%) species were able to use cropland as feeding habitat.
Wildlife habitat capacity
The dynamic nature of agricultural practices in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ resulted in concurrent changes in beneficial and detrimental landuses to wildlife. As a result, there was no change in wildlife habitat capacity on 78% of farmland in the ecozone+ between 1986 and 2006 (Figure 34). However, there was a significant decrease in capacity on 13.4% of farmland and only an 8.6% increase, resulting in an overall decline in wildlife habitat capacity for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+(Figure 35).Reference 237 As the wildlife habitat capacity was stable in the Boreal Transition Ecoregion, the primary reason for the decline was due to the reduction in the preferred cover type All Other Lands (17 to 13%) in the Peace Lowlands (Figure 35). As it relates to bird populations, the decline of natural cover types (i.e., All Other Land and Unimproved Pasture), and the intensification of agricultural systems have reduced the availability and quality of habitat for grassland and open bird species assemblages in agricultural landscapes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+(Figure 36).Reference 238, Reference 239
Figure 35. Wildlife habitat capacity on farmland in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in a) 1986 and b) 2006 and c). The share of agricultural land in each habitat capacity category (bars, left axis) and the average habitat capacity for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in 1986, 1996, and 2006 (points and line, right axis).
Years with different letters differed significantly (ANOVA: F = 4.25, Tukey HSD p<0.05).
Source: Javorek and Grant, 2011Reference 237
Long description for Figure 35
This figure is composed of two maps and one bar graph. The first map shows that high capacity in 1986 occurred in the northwestern part of the ecozone+, whereas low habitat capacity was located along the southern boundary of the ecozone+ in Saskatchewan, and in northwestern Alberta. The second map shows that habitat capacity declined in 2006.
Habitat capacity Categories
Very high: 90->100
Very low: <20-30
The bar graph shows the following information:
|Habitat capacity Categories||1986||1996||2006|
The average habitat capacity for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was 49.75 in 1986, 47.90 in 1996 and 47.78 in 2006.
Figure 36. Annual indices of population change in open/agricultural birds in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1971-2006.
Based on data from the Breeding Bird Survey.
Source: Downes et al., 2011Reference 239
Long description for Figure 36
This line graph shows the following information:
Key finding 17
Species of special economic, cultural, or ecological interest
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
Many species of amphibians, fish, birds, and large mammals are of special economic, cultural, or ecological interest to Canadians. Some of these are declining in number and distribution, some are stable, and others are healthy or recovering.
Human activity in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has both positive and negative effects on wildlife populations. Biodiversity population sizes are most greatly impacted by habitat loss that is most often the outcome of industrial activity; however, disease and predation also play important roles in biodiversity population fluctuations. The oil sands in Alberta present a potential threat to biodiversity and the ABMIReference 247 (refer to the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute section on page 77) works with federal and provincial agencies to implement scientifically credible monitoring systems for the Athabasca oil sands area.
The Athabasca oil sands area is within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and comprises 14% of Alberta. Human footprint covered 6.8% of the Athabasca oil sands area and 9% is protected.Reference 241 The ABMI assessed the status of 386 common species in the Athabasca oil sands area between 2003 and 2012. They found higher-than-expected abundances of species that thrive in areas with human development and lower-than-expected abundances of species that thrive in old-forest habitat.Reference 241 Half (12 of 24) old-forest birds were less abundant than expected if there were no human footprint. Old-forest birds that were less abundant than expected included brown creeper (Certhia americana), black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens), boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus), Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina), and least flycatcher (Empidonax minimus). However, pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), and warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus) were more abundant than expected.241
Of 13 mammal taxa, three (American marten, (Martes americana and fisher, (Martes pennant), mice and voles, (Rodentia), and red squirrels, (Tamiascirus hudsonicus)) were less abundant and red fox (Vulpes vulpes), mink, and wolf (Canis lupus) were more abundant than expected if there were no human footprint.Reference 241
The ABMI also measured "intactness" statistical models that describe the relationship between the relative abundance of individual species, habitat, and human footprint for the Boreal Forest Natural Region. Six-dimpled northern mites (Tectocepheus sarekensis) were detected at 5% of the sites in the Athabasca oil sands area, and were found to be 90% intact (Table 6). The presence and abundance of species in this species' family (Tectocepheidae) often indicate recent habitat disturbance.Reference 242
Of 23 berry-producing vascular plants, 20 were less abundant than expected than would be expected if there was no human footprint. Wild red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), which grows in open and disturbed sites such as burns, recently logged forest, and road edges, was more abundant than would be expected if there were no human footprint.Reference 241
|Biodiversity Component||Number of Species||Intactness|
Source: Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring InstituteReference 241
The ABMI tracks 14 of the 28 species considered at risk in this Athabasca oil sands area. This includes 6 species listed as provincially or/or federally threatened (Table 7).
