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Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary

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Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010

Evidence for Key Findings Summary Report No. 12 Published by the Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers

Cover photo

Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary.

Issued also in French under title:
Sommaire des éléments probants relativement aux constatations clés pour l'écozone+des plaines boréales.
Electronic monograph in PDF format.

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Cover photos: Aerial image of boreal plain, © Lorna Allen; Black spruce forest, © Lorna Allen

This report should be cited as:

ESTR Secretariat. 2014. Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Evidence for Key Findings Summary Report No. 12. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. ix + 106 p. Technical Reports

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Preface

The Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers developed a Biodiversity Outcomes FrameworkReference 4 in 2006 to focus conservation and restoration actions under the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy.Reference 7 Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010Reference 8 was the first report under this framework. It presents 22 key findings that emerged from synthesis and analysis of background technical reports prepared on the status and trends for many cross-cutting national themes (the Technical Thematic Report Series) and for individual terrestrial and marine ecozones+ of Canada (the ecozone+ Status and Trends Assessments). More than 500 experts participated in data analysis, writing, and review of these foundation documents. Summary reports were also prepared for each terrestrial ecozone+ to present the ecozone+-specific evidence related to each of the 22 national key findings (the Evidence for Key Findings Summary Report Series). Together, the full complement of these products constitutes the 2010 Ecosystem Status and Trends Report (ESTR).

2010 Ecosystem Status and Trends Report (ESTR)
Graphic showing types of ESTR Reports

This report, Boreal Plains Ecozone+ Evidence for Key Findings Summary, presents evidence from the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ related to the 22 national key findings and highlights important trends specific to this ecozone+. It is not a comprehensive assessment of all ecosystem-related information. The level of detail presented on each key finding varies and important issues or datasets may have been missed. Some emphasis has been placed on information from the national Technical Thematic Report Series. As in all ESTR products, the time frames over which trends are assessed vary – both because time frames that are meaningful for these diverse aspects of ecosystems vary and because the assessment is based on the best available information, which is over a range of time periods.

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Ecological classification system – ecozones+

A slightly modified version of the Terrestrial Ecozones of Canada, described in the National Ecological Framework for CanadaReference 9 , provided the ecosystem-based units for all reports related to this project. Modifications from the original framework include: adjustments to terrestrial boundaries to reflect improvements from ground-truthing exercises; the combination of three Arctic ecozones into one; the use of two ecoprovinces – Western Interior Basin and Newfoundland Boreal; the addition of nine marine ecosystem-based units; and the addition of the Great Lakes as a unit. This modified classification system is referred to as "ecozones+" throughout these reports to avoid confusion with the more familiar "ecozones" of the original framework.Reference 10

Ecological classification system – ecozones+
Map
Long description for Ecological classification system – ecozones+

This map of Canada shows the ecological classification framework for the Ecosystem Status and Trends Report, named "ecozones+". This map shows the distribution of 15 terrestrial ecozones+ (Atlantic Maritime; Newfoundland Boreal; Taiga Shield; Mixedwood Plains; Boreal Shield; Hudson Plains; Prairies; Boreal Plains; Montane Cordillera; Western Interior Basin; Pacific Maritime; Boreal Cordillera; Taiga Cordillera; Taiga Plains; Arctic), two large lake ecozones+ (Great Lakes; Lake Winnipeg), and nine marine ecozones+ (North Coast and Hecate Strait; West Coast Vancouver Island; Strait of Georgia; Gulf of Maine and Scotian Shelf; Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence; Newfoundland and Labrador Shelves; Hudson Bay, James Bay and Fox Basin; Canadian Arctic Archipelago; Beaufort Sea).

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Acknowledgements

The ESTR Secretariat acknowledges Diane Haughland and the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute for the preparation of various drafts of the report. This report was overseen and edited by Emily Gonzales and Debbie Martin. Kelly Badger was the lead graphics designer. Additional support was provided by Ellorie McKnight, Michelle Connolly and others. This report is based on the draft Boreal Plains Ecozone+ Status and Trends Assessment. Other experts made significant contributions to that draft report and are listed below. Reviews were provided by scientists and resource managers from relevant provincial/territorial and federal government agencies. The Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution also coordinated reviews with external experts.

Draft Boreal Plains Ecozone+ Status and Trends Assessment acknowledgements

Lead authors: D. Haughland and A. Lennie

Contributing authors, specific sections or topics:

Lake Winnipeg, MB case study: E. Shipley with consulting author: H. Kling
Non-native vascular plants: J. Herbers
Caribou: N. McCutchen
Protected areas: J.-F. Gobeil, R. Helie and R. Vanderkam

Authors of ESTR Thematic Technical Reports from which material is drawn:

Large-scale climate oscillations influencing Canada, 1900-2008: B. Bonsal and A. Shabbar
Trends in breeding waterfowl in Canada: M. Fast, B. Collins and M. Gendron
Trends in permafrost conditions and ecology in northern Canada: S. Smith
Woodland caribou, boreal population, trends in Canada: C. Callaghan, S. Virc and J. Duffe
Landbird trends in Canada, 1968–2006: C. Downes, P. Blancher and B. Collins
Trends in Canadian shorebirds: C. Gratto-Trevor, R.I.G. Morrison, B. Collins, J. Rausch and V. Johnston
Canadian climate trends, 1950–2007: X. Zhang, R. Brown, L. Vincent, W. Skinner, Y. Feng and E. Mekis
Trends in large fires in Canada, 1959–2007: C.C. Krezek-Hanes, F. Ahern, A. Cantin and M.D. Flannigan
Wildlife pathogens and diseases in Canada: F.A. Leighton. Contributors: I.K. Barker, D. Campbell, P.-Y. Daoust, Z. Lucus, J. Lumsden, D. Schock, H. Schwantje, K. Taylor, and G. Wobeser.
Landbird trends in Canada, 1968–2006: C. Downes, P. Blancher and B. Collins
Trends in wildlife habitat capacity on agricultural land in Canada, 1986–2006: S.K. Javorek and M.C. Grant.
Trends in residual soil nitrogen for agricultural land in Canada, 1981–2006: C.F. Drury, J.Y. Yang and R. De Jong.
Soil erosion on cropland: introduction and trends for Canada: B.G. McConkey, D.A. Lobb, S. Li, J.M.W. Black and P.M. Krug.
Monitoring biodiversity remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada: F. Ahern, J. Frisk, R. Latifovic and D. Pouliot.
Inland colonial waterbird and marsh bird trends for Canada: D.V.C. Weseloh. Contributors: G. Beyersbergen, S. Boyd, A. Breault, P. Brousseau, S.G. Gilliland, B. Jobin, B. Johns, V. Johnston, S. Meyer, C. Pekarik, J. Rausch and S.I. Wilhelm.
Climate-driven trends in Canadian streamflow, 1961–2003: A. Cannon, T. Lai and P. Whitfield.
Biodiversity in Canadian lakes and rivers: W.A. Monk and D.J. Baird. Contributors: R.A. Curry, N. Glozier and D.L. Peters.

Review conducted by scientists and renewable resource and wildlife managers from relevant provincial and federal government agencies through a review process recommended by the ESTR Steering Committee. Additional reviews of specific sections were conducted by university researchers in their field of expertise at the request of the authors.

Direction provided by the ESTR Steering Committee composed of representatives of federal, provincial and territorial agencies.

Editing, synthesis, technical contributions, maps and graphics, and report production by the ESTR Secretariat of Environment Canada.

Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge compiled from publicly available sources by D. Hurlburt.

Figure 1. Overview map of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Overview Map of Boreal Plains Ecozone+
Long description for Figure 1

This map shows the location of cities/towns and bodies of water referred to in this report. The ecozone+ encompasses a section of southern Manitoba, central Saskatchewan, central Alberta, and small section of northeastern British Columbia (British Columbia). Towns in British Columbia include Fort Saint John and Dawson Creek. In Alberta, the Peace River and Lake Athabasca delineate the northernmost section of the ecozone+. The southern edge of the boundary within Alberta runs just north of Grande Cache, Calgary and Edmonton. Whitecourt, Lesser Slave Lake, the Athabasca River, the Athabasca Oil Sands, and Fort McMurray fall within the ecozone+. The ecozone+ runs across central Saskatchewan north of Saskatoon, Regina, and Whitewood and includes the Saskatchewan River and the Porcupine Hills. In Manitoba, Lake Winnipegosis, the majority of Lake Manitoba, and Lake Winnipeg are located within the ecozone+. Selkirk is within the ecozone+ but the city of Winnipeg is not.

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References

Reference 4

Environment Canada. 2006. Biodiversity outcomes framework for Canada. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. 8 p.

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Reference 7

Federal-Provincial-Territorial Biodiversity Working Group. 1995. Canadian biodiversity strategy: Canada's response to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Environment Canada, Biodiversity Convention Office. Hull, QC. 86 p.

Return to reference 7

Reference 8

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

Return to reference 8

Reference 9

Ecological Stratification Working Group. 1995. A national ecological framework for Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Research Branch, Centre for Land and Biological Resources Research and Environment Canada, State of the Environment Directorate, Ecozone Analysis Branch. Ottawa, ON/Hull, QC. vii + 125 p.

Return to reference 9

Reference 10

Rankin, R., Austin, M. and Rice, J. 2011. Ecological classification system for the ecosystem status and trends report. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 1. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. ii + 14 p.

Return to reference 10

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List of Figures

List of Tables

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Ecozone+ Basics

Extending from northeastern British Columbia, across northern and central portions of Alberta and central Saskatchewan, to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba (Figure 1), the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is characterized by a cool climate, generally flat topography, thick surface organic soil layers, poor drainage, low nutrients, and discontinuous permafrost (Table 1).Reference 11 Over 60% forested (Figure 2), with low tree species diversity and relatively slow tree growth, the ecozone+ is interspersed with wetlands, shrublands, and some of Canada's largest water bodies. Frequent wide-spread natural disturbances including fire, insect outbreaks, and wind drive the structure of the ecozone+. The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is rich in renewable and non-renewable resources, with resource-based industries being the primary economic drivers. At almost 21% of its landbase, the region provides Canada's second largest contribution of agriculture land. It has a robust forestry industry, and a rapidly growing energy sector (including the oil sands).

Table 1. Taiga Plains ecozone+ overview.
Area701,750 km2 (7.0% of Canada)
TopographyTypically flat to gently rolling, hummocky and kettled terrain; generally decreasing in elevation in an eastward direction.
ClimateCool, northern continental climate, with long, cold winters and short cool summers; maintaining average annual temperatures around 0°C.

Climate varies with cooler and wetter conditions in the north, and warmer and drier conditions in the south.

Total annual precipitation generally remains below 500mm, typically occurring in the summers.
River basinsFalls within Great Slave Lake, Western and Northern Hudson Bay, and Nelson River drainage areas. Tributaries provide for the Peace–Athabasca Delta, Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis, and Lake Manitoba.

Major rivers include the Peace, Athabasca, and Saskatchewan
GeologyPostglacial terrain consists primarily of glacial till deposits and some morainal, lacustrine, and aeolian deposits over Cretaceous shales and sandstones.
PermafrostPatchy distribution of permafrost, confined to peatlands along the northern edge coinciding with the southern edge of the sporadic permafrost zone.
SettlementSmall groups of Aboriginal peoples have inhabited the area for the last 5000 years.

European settlement started in the mid-1800s following the fur trade and subsequent agricultural expansion and resource extraction.

Settlement typically along the south and near areas of high resource concentration.

Major municipalities include Fort St. John, Peace River, Grand Prairie, Fort McMurray, Prince Albert, The Pas, and Gimli.
EconomyPredominantly resource-based including agriculture, forestry, and energy development, particularly oil and gas extraction.
DevelopmentExtensive development is focused around resource deposits and human access.