|Species||DesignationNote * of Table||ABMI Assessment||Abundance||% Sites detected|
|Bay-breasted warbler (Setophaga castanea)||Sensitive - ESRD|
In Process - AB ESCC 2010-
|Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens)||Sensitive - ESRD|
Species of Special Concern -AB ESCC 2010
|Brown creeper (Certhia americana)||Sensitive – ESRD||81% Intact||Decreasing||10|
|Canada warbler (Wilsonia canadensis)||Sensitive - ESRD|
Threatened - COSEWIC
Threatened - SARA
|Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina)||Sensitive - ESRD|
In Process - AB ESCC 2010
|Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)||Sensitive – ESRD||95% Intact||Increasing||36|
|Least flycatcher (Empidonax minimus)||Sensitive – ESRD||93% Intact||Decreasing||44|
|Olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus cooperi)||ESRD - May Be at Risk|
Threatened - COSEWIC
Threatened - SARA
|Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)||Sensitive – ESRD||87% Intact||Increasing||22|
|Rusty blackbird (Contopus cooperi)||Sensitive - ESRD ||
Special Concern - COSEWIC
Special Concern - SARA
|Sora (Porzana carolina)||Sensitive – ESRD||95% Intact||Increasing||11|
|Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)||Sensitive – ESRD||96% Intact||Decreasing||36|
|Western wood pewee (Contopus sordidulus)||Sensitive – ESRD||90% Intact||-||14|
|Yellow-bellied flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris)||Undetermined - ESRD||91% Intact||Decreasing||10|
Source: Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring InstituteReference 241
- Note * of Table 7
Threat categories for species at risk as identified by the Government of Canada and/or the Government of Alberta. This assessment includes species and sub-species identified by Canada's Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA), recognized by Alberta's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), and/or identified by Alberta's Endangered Species Conservation Committee (AB ESCC)
Return to note * referrer of table 7
The majority of imperilled species in the entire Boreal Plains Ecozone+ are vascular plants and plant communities; amphibians have the highest proportion of species at risk (Figure 37).Reference 243 Reference 244, Reference 245
Figure 37. Percentage of known taxa ranked as S1/S2 (at risk) and S3 (may be at risk) as of 2008.
Ranked taxa were compiled from sub-region/ecoregion tracking lists from the provinces.Reference 243, Reference 246, Reference 247, Reference 248. The total known species in each group was estimated from summing species from tracking lists and field guides in ABReference 249, Reference 250 and SK.Reference 246For species with multiple rankings, the most at risk ranking was used. Any listed subspecies and variants were included in the totals.
Source: Haughland, 2008Reference 251
Long description for Figure 37
This bar graph shows the following information:
(may be at risk)
The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has two economically important fish classified as at risk by COSEWIC: lake sturgeon, Endangered, and shortjaw cisco, Threatened).Reference 133, Reference 252, Historically, overexploitation was the cause of large declines in lake sturgeon populations; more recently, dams, habitat degradation, and contaminants from agricultural run-off are among the most critical threats.Reference 227 Historical declines in shortjaw cisco were also caused by overexploitation; current threats include habitat degradation and introduced fish such as rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) which compete with, and predate on, the cisco.Reference 101, Within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, the statuses of populations that persist in smaller lakes in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are unknown.