Most agricultural and forestry activity occurs along the southern edge or near population centres.
National/global significancePeace–Athabasca Delta is Canada's largest inland delta and is designated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance as one of the world's largest freshwater deltas, and as an Important Bird Area for migratory waterfowl on all four continental flyways.

Wood Buffalo National Park is the world's second largest national park and a World Heritage Site.

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Jurisdictions: The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ includes parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. The major Aboriginal groups that overlap the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ boundaries are the Cree, Denesuline, and Dunne-za.Reference 12

Figure 2. Broad (1 km resolution) landcover classification for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 2005.
Map
Source: data for ecozone+ provided by authors of Ahern et al., 2011Reference 13
Long description for Figure 2

This map shows that forest occupies the majority of the ecozone+ (62%) and agricultural land occupies 24%, mostly in the south and northwest. Shrubland occupies 12% and fire scars occupy 2% both throughout the ecozone+.

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Figure 3. Human population trends, Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from 1971 to 2006.
Map
Source: Statistics Canada, 2000Reference 14 and 2009Reference 15
Long description for Figure 3

This bar graph shows the following information:

Human population trends, Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from 1971 to 2006. (Population)
19711976198119861991199620012006
556,556583,291670,983688,542705,850742,195768,495809,169

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The population of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has been steadily increasing and reached 809,169 in 2006 (Figure 3). Population growth is driven largely by the need for labour as resource development expands; for example the population of Fort McMurray expanded almost ten-fold between 1971 and 2007 (from 6,847 to 64,441).Reference 16

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References

Reference 11

Pojar, J. 1996. Environment and biogeography of the western boreal forest. Forestry Chronicle 72:51-58.

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Reference 12

Karst, A. 2010. Conservation Value of the North American Boreal Forest from an Ethnobotanical persective. Canadian Boreal Initiative; David Suzuki Foundation; Boreal Songbird Initiative. Ottawa, ON;Vancouver, BC; Seattle, WA.

Return to reference 12

Reference 13

Ahern, F., Frisk, J., Latifovic, R. and Pouliot, D. 2011. Monitoring ecosystems remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 17. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON.

Return to reference 13

Reference 14

Statistics Canada. 2000. Human activity and the environment 2000. Human Activity and the Environment, Catalogue No. 11-509-XPE. Statistics Canada. Ottawa, ON. 332 p.

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Reference 15

Statistics Canada. 2009. Human activity and the environment: annual statistics 2009. Human Activity and the Environment, Catalogue No. 16-201-X. Statistics Canada. Ottawa, ON. 166 p.

Return to reference 15

Reference 16

Fort McMurray Tourism. 2008. Fort McMurray Tourism [online]. (accessed 17 March, 2008).

Return to reference 16

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Key Findings at a Glance: National and Ecozone+ Level

Table 2 presents the national key findings from Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010Reference 8 together with a summary of the corresponding trends in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Topic numbers refer to the national key findings in Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010. Topics that are greyed out were identified as key findings at a national level but were either not relevant or not assessed for this ecozone+ and do not appear in the body of this document. Evidence for the statements that appear in this table is found in the subsequent text organized by key finding. Refer to the Preface.

Table 2. Key findings overview

2.1 Theme: Biomes
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Boreal Plains Ecozone+
1. ForestsAt a national level, the extent of forests has changed little since 1990; at a regional level, loss of forest extent is significant in some places. The structure of some Canadian forests, including species composition, age classes, and size of intact patches of forest, has changed over longer time frames.Over 60% of the ecozone+was classified as forest including conifer (42%), deciduous (37%), and mixed (20%). Between 1985 and 2005 there was a 3% decrease in forest cover largely due to an increase in fire. In the agricultural landscape, woodlots were also converted to cropland over this period. Approximately 37% of forests are intact, larger than 100 km2. Forest fragmentation is the result of industrial development, such as: seismic lines, forest harvesting, access roads for oil and gas development, and forestry. Forest birds have remained stable between 1971 and 2006.
2. GrasslandsNative grasslands have been reduced to a fraction of their original extent. Although at a slower pace, declines continue in some areas. The health of many existing grasslands has also been compromised by a variety of stressors.There is little information on native grasslands; most native grassland in the ecozone+ has been converted to agriculture. From 1986 to 2002, 15% of grasslands and rangelands were lost in Manitoba's Boreal Plains.
3.WetlandsHigh loss of wetlands has occurred in southern Canada; loss and degradation continue due to a wide range of stressors. Some wetlands have been or are being restored.Few data were available for the status and trends for wetlands. Between 1986 and 2002, 15% of marshes and fens and 10% loss of treed and open bogs were lost in Manitoba's Boreal Plains.
4. Lakes and riversTrends over the past 40 years influencing biodiversity in lakes and rivers include seasonal changes in magnitude of stream flows, increases in river and lake temperatures, decreases in lake levels, and habitat loss and fragmentation.Stream flows decreased, water levels lowered, and water withdrawals increased in the ecozone+. The main drivers of these trends were climate change and oil and gas development.
5. CoastalCoastal ecosystems, such as estuaries, salt marshes, and mud flats, are believed to be healthy in less-developed coastal areas, although there are exceptions. In developed areas, extent and quality of coastal ecosystems are declining as a result of habitat modification, erosion, and sea-level rise.Not relevant
6. MarineObserved changes in marine biodiversity over the past 50 years have been driven by a combination of physical factors and human activities, such as oceanographic and climate variability and overexploitation. While certain marine mammals have recovered from past overharvesting, many commercial fisheries have not.Not relevant
7. Ice across biomesDeclining extent and thickness of sea ice, warming and thawing of permafrost, accelerating loss of glacier mass, and shortening of lake-ice seasons are detected across Canada's biomes. Impacts, apparent now in some areas and likely to spread, include effects on species and food webs.The limited data available suggest later freeze-up and earlier break-up in some lakes and rivers, reflecting increased air temperature, particularly in the spring. Permafrost in peatlands in the northern portion of the ecozone+ have thawed and degraded.