Walleye, northern pike (Esox lucius) and yellow perch (Perca flevescens) are three popular game fish species in the ecozone+. Walleye are a popular fish for anglers in Alberta's relatively sparse but heavily-fished boreal lakes.Reference 215 Due to passive management and overharvest, many walleye fisheries collapsed between the 1950s and 1980s and have yet to recover.Reference 215 Despite the potential for recovery if released from threats, walleye continue to be harvested due to societal and economic pressures (Figure 38).Reference 215, Reference 253
Source: Sullivan 2003Reference 215 with data from the author
Long description for Figure 38
This line graph shows the following information:
|Year||Lac La Biche||Calling Lake||Touchwood Lake||Wolf Lake||Beaver Lake||Moose Lake|
The southern boreal forest of western Canada, including the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, encompasses the breeding ranges of more than 200 bird species;Reference 254 nearly half of these are neotropical migrants. Similar to trends across Canada, four of five bird habitat assemblages have declined significantly since the 1970s. Shrub/successional birds declined by 1.2%/year, urban/suburban birds declined by 1.3%/year, open/agricultural birds declined by 2.6%/year, grassland birds declined by 1.7%/year and forest birds were stable (Figure 39).Reference 239 These estimates were derived from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). The BBS is a long-term, large-scale, international avian monitoring program initiated in 1966 to track the status and trends of North American bird populations. Each year, thousands of birders volunteer to collect bird population data along roadside survey routes during the height of the avian breeding season. The reliance on roadside habitats, which facilitate accessibility for observers, reduces reliability of trends for bird species that use other habitats. Many landbird species (irruptive species, nomadic species, primary cavity nesters/woodpeckers, grouse, diurnal raptors, nocturnal raptors, species at risk), almost all waterbird and shorebird species, and cavity-nesting waterfowl species are not adequately monitored.Reference 255 Variation in observer abilities and incomplete geographic coverage are other sources of bias.Reference 256 In particular, trends with low reliability should be interpreted with caution.
The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ coincides with Bird Conservation Route 6 (Boreal Taiga Plains). Although BCR 6 also includes the Taiga Shield Ecozone+, the active survey routes are concentrated in the southern two-thirds of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. This is also the region where the most rapid habitat alteration and loss is occurring.
Figure 39. Trends in abundance of landbirds from the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
The y-axis represents the percent change in the average index of abundance between the first decade for which there were data (1970s) and the 2000s (2000–2006).
* indicates p <0.05; n indicates 0.05< p <0.1; no value indicates not significant.
Source: adapted from data in Downes et al., 2011Reference 239 based on data from the Breeding Bird SurveyReference 257
Long description for Figure 39
This bar graph shows the following information:
|Species Assemblage||Percentage change from 1970s index|
|Shrub / Successional||-31%|
|Open / Agricultural||-57%|
|Urban / Suburban||-29%|
Estimates of bird assemblages were based on an earlier analysis (1970s-2007) of the North American Breeding Bird Survey.Reference 239 Species-specific trends for birds are based on updated data and analyses. Since 2011, the results have been produced using a Bayesian hierarchical analysis. This new approach provides more precise trend estimates that are less sensitive to sampling error, and provides more intuitive measures of uncertainty. In addition, the estimates of geographic coverage were recalculated using updated species range-maps. Users should note that changes in coverage estimates between the 2012 and the 2011 analyses reflect the updated range maps and not a major change in the geographic scope of the survey.Reference 258
Overall, species in the forest bird assemblage were stable; however, ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) and Townsend's solitaires (Myadestes townsendi) declined whereas pileated woodpeckers and chestnut-sided warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) increased (Table 8).Reference 239
|American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis)||1973-2012||1.44||Low|
|Black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus)||1978-2012||-4.15||Low|
|Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca)||1970-2012||0.51||Low|
|Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens)||1970-2012||-2.91||Low|
|Brown creeper (Certhia americana)||1977-2012||0.2||Low|
|Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis)||1970-2012||-3.3||Low|
|Chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)||1970-2012||4.91||Low|
|Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)||1970-2012||0.73||Medium|
|Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens)||1970-2012||-3.61||Low|
|Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)||1972-2012||-3.62||Low|
|Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)||1972-2012||1.21||Low|
|Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla)||1970-2012||-0.69||Medium|
|Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus)||1970-2012||0.14||Low|
|Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)||1970-2012||4.91||Medium|
|Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)||1989-2012||-13.1||Low|
|Red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)||1970-2012||-5.29||Low|
|Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)||1970-2012||-2.2||Low|
|Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus)||1970-2012||-1.4||Low|
|Spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus)||1976-2012||-1.43||Low|
|Townsend's solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)||1989-2012||-4.43||Low|
|Veery (Catharus fuscescens)||1970-2012||-4.75||Low|
|White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)||1970-2012||5.25||Low|
|Winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)||1972-2012||0.48||Low|
|Yellow-throated vireo (Vireo flavifrons)||1970-2012||1.53||Low|
Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 258
In contrast to the forest bird assemblage, most species in the shrubland/early successional assemblage declined (Figure 40),Reference 167 some by over 40% (Table 9). As shrub habitat matured into young forests, populations of shrub birds (e.g., mourning warbler, Geothlypis philadelphia) declined along with their preferred habitat.Reference 167
Source: adapted from Downes et al., 2011Reference 239 based on data from the Breeding Bird SurveyReference 257
Long description for Figure 40
This line graph shows the following information:
|Species||Annual Trend (1970-2012)||Reliability|
|American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)||-1.62||Medium|
|Connecticut warbler (Oporornis agilis)||-1.43||Medium|
|Grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)||-9.5||Low|
|Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)||-0.59||High|
|Gray partridge (Perdix perdix)||1.55||Low|
|House wren (Troglodytes aedon)||-0.67||Medium|
|Mourning warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia)||-2.32||Medium|
|Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)||-1.54||Medium|
|Spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus)||-1.43 (1976-2012)||Low|
Source: Environment Canada 2014258
As with the Taiga and other northern ecozones+,shorebirds are not adequately monitored in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. However, the available information on boreal-breeding shorebirds suggests that several species have declined (Table 10).Reference 258 These trends are relevant to shorebird populations across the boreal forest including the Boreal Plains, Boreal Shield, Boreal Cordillera, Taiga Shield, Taiga Plains, and Taiga Cordillera ecozones+.
|American avocet (Recurvirostra americana)||1973-2012||4.83||Low|
|Greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)||1970-2012||2.6||Low|
|Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)||1970-2012||-4.67||Medium|
|Marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa)||1970-2012||2.59||Medium|
|Upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda)||1970-2012||-9.3||Low|
|Willet (Tringa semipalmata)||1970-2012||-1.22||Low|
|Wilson's phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor)||1970-2012||-5.62||Low|
Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 133,
Because many species of waterbirds are piscivorous, and therefore at the top of the aquatic food web,Reference 183 water and marsh birds have been used as indicators of ecosystem health for many years.Reference 259 Monitoring of waterbirds in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has been inconsistent; however, local data were available for western grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) and American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).Reference 260 In Alberta, western grebes declined and have low reproductive success.Reference 261 Threats to grebes, and waterbirds in general, include habitat degradation (oil spills, pollution, and reduction of prey) and human disturbance/development.Reference 260 White pelicans increased in Saskatchewan between 1976–1991 and are no longer listed as Threatened in that province.Reference 260 In Alberta, the number of breeding white pelicans is low and they are listed as Sensitive in the province.Reference 226 Observations from Aboriginal communities around Fairford Dam and Lake St. Marin in Manitoba suggest that pelicans have been expanding their range northwards.Reference 262 Although the reliability is low, the North American Breeding Bird Survey suggests that pelican populations are increasing in the ecozone+ (Table 11).Reference 258 However, the North American Breeding Bird Survey is generally poor for the census of colonial waterbirds.Reference 260
|American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)||3.59||Low|
|Black tern (Chlidonias niger)||-4.2||Low|
|Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia)||-1.69||Low|
|Common loon (Gavia immer)||1.85||Medium|
|Common tern (Sterna hirundo)||-2.41||Low|
|Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)||6.44||Low|
|Eared grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)||-0.36||Low|
|Forster's tern (Sterna forsteri)||-2.13||Low|
|Horned grebe (Podiceps auritus)||-1.83||Medium|
|Red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena)||-0.14||Medium|
|Western grebe (Clark's/Western) (Aechmophorus sp.)||0.06||Low|
Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 258
The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is one of the most important regions for breeding waterfowl in North America.Reference 263 Species such as white-winged scoter (Melanitta fusca) and northern pintail (Anas acuta) have declined (Table 12) due, in part, to the cumulative impacts from anthropogenic activities such as conversion to agriculture, forestry, and oil and gas development.Reference 264 Similar to other regions, populations of temperate nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis) increased in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Table 12), likely due to conversion of forest to cultivated land and expansion of urban areas.Reference 265
|American wigeon (Anas americana)||-4.27||Medium|
|Blue-winged teal (Anas discors)||-0.59||Medium|
|Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)||12.3||Low|
|Canvasback (Aythya valisineria)||-0.99||Low|
|Common merganser (Mergus merganser)||-0.38||Low|
|Gadwall (Anas strepera)||0.22||Medium|
|Green-winged teal (Anas crecca)||0.74||Medium|
|Northern pintail (Anas acuta)||-4.67||Low|
|Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata)||2.05||Medium|
|Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)||-1.34||Low|
|White-winged scoter (Melanitta fusca)||-19.6||Low|
|Wood duck (Aix sponsa)||3.99||Low|
|Redhead (Aythya americana)||2.02||Low|
Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 274
Boreal Plains Ecozone+ mammals have been affected by landscape changes due to habitat loss and human disturbance.