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2.2 Theme: Human/Ecosystem Interactions
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey Findings: Boreal Plains Ecozone+
8. Protected areasBoth the extent and representativeness of the protected areas network have increased in recent years. In many places, the area protected is well above the United Nations 10% target. It is below the target in highly developed areas and the oceans.Total area protected increased from 4.0% in 1992 to 8.0% in 2009; 7.2% of the ecozone+ is protected under IUCN categories I–IV. Protected areas are threatened by habitat fragmentation and loss in areas surrounding parks, climate change, over use, and invasive species.
9. StewardshipStewardship activity in Canada is increasing, both in number and types of initiatives and in participation rates. The overall effectiveness of these activities in conserving and improving biodiversity and ecosystem health has not been fully assessed.Trends in stewardship initiatives are not well documented. Private organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada, have increased their holdings of privately owned protected areas over the past decade. There is increasing interest in the use of market-based instruments, such as conservation offsets, to mitigate impacts of industrial development, and to encourage stewardship of environmental values on private land.
10. Invasive non-native speciesInvasive non-native species are a significant stressor on ecosystem functions, processes, and structure in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments. This impact is increasing as numbers of invasive non-native species continue to rise and their distributions continue to expand.There is no consistent long-term monitoring, ecozone+-wide lists or consistent control measures in place for invasive species. The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute have detected 75 invasive plant species in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in Alberta. Occurrences of invasive fish species appear to be increasing. Non-native earthworms are patchily distributed throughout much of the ecozone+ in Alberta and their range is expected to expand in the next 50 years with unknown consequences.
11. ContaminantsConcentrations of legacy contaminants in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems have generally declined over the past 10 to 40 years. Concentrations of many emerging contaminants are increasing in wildlife; mercury is increasing in some wildlife in some areas.Contaminant levels have exceeded toxic levels in the Athabasca oil sands area. Continued expansion of coal-combustion power plants near Wabamun Lake, AB has resulted in increased mercury and trace metal concentrations in the watershed.
12. Nutrient loading and algal bloomsInputs of nutrients to both freshwater and marine systems, particularly in urban and agriculture-dominated landscapes, have led to algal blooms that may be a nuisance and/or may be harmful. Nutrient inputs have been increasing in some places and decreasing in others.Lakes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ tend to be naturally eutrophic and shallow resulting in increased susceptibility to nutrient loading. Residual soil nitrogen on agricultural lands increased three-fold between 1981 and 2006, which represents a moderate risk.

Phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg, MB increased by 30% from 1969 to 2007, resulting in a five-fold increase in average biomass of phytoplankton and a shift in species composition to blue-green algae. Increases in phosphorus are due to intensification of agriculture, land clearing, wetland drainage, and rapid growth of the human population.
13. Acid depositionThresholds related to ecological impact of acid deposition, including acid rain, are exceeded in some areas, acidifying emissions are increasing in some areas, and biological recovery has not kept pace with emission reductions in other areas.Although ecozone+-wide data were not available, acid deposition is an emerging issue in this ecozone+. Industrial expansion of oil and gas threatens to increase emissions and acid deposition, particularly in northwest Saskatchewan due to its downwind location and highly sensitive lakes.
14. Climate changeRising temperatures across Canada, along with changes in other climatic variables over the past 50 years, have had both direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems.Temperature has increased significantly in the ecozone+, especially in winter and spring. Snow depth and duration of snow cover has decreased since 1950. Changes in precipitation were variable. Broad-scale ecological impacts are projected based on continued warming related to changes in hydrological regimes, the forest biome, melting of frozen peatlands, and northward range expansions of species.
15. Ecosystem servicesCanada is well endowed with a natural environment that provides ecosystem services upon which our quality of life depends. In some areas where stressors have impaired ecosystem function, the cost of maintaining ecosystem services is high and deterioration in quantity, quality, and access to ecosystem services is evident.The ecozone+ provides a number of provisioning services. Fresh water allocation is increasing although still very low in monitored river basins. Timber harvesting continues to increase. Populations of species that are hunted or trapped are generally stable with the exception of grizzly bear and wolverine. Overfishing has resulted in the collapse of commercial and sport fisheries in Alberta, but Lake Winnipeg, MB walleye commercial fisheries are at an unprecedented high. Agricultural land cover remains stable at 24% of the ecozone+.

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

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2.3 Theme: Habitat, Wildlife, and Ecosystem Processes
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Boreal Plains Ecozone+
16. Agricultural landscapes as habitatThe potential capacity of agricultural landscapes to support wildlife in Canada has declined over the past 20 years, largely due to the intensification of agriculture and the loss of natural and semi-natural land cover.Agricultural land use, covering 21% of the ecozone+, is continuing to expand and intensify. The conversion of natural land cover to agriculture has resulted in a decrease in wildlife habitat capacity.
17. Species of special economic, cultural, or ecological interestMany species of amphibians, fish, birds, and large mammals are of special economic, cultural, or ecological interest to Canadians. Some of these are declining in number and distribution, some are stable, and others are healthy or recovering.Grassland birds, certain duck species, boreal caribou, grizzly bears and bison have declined in geographic range and abundance across the ecozone+. Factors responsible for the declines included habitat alteration, disease, and changes in predator-prey dynamics.
18. Primary productivityPrimary productivity has increased on more than 20% of the vegetated land area of Canada over the past 20 years, as well as in some freshwater systems. The magnitude and timing of primary productivity are changing throughout the marine system.The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index increased for 20.8% of the land area between 1985 and 2006 as a result of increased agricultural production, climate change (particularly precipitation), and fire. Nutrient loading in Lake Winnipeg has also resulted in increased productivity. Productivity declined on less than 1% of the land base, which was attributed to industrial activity surrounding the Athabasca oil sands.
19. Natural disturbanceThe dynamics of natural disturbance regimes, such as fire and native insect outbreaks, are changing and this is reshaping the landscape. The direction and degree of change vary.Fire is an important natural disturbance in the ecozone+. The amount of area burned peaked in the 1980s and then decreased. Trends are heavily influenced by people through fire suppression and ignitions. Climate has also influenced trends in fire.

Native insect outbreaks are also an important disturbance. Areas affected by spruce budworm may be increasing, although long-term data were lacking. Mountain pine beetles are also expanding their range into the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
20. Food websFundamental changes in relationships among species have been observed in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments. The loss or reduction of important components of food webs has greatly altered some ecosystems.Lynx-hare predator-prey population cycles are known to occur in the ecozone+, but few data were available. Boreal caribou populations have declined due to habitat fragmentation. In particular, linear features such as roads and seismic lines associated with oil and gas development increased vulnerability of caribou to wolf predation.

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2.4 Theme: Science/Policy Interface
Themes and TopicsKey Findings: NationalKey findings: Boreal Plains Ecozone+
21. Biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, and reportingLong-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.Cross-jurisdictional biodiversity monitoring is lacking in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Future reporting in the Alberta portion of the ecozone+will be improved by data collected through the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. Spatial and taxonomic coverage were poor in the other provinces in the ecozone+.
22. Rapid change and thresholdsGrowing understanding of rapid and unexpected changes, interactions, and thresholds, especially in relation to climate change, points to a need for policy that responds and adapts quickly to signals of environmental change in order to avert major and irreversible biodiversity losses.There are multiple stressors that may result in rapid, irreversible changes to ecosystems in the Boreal Plains, but few definitive examples. These include the outbreak of avian cholera in double-crested cormorants, the spread of mountain pine beetle to northern Alberta in 2005, the decline of boreal caribou and changes in their predator-prey dynamics due to industrial development, and the thawing of permafrost.

References

Reference 8

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

Return to reference 8

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Theme: Biomes

Key finding 1
Forests

National key finding
At a national level, the extent of forests has changed little since 1990; at a regional level, loss of forest extent is significant in some places. The structure of some Canadian forests, including species composition, age classes, and size of intact patches of forest, has changed over longer time frames.

Sixty-two percent of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was classified as forest.Reference 13 Historically, frequent widespread natural disturbances such as fire, insect outbreaks, and wind shaped forest structure in this ecozone+. However, agricultural expansion, forest harvest, and an increase in industrial development have reduced the extent and increased fragmentation in Boreal Plains forests.

Forest type

According to Canada's 2001 National Forest Inventory, 42% of the forests of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ forests were conifer, 37% were deciduous, and 20% were mixedwood.Reference 17 Mixedwood forests are comprised of conifer species (e.g., black spruce, Picea mariana, white spruce, P. glauca, or jack pine, Pinus banksiana) and deciduous species (e.g., trembling aspen, Populus tremuloides). Mixed wood forests are species rich,Reference 18 such as the Central Mixedwood in Alberta,Reference 19 and productive for wildlife, such as Dry Mixedwood forests.Reference 20

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Case study: trembling aspen health

Trembling aspen is the most abundant deciduous tree species in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and the most important tree in the transition zone between the boreal forest and grassland.Reference 21 It is increasingly important commercially; in 2006, trembling aspen accounted for 86% of hardwood and 31% of total wood (m3) harvested in British Columbia and Alberta.

Concern about climate change, recent aspen dieback (defined as progressive tree death, generally starting at the root, shoot, and branch tips), and reduced growth in aspen stands led to the Climate Change Impacts on Productivity and Health of Aspen research initiative.Reference 22 To better understand trembling aspen health and productivity, researchers determined growth trends via tree ring analysis at 24 sites across Canada's western interior, 15 of which were in the Boreal Plains. They found that drought and insect defoliation resulted in two cycles of reduced growth between 1951 and 2000 (Figure 4). Dieback in a similar study of aspen near Grande Prairie, AB was caused by secondary wood-boring insects and fungal pathogens in trees already affected by insect defoliation and drought coupled with freeze-thaw cycles in years of light snow.Reference 23 Future climate change will increase the frequency of drought and insect defoliation cycles, causing increased dieback, decreased productivity, and decreased CO2 up take.Reference 23

Figure 4. Trends in average stand-level aspen growth in the western Canadian interior from 1950 to 2000.

Based on tree-ring analysis of disks collected at 1.3 m from 432 stems adjacent to plots in the boreal and parkland zones (symbols show estimated average growth of 36 stands within the 12 study areas in each zone).

Error bars are 95% confidence intervals, based on the variation recorded among all 24 study areas. Growth is expressed as annual increment in stem cross-sectional area and is based only on aspen trees that were living in 2000 (growth is underestimated in the early years of the study).

Graph-Trends in average stand-level aspen growth in the western Canadian interior from 1950 to 2000
Source: adapted from Hogg et al., 2005Reference 22
Long description for Figure 4

This line graph shows the following information:

Trends in average stand-level aspen growth in the western Canadian interior from 1950 to 2000. Growth (m2 /ha /yr)
YearBorealParklandAll
19500.20.20.2
19510.30.30.3
19520.30.30.3
19530.30.30.3
19540.30.30.3
19550.40.30.3
19560.40.30.4
19570.40.30.4
19580.40.30.3
19590.50.30.4
19600.60.40.5
19610.50.30.4
19620.40.30.4
19630.40.30.4
19640.40.30.4
19650.50.40.5
19660.50.50.5
19670.60.50.5
19680.60.40.5
19690.50.40.5
19700.70.60.6
19710.70.60.7
19720.60.50.6
19730.70.70.7
19740.70.70.7
19750.70.60.7
19760.90.70.8
19770.80.60.7
19780.80.60.7
19790.60.50.5
19800.50.30.4
19810.40.40.4
19820.50.40.5
19830.60.50.5
19840.50.40.5
19850.80.60.7
19860.90.60.7
19870.80.70.8
19880.80.50.6
19890.70.50.6
19900.60.50.5
19910.70.60.6
19920.60.50.5
19930.60.60.6
19940.70.70.7
19950.60.60.6
19960.80.80.8
19970.91.00.9
19980.90.70.8
19990.70.70.7
20000.60.80.7