Wood Buffalo National Park contains the largest free-roaming herd of bison (Plains Bison bison bison and Wood B. b. athabascae) left in Canada.Reference 266, Reference 267 This population declined from 1971 to 1999 (Figure 41).
There are competing explanations for the population decline:
- decreased survival and reproduction due to tuberculosis, brucellosis (introduced with the plains bison in 1925/1926), and sporadic anthrax outbreaksReference 268, Reference 269
- increased predation by wolvesReference 268, Reference 270
- altered habitat use in the Peace–Athabasca DeltaReference 271
Population models suggest that wolf predation on juvenile bison, and not just disease, drive these declines, particularly for the Peace-Athabasca Delta subpopulation (Figure 42).Reference 184
Woodland caribou, boreal population (i.e., boreal caribou) was listed as Threatened under the Species at Risk Act(SARA) in 2003.Reference 272 The classification of caribou used in this report follows the current Species at Risk Act (SARA) classification system. In 2011, COSEWIC adopted 12 designatable units for caribou in Canada that will be used in caribou assessments and subsequent listing decisions under SARA beginning in 2014. This section on boreal caribou is based on the 2011 Scientific Assessment to Inform the Identification of Critical HabitatReference 273 and the 2012 Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), boreal population in Canada.Reference 274The information in this report has been updated since the release of the ESTR national thematic report, Woodland caribou, boreal population, trends in Canada.Reference 275
Habitat for boreal caribou in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ included late seral-stage (> 50 years old) conifer forest (jack pine, black spruce, tamarack, Larix laricina), treed peat lands, muskegs and bogs with some elevation (~1135 m).Reference 274 Caribou also selected old (>40 years) burns.Reference 274 Bogs and mature forests were selected for calving, as well as islands and small lakes, which provide protection from predators.Reference 275, Reference 276, Reference 277, Reference 278, Reference 279, Reference 280 Boreal caribou in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ are declining and at risk of local extirpation in some areas of their distribution (Figure 43). Of the 19 local caribou populations in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 16 were considered not self-sustaining or as likely as not self-sustaining in 2012 (Table 13).Reference 274 Like bison, boreal caribou have declined in response to increased predation facilitated by human disturbance.Reference 275 Increased industrial disturbance and expansion of linear elements (roads and seismic cut-lines) provide easier access for predators like wolves.Reference 275, Reference 280
|Range Name||Range Type||Population Size Estimate||Population Trend||Disturbed Habitat (%)||Risk AssessmentNote *of Table 13|
|West Side Athabasca River||LP||204-272||Declining||69||NSS|
|East Side Athabasca River||LP||90-150||Declining||81||NSS|
|Slave Lake||LP||65||Not available||80||NSS|
|Boreal Plain||CU||Not available||Not available||42||NSS/SS|
|The BogNote †of Table 13||ICU||50-75||Stable||16||NSS/SS|
|NaosapNote †of Table 13||ICU||100-200||Stable||50||NSS|
|ReedNote †of Table 13||ICU||100-150||Stable||26||SS|
|North InterlakeNote †of Table 13||ICU||50-75||Stable||17||NSS/SS|
|William LakeNote †of Table 13||ICU||25-40||Stable||31||NSS|
|WabowdenNote †of Table 13||ICU||200-225||Stable||28||SS|
|Manitoba NorthNote †of Table 13||CU||Not available||Not available||37||NSS/SS|
|Manitoba SouthNote †of Table 13||CU||Not available||Not available||17||SS|
Source: Environment Canada 2012Reference 274
- Note * of Table 13
Self-sustaining (SS), Not self-sustaining (NSS)
Return to note * referrer of table 13
- Note † of Table 13
The Government of Manitoba is in the process of updating their range boundaries. This will result in an update to current range delineations, as well as a revision of their self-sustainability status following integrated risk assessment of any new range boundaries.
The Range Type lists the different classification of local populations based on updated range boundaries for boreal caribou provided by jurisdictions, which were subsequently classified into three types reflecting the level of certainty in range boundaries: Local Population (LP – high certainty), Improved Conservation Units (ICU – medium certainty), and Conservation Units (CU – low certainty).