Extent

Forest cover is the most common land cover type (62%) in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Figure 2, Figure 5).Reference 13 However, forest cover declined by 3% (11,000 km2) between 1985 and 2005 due to fire, forest conversion to agriculture, and oil and gas development.Reference 13 From 1985 to 2005, the area of fire scars in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ increased by 357%, from 2,099 to 9,590 km2.Reference 13 Natural regeneration should result in the successional recovery of these burned areas to forest cover.Reference 13, Reference 24 Nevertheless, forest conversion to other cover types is also occurring. Approximately 5,020 km2 was converted from woodland to cropland, particularly along the southern periphery and in the Peace River region (Figure 6) (refer to Wildlife habitat capacity section for information on the impact of this loss to biodiversity).Reference 13 In more recent years, conventional oil and gas and bitumen exploration and development in Alberta and British Columbia have contributed to deforestation in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 25 For example, in a 3,906 km2 area within the Athabasca oil sands area, 21% (810 km2) of mostly forested vegetation has been cleared since 1984 for oil and gas development.Reference 26

Figure 5. Forest density in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ as determined by remote sensing, 2000.

Forest density calculated as the proportion of forested pixels (30 m resolution) within each 1 km2 unit.

Forest is classified as >10% tree cover.

Map-Forest density in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ as determined by remote sensing, 2000
Source: adapted from Wulder et al., 2008Reference 27 by Ahern, 2011Reference 13
Long description for Figure 5

This map shows low forest density for a small strip in the south, whereas most of the ecozone+(especially the northern range) has high forest density.

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Figure 6. Conversion from cropland/woodland to cropland from 1985 to 2005 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Map-Conversion from cropland/woodland to cropland from 1985 to 2005 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Source: adapted from Latifovic and Pouliot, 2005Reference 28 by Ahern, 2011Reference 13
Long description for Figure 6

This map shows a very small amount of cropland/woodland in the north-central and southern border of the ecozone+ was converted to cropland.

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Intactness

The intactness of forest ecosystems in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has been assessed in two different ways. Global Forest Watch measured the amount of undisturbed forest landscapes that were free from visible human impact, at least 50 km2 in size, and at least 500 m from any known human disturbance (buffer width varied depending on the type of human disturbance).Reference 29 By this definition, the extent of intact forest landscapes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was 37% as of 2002 (Figure 7). The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) measured intactness for the Alberta portion of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ by comparing the observed area covered by old-forest habitat versus the expected area of old-growth with no development. Overall, old-forest habitat was 92% intact (i.e., old-forest habitat covered 8% less area than expected).Reference 30

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Figure 7. Intact forest landscape fragments larger than 100 km2 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 2006.

A forest landscape fragment is defined as a contiguous mosaic, naturally occurring and essentially undisturbed by significant human influence. It is a mosaic of various natural ecosystem including forest, bog, water, tundra and rock outcrops.

Map
Source: Lee et al., 2006Reference 31
Long description for Figure 7

This map indicates that much of the north eastern half of the ecozone+ is composed of intact landscape fragments, with some fragments scattered throughout the southern portion of the ecozone+.

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Case study: intactness of old forest habitat in Alberta-Pacific Forest Management Area

The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute measured habitat intactness and the human footprint of the Alberta-Pacific Forest Management Area (Al-Pac FMA).This area encompasses 57,331 km2,30 and makes up 9.5% of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in northeastern Alberta.Reference 32 Old-forest habitat in the Al-Pac FMA is 92% intact. That is, it occupies 92% of the area that it would be expected to occupy if there were no human impacts (Figure 8). The human footprint index shows that human influence is evident in 7% of the Al-Pac FMA. Most of the human footprint is due to forestry, energy, and transportation infrastructure. Half of the forestry footprint was created in the last 10 years.Reference 30

Figure 8. Intactness (percent deviation of observed conditions from intactness expected under undeveloped conditions) of old-forest habitats in the Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Management Agreement Area.
Habitat type and intactness from 142 sites was determined using Provincial Alberta Vegetation Inventory GIS data.Graph-Habitat type and intactness from 142 sites was determined using Provincial Alberta Vegetation Inventory GIS data.

Source: adapted from Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, 200930
Long description for Figure 8 This bar graph shows the following information:Intactness of old-forest habitats in the Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Management Agreement Area.Old-forest typeIntactness (%)Area observed (%)Area expected (%)All921921White spruce and fir9344Pine9523Deciduous9178Mixedwood9367

 

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Shift from late-successional to early-successional forest

Similar to other ecozones+, there has been a shift in the forest age class structure from older to younger forests in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 33 For example, the percentage of Alberta's boreal forest that was over 120 years in age declined from 28% in 1991 to 17% in 1999Reference 24. Remote sensing data from the AMBI provides an indication of the current age-class distribution of managed and unmanaged forests in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in Alberta (Figure 9). Over 50% of unmanaged forests are at least 80 years old. In contrast, over 50% of managed forests are between 11 and 30 years old. The loss of older age classes, particularly spruce, is a concern for biodiversity.Reference 24 For example, one third of all birds which breed in old boreal forests are specialized for old-growth habitat.Reference 34 The loss of old-forest habitat negatively impacts these old growth specialists, particularly year-round residents which are less abundant than migrants and are often more sensitive to habitat loss.

Figure 9. Current age class distribution of managed and unmanaged forests, 2008.

Summarized from 517 32 km2 Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute systematic landscape sample sites with complete coverage (coverage derived from the Alberta Vegetation Inventory). Unmanaged and managed areas totalled 7,963 km2 and 62 km2 respectively.

Graph
Source: adapted from Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute by Haughland, 2008Reference 33
Long description for Figure 9

This bar graph shows the following information:

Current age class distribution of managed and unmanaged forests, 2008.
Age category (years)Unmanaged
(% of sample area)
Managed
(% of sample area)
0-10-9
11-30452
31-804812
>805434

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The corollary of intactness is fragmentation. Both anthropogenic (e.g., roads, seismic lines, forestry) and natural processes (e.g., fire, insect infestations) result in fragmentation in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 35, Reference 36 Forests in the Boreal Forest Ecozone+ are becoming increasingly fragmented, particularly in the southern half of this ecozone+ where the majority of human activity is concentrated (Figure 7). Forest fragmentation affects forest patterns in three distinct ways: reducing forest area, increasing isolation of forest remnants, and creating edges. Reference 13 The resulting impacts on biodiversity are complex and species dependent.Reference 34, Reference 37, Reference 38, Reference 39, Reference 40, Reference 41, Reference 42 Examples include declines in Neotropical migrant and resident birds requiring interior boreal forest habitat,Reference 34, Reference 43 Reference 44 declines in species with large area requirements such as grizzly bear and caribou, increases in species that prefer to browse along forest edges such as moose, increased exposure of interior forest species to predators and parasites,Reference 34 disruption of social structure of some species,Reference 45 and barriers to dispersal.Reference 46

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Key finding 2
Grasslands

Theme Biomes

National key finding
Native grasslands have been reduced to a fraction of their original extent. Although at a slower pace, declines continue in some areas. The health of many existing grasslands has also been compromised by a variety of stressors.

The Boreal Plains Ecozone+, though largely forested, does include dry native grassland ecosystems; however, little of these grasslands remain today. Historically, extensive native grasslands were located in the Boreal Transition ecoregion along the southern periphery of the ecozone+, and the Peace Lowland ecoregion in the west of the ecozone+. With settlement and agricultural development in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of these areas were converted to agricultural use and are currently maintained primarily as cropland and improved range for grazing.Reference 19

Little data exist on the extent and trends of native grasslands in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. In Manitoba, grassland and rangeland in the ecozone+ declined by 15% between 1986 and 2002.Reference 47, Reference 48 Refer to Agricultural landscapes as habitat section.

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Key finding 3
Wetlands

Theme Biomes

National key finding
High loss of wetlands has occurred in southern Canada; loss and degradation continue due to a wide range of stressors. Some wetlands have been or are being restored.

Wetlands include peatlands, like bogs and fens, and marshes and swamps. Together they covered 108,300 km2 or approximately 15% of the total area of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in 2005.Reference 17 While trend data are lacking for most of the ecozone+, wetlands have been lost across the region. For example, a comparison of Landsat imagery of land cover between 1986 and 1992 and 2000 and 2002 on a 46,975 km2 region of Manitoba's boreal plains indicated a contraction of water bodies, marshes, and fens. This represented a loss of approximately 15% of marshes and fens and 10% of treed and open bogs in the area.Reference 47 In Saskatchewan, wetlands within the Boreal transition zone declined by 5% from 1985 to 2001 with only 52% of wetlands observed as unused by humans.Reference 49

In the Alberta region of the ecozone+, wetland habitat is generally made up of peatlands (fens, bogs, and conifer swamps). Wetland loss and impairment in this region is a relatively recent phenomenon due to the establishment of conventional oil and gas activity, oil sands development, and operational forest harvesting.Reference 50 While the extent of wetland loss is not well known, cumulative impacts may be high given the rate of industrial activity in the region.Reference 51 As of March 2008, 244 km2 of wetlands (0.2% of wetland cover in the ecozone+) were lost due to industrial activities in the Athabasca oil sands area.Reference 52

In addition to industrial development, climate change compounds impacts on this ecozone+. In general, temperatures have increased and snow precipitation decreased since 1950.Reference 53 Wetlands are sensitive to increases in temperature and precipitation changes, particularly small and/or seasonal wetlands, as they are vulnerable to increased evaporation and reduce inputs through precipitation.

Peace–Athabasca Delta Case Study

The Peace–Athabasca Delta, at over 5,000 km2, is one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world.Reference 54 It is designated as a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance and as an internationally Important Bird Area. Most of the delta lies within Wood Buffalo National Park, a World Heritage Site. Its water distribution is driven by many factors but depends strongly upon sporadic spring floods caused by ice-jams.Reference 55, Reference 56 Once the delta is recharged by these floods it can take many years to dry.Reference 57 The delta's climate, hydrology, and vegetation history are highly variable.Reference 58, Reference 59 Many of the basins adjacent to lakes and rivers have a restricted connection, such as a perched channel entry or levee. Basins inland of the main flow system are hydraulically isolated. Restricted and isolated types are referred to as perched basins. Water level fluctuation of perched basins is independent of the main flow system except during episodic floods.Reference 60

The flow of the Peace River has been regulated since 1968 by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in BC. Flow regulation has reduced the frequency, duration and magnitude of Peace River flow contributions to the delta in summerReference 61 and has reduced the frequency of ice-jam flooding in the spring.Reference 62 Public concern following dam construction led to construction of outflow weirs to emulate high river stages, and dam outflow modification has been employed to augment ice-jam flooding of the delta.Reference 63

In addition to hydroelectric flow regulation, climate change and variability also influence the hydrology of the delta; warmer, drier conditions have led to earlier drying-out of the perched wetlands on the delta which then requires more frequent recharge from the Peace River and thick winter ice formation to cause the ice-jam floods.Reference 59, Reference 62, Reference 64, Reference 65, Reference 66. There have only been four major ice-jam events on the Peace River post-regulation and the corresponding decrease of floods and increased drying-out has led to reductions in wetland habitat.Reference 67 A continued reduction in ice-jam flood frequency, a shorter ice season, and a decrease in winter ice thickness are predicted over the next century.Reference 66 In addition, the delta faces stress from multiple upstream developments, including forestry, agriculture, hydroelectric dams and the oil sands.Reference 58 Contamination is both an ecological and human health concern in the delta and the community of Fort Chipewyan, where concentrations of contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, and PAHs appear to be rising.Reference 68, Reference 69

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Key finding 4
Lakes and rivers

National key finding
Trends over the past 40 years influencing biodiversity in lakes and rivers include seasonal changes in magnitude of stream flows, increases in river and lake temperatures, decreases in lake levels, and habitat loss and fragmentation.