Disturbed habitat includes both anthropogenic disturbance (to which a 500m buffer is applied to all linear and polygonal differences) and fire disturbance (any area where a fire has occurred in the past 40 years; no buffer applied). Anthropogenic and fire disturbances that overlap are not counted twice in the total disturbance.
Return to note † referrer of table 13
In the Athabasca oil sands area, human footprint for the six woodland boreal caribou sub-population ranges in 2010 varied from <1% to >7%.Reference 241
Grizzly bears once ranged across the boreal region of Canada as well as the grasslands of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and ManitobaReference 281 (Figure 44). Grizzly bear populations are now restricted to British Columbia and the western foothills and plains of Alberta because of human settlement and land conversion.
Key finding 18
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
Primary productivity has increased on more than 20% of the vegetated land area of Canada over the past 20 years, as well as in some freshwater systems. The magnitude and timing of primary productivity are changing throughout the marine system.
Primary productivity is the basis of food webs in most ecosystems. Remote sensing of green vegetation provides a useful means to assess primary productivity and changes in productivity due to disturbance.Reference 283 The status and trends in primary productivity for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ were assessed using two remote sensing indices, the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and the Dynamic Habitat Index (DHI). Overall, trends indicate primary productivity is increasing more than decreasing across the ecozone+ with the increases mainly driven by increased agricultural production.Reference 8 Agricultural land also has the highest seasonal variation in primary productivity as do areas that have recently burned (Table 14).Reference 283
Normalized Difference Vegetation Index
The NDVI, a remote-sensing based measurement of photosynthetic activity, measures the amount and vigour of green vegetation.Reference 8 Primary productivity increased on 20.8% of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ between 1985 and 2006, and decreased on less than 1% (Figure 45). These trends were scattered throughout the ecozone+, although increased primary productivity was detected most often in agricultural areas. Two patches of strong negative NDVI trends appear to be associated with the Athabasca oil sands development in Alberta (Figure 45).
Although NDVI trends in the northern regions of Canada have been conclusively attributed to climate change, trends in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and other regions in the southern part of the country are likely responding to multiple factorsReference 284 such as: increased agricultural production;Reference 13 the natural cycle of fire and succession (which reduced primary productivity in recently burned areas but increased productivity in regenerating forests);Reference 284, Reference 285 climate change (especially precipitation changes);Reference 284 and forestry operations (for example, early-succession broadleaf vegetation has higher primary productivity than late-succession conifers).Reference 284
Dynamic Habitat Index
The Canadian Dynamic Habitat Index (DHI), also an index derived from remote sensing, can also be used to examine the primary productivity of a region. The DHI (developed using the fraction of photosynthetically active radiation or fPAR) is more directly related to photosynthesis than NDVI as it is calculated from a physically based model of the propagation of light in plant canopies.Reference 283 The DHI is a composite of three indicators of vegetation change:
- cumulative annual greenness (measure of primary productivity);
- annual minimum vegetation cover (the lowest level of perennial cover); and
- seasonal variation in greenness (vegetation seasonality).Reference 8, Reference 283
The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ transitions from an urban and agriculture dominated landscape in the south to a forested landscape in the north resulting in high variation in the DHI from 2000–2006 (Table 14).Reference 283 Although this time period is too short to analyze trends, it does provide a baseline upon which future changes can be compared. As plant communities move further north and/or to higher altitudes as the climate warms, the seasonal variation in greenness could serve as an indicator of the effects of climate change on vegetation.Reference 8
|Annual cumulative greenness|
|Average annual minimum vegetation cover|
(lowest level of cover)
|Average degree of vegetation seasonality|
|Variable; lowest in agricultural areasNote * of Table 14||Variable, lower in agricultural areas; lowest in patches that are likely fire scars||Variable, higher in agricultural areas and in patches that are likely fire scars|
Source: Ahern et al., 2011Reference 8
- Note * of Table 14
Self-sustaining (SS), Not self-sustaining (NSS)
Primary productivity in freshwater
Primary productivity has also increased in aquatic ecosystems in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+; the frequency of algal blooms is on the rise as a result of increased nutrient loading in lakes and rivers. For example, the Nelson River drainage in the southeastern region of ecozone+ has been particularly impacted by nutrient loading. As a result, large algal blooms have been occurring with increasing frequency in Lake Winnipeg since the mid-1990s (refer to the Nutrient loading section on page 34).