The relatively flat Boreal Plains Ecozone+ region has several large river systems and thousands of interconnected lakes. The region flows into three major river drainage basins: eastward into the Nelson River, north-eastward into Hudson Bay, and northward to Great Slave Lake (Figure 20 in the Nutrient loading key finding). Large lakes that fall within the ecozone+ boundary include Lake Winnipegosis, Lake Winnipeg, and part of Lake Manitoba. Trends in lakes and rivers in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ include decreased stream flow and water levels and an increase in water allocations. The main drivers of these trends are climate change and industrial development.

Climate change impacts: stream flows, temperature and water levels

The reduction of freshwater predicted by climate change models may be the most serious and imminent effect of climate warming.Reference 70 Although increases in precipitation to the western Prairie provinces are predicted, these will not make up for the increase in evaporation forecasted with warming temperatures. Western Prairie provinces' rivers originate in the Rocky Mountains, including many rivers in the western portion of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+; these rivers rely on deep snowpack and glacial melt to maintain flow. As glaciers recede and snowpacks diminish, groundwater and surface runoff into these rivers will also subside and contribute to lower flows. Reduced volumes of water in rivers and lakes will result in less water for human use and in increased concentrations of nutrients. Nutrient loading can lead to larger algal blooms, and increases in waterborne pathogens which can be detrimental to the ecosystem and to drinking water.Reference 71

Streamflow monitoring from 1961 to 2003 at 21 hydrometric stations in the Boreal Plains indicate that many streams in the ecozone+ are experiencing decreasing flows.Reference 58 For example, flows are lower in the Athabasca River and Beaver River (Figure 10) with a decrease of 30% relative to the median flow for all months but April. These decreased streamflows correspond with warmer temperatures and less precipitation over the same time period,Reference 53, Reference 72 and less precipitation fell in 2003 than in 1900 across the ecozone+. Shifts in the timing and magnitude of the spring freshet (inundation of water discharge due to spring melt) have occurred in the Beaver River, where discharge has peaked in April in the past and, although there is still a peak in April, another peak occurs mid-June (Figure 10). Other studies examining streamflow dynamics in the Peace–Athabasca river system corroborate these observed trends. The average summer (May to August) flows of the Athabasca River decreased by 20% between 1958 and 2003,Reference 73 and in contrast to the Beaver River, spring freshet occurred earlier in the Peace–Athabasca catchments over time (Figure 11).Reference 63

Figure 10. Streamflow by month for 1961–1982 (light blue) and 1983–2003 (dark blue) for two representative rivers in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Graphs-Streamflow by month for 1961–1982  and 1983–2003
Source: Cannon et al., 2011Reference 72
Long description for Figure 10

This figure, composed of two line graphs, presents the streamflow by month. Streamflow in both the Athabasca  and Beaver rivers was greater at all times of the year in 1961-1982 than in 1983-2003. Both show peaks in the summer months and valleys during January-February.

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Figure 11. Long-term relative change in summer flow (May-August) in the Athabasca River downstream of Fort McMurray, AB from 1958 to 2003.
Graph- Long-term relative change in summer flow
Long description for Figure 11

This line graph shows an increase in streamflow until the mid-1970s when it decreased to 75% of its initial streamflow by 2003.

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Temperature increases across the prairie provincesReference 53 have likely increased evaporation rates in prairie lakes, decreasing water levels and increasing salinity through evapoconcentration.Reference 74 Water level and salinity changes can have large impacts on biological communities within lakes, particularly phytoplankton and zooplankton, which are sensitive to changes in salinity.Reference 75 Although there are no available ecozone+-wide trends on water levels and salinity of lakes, there is evidence that changes are occurring. For example, increasing salinity, which is correlated with temperature increases (and associated evaporation) and precipitation decreases, has been shown in two lakes in central Saskatchewan over the past 75 years.Reference 74 These salinity increases have likely caused a 30% loss of macrobenthos diversity over the same time period.Reference 74 Water levels have decreased since the 1960s in several closed-basin lakes in the semi-arid Prairie region of Canada, three of which fall within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Figure 12).Reference 76 Although land-use changes play a role in lake levels, temperatures, particularly the increase in spring time temperatures, are the main driver of the declining water levels in this area.Reference 76

Figure 12. Water levels for Muriel, Lower Mann, and Upper Mann lakes, AB from the 1960s to 2006.
Graph-Water levels for Muriel, Lower Mann, and Upper Mann lakes, AB from the 1960s to 2006
Source: Van der Kamp et al. (2008).Reference 77
Long description for Figure 12

All three lakes declined over time; Muriel and Upper Mann lakes by 4 m and Lower Mann Lake by 3 ma.

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Water stresses

An increasing number of human activities pose threats to Canada's lakes and rivers,Reference78, Reference79 including: water control structures such as dams;Reference 80 water use and allocation; Reference 81 chemical contamination impacting water quality;Reference 82 and climate changeReference 1(discussed above).

Dams

Water control structures are one of the greatest threats to freshwater ecosystems because they change the flow of water and lead to habitat discontinuity and fragmentation.Reference 83, Reference 84 There were  14 large dams (>10 m in height) built in this ecozone+ between 1950 and 1990.Reference 85 The W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River is perhaps the most well-known and most controversial dam affecting this ecozone+. No summarized ecozone+-wide trend