Key finding 19
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
The dynamics of natural disturbance regimes, such as fire and native insect outbreaks, are changing and this is reshaping the landscape. The direction and degree of change vary.
Natural disturbance is a primary driver of ecosystem variability and processes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ with both fire and native insect outbreaks serving as important agents of change. Fire season duration and seasonality have remained relatively unchanged in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, but other fire characteristics (e.g., frequency, size) are more variable. Native insect outbreaks are regionally common throughout the Boreal Plains. The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is of particular concern as it is expanding its range in the ecozone+.
Fire is an important natural disturbance in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. On average, 2,214 km2 of the forested area in this ecozone+ burns each year, but this can range from less than 200 km2 to over 6,000 km2.Reference 286 The area burned in the Boreal Plains represents 11% of the total area burned annually in Canada but only 0.47% of the ecozone+. The proportional area burned is comparable to neighbouring ecozones+ the Boreal Shield (0.49%) and Taiga Cordillera (0.47%) and lower than the Taiga Shield (0.77%) and Taiga Plains (0.71%).Reference 286 Approximately 90% of this ecozone+ is protected by fire suppression activities, the highest of all the ecozones+.Reference 287 Fires are actively suppressed in the ecozone+ due to the abundance of high value elements including populated communities, forestry resources, and infrastructure.Reference 288 The low proportion of fires may also be due to the abundance of deciduous or mixedwood forest (24% of the ecozone+)Reference 27 which are less prone to burning.Reference 289 Humans were also responsible for 57% of ignitions of large fires in this ecozone+ over the last 40 years. Lightning-caused fires, however, were the dominant cause of fires in the 1990s.Reference 286
Based on 40 years of available data, both fire season duration and seasonality have remained relatively unchanged during this time period.Reference 286 At 5 months, the Boreal Plains Ecozone+had the longest fire season of all the ecozones+primarily due to human-caused fires which prolonged the fire season.Reference 286 Human-caused fires were most common during the spring fire season, lightning-caused fires predominated in the summer, and humans were generally responsible for the infrequent fires that occurred in the fall. Although the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has severe fire weather, this did not translate into severe fires.Reference 287, Reference 289, Reference 290
In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, trends in area burned were also related to differences in monitoring and detection over the past five decades.Reference 286 The area burned was relatively low in the 1960s and 1970s, peaked during the 1980s, and then declined (Figure 46). The amount of burned area was likely underestimated during the 1960s and 70s due to poor monitoring and detection. The declines in the past 20 years may be attributed, in part, to improvements in detection and firefighting techniques and/or increased prevention efforts, as well as changes in fire weather.Reference 291, Reference 292, Reference 293, Reference 294
The value for the 2000s decade was pro-rated over 10 years based on the average from 2000–2007.
Source: Krezek-Hanes et al., 2011Reference 286
Long description for Figure 46
This figure is composed of a bar graph and a map.
a) The bar graph shows the following information:
|Year||Area burned (km2)|
b) The map shows that the distribution of large fires in the 1980s was scattered throughout the ecozone+; fires which occurred in the 1990s and 2000s occurred primarily in the north-central portion of the ecozone+ (northern Alberta and Saskatchewan).
Insect defoliators are the other major natural disturbance in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, including several deciduous defoliators, spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana), and mountain pine beetle.
Data on insect defoliators are typically available at the province-wide scale. Alberta values were extracted using GIS or through a downwards correction using a conversion factor based on comparisons between Boreal Plains Ecozone+-specific and provincial data. Province-wide data was presented for SaskatchewanReference 295 because most surveys for forest insects occurred in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 296
Important deciduous defoliators in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ include forest tent caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria), large aspen tortrix (Choristoneura conflictana), bruce spanworm (Operophtera bruceata), aspen twoleaf tier (Enargia decolour), and aspen leafroller (Pseudecenterra oregonana). Forest tent caterpillars are the most important defoliators of trembling aspen, the dominant deciduous tree in the ecozone+. Outbreaks do not occur in synchrony across the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Defoliation appears to be cyclical in Alberta, following a 10-year outbreak cycle with peak values heightened in more recent years.Reference 297 In Saskatchewan, peak-cycle annual defoliation has diminished since a recorded high of 36% in 1979. At a regional scale, insect defoliation leads to reduced growth in trembling aspen.Reference 22
Spruce budworm is considered the most destructive forest defoliator in North America leading to reduced tree growth and increased tree mortality during severe outbreaks.Reference 298 While it is most damaging to older, denser forest stands, all host stands are vulnerable when spruce budworm populations are high. Defoliation in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ peaked during 1992–2003 in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and then declined in most areas. The temporal extent of these data was too short to examine trends in spruce budworm population cycles, as the length of time between peaks is approximately 30–35 years.Reference 298
Mountain pine beetle
Until recently, the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was outside the range of mountain pine beetles.Reference 299 Only two mountain pine beetle outbreaks have occurred in Alberta in the past, and both were restricted to areas south of the Boreal Plains.Reference 300 However, mountain pine beetles have expanded their range significantly in recent years.Reference 299 Warmer winters, fire suppression, and continued dispersal increase the probability of range expansion. Since 2005, mountain pine beetles have spread eastward across the Rocky Mountains affecting tens of thousands of square kilometres of lodgepole pine and lodgepole pine x jack pine hybrid forests in western portions of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Figure 47).Reference 301, Reference 302 Alberta has responded with an aggressive management strategy aimed at preventing the further spread of beetles.Reference 303
Key finding 20
Theme Habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes
National key finding
Fundamental changes in relationships among species have been observed in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments. The loss or reduction of important components of food webs has greatly altered some ecosystems.
Food webs and population cycles are important because they shape the structure and function of ecosystems. In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, trophic dynamics appear to be changing in terrestrial and likely freshwater ecosystems, facilitated by factors such as industrial development and a warming climate. As elsewhere in the boreal forest, pronounced cycles in the abundance of predator-prey populations are also known to occur in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Trophic dynamics and its impact on caribou
Predator-prey interactions have changed with increasing fragmentation and linear disturbance from industrial development in northeastern Alberta. Predation on caribou has increased due to linear features and human disturbance, which have given grey wolves greater access to caribou habitat.Reference 305, Reference 306, Reference 307, Reference 308 In addition, the abundance of deer has increased and resulted in increased wolf densities and consequently higher incidental predation on caribou.Reference 309 The increases in wolf population coupled with increasing predation risk for caribou due to increasing fragmentation, have likely worked synergistically to cause the extensive declines in caribou over the past several decades.
Potential impacts of climate change on freshwater food webs
Climate change can cause changes to food webs because interacting species respond differently to shifting environmental conditions; these changes may be especially dramatic in aquatic ecosystems where trophic interactions are typically strong.Reference 310 Aquatic food webs in certain lakes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ are somewhat resilient to disturbances like forest harvesting and fires,Reference 311, Reference 312 however, information is lacking on the impacts of climate change on aquatic food webs in the region. Even slight changes in climate and drought are known to cause complex and unpredictable changes in boreal lakes and streams.Reference 313 Warmer spring temperatures, as observed in this ecozone+ (refer to the Climate change section, Table 5 on page 42) disrupt trophic linkages between phytoplankton and zooplankton in temperate lakes because of differing sensitivity to the warming; this changes the flow of resources to upper trophic levels in pelagic ecosystems.Reference 314 In general, warmer temperatures and associated changes in precipitation, evaporation, salinity, and shorter ice seasons affect aquatic organisms in the ecozone+,Reference74, Reference 162 with corollary effects on aquatic food webs. Given that the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is home to thousands of lakes and river systems, the impacts of climate change on aquatic food webs may be an emerging issue for the ecozone+. In addition, aquatic food webs can be altered by a number of other disturbances including increased nutrients, invasive species, and overfishing.Reference 316 The cumulative effects of these disturbances on aquatic food webs in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ are unknown.
Long-term fur trapping records from Hudson's Bay posts identified cycles in the abundance of certain predator-prey populations, such as the ten-year cycle of lynx and snowshoe hare.Reference 317, Reference 318 The lynx-hare cycle did not change significantly from 1821 to 2000; Reference 318 however, Peace, Athabasca, and Slave River Basin Aboriginal Peoples suggest that the length of time between high and low population peaks in the cycle may be increasing.Reference 319
- Footnote iii three
The agricultural landscape (or agricultural land) includes the "All Other Land" category from the Census of Agriculture, which is made up of areas such as wetlands, riparian zones, shelterbelts, woodlands, idle land/old fields, and anthropogenic areas (farm buildings, green houses, and lanes).
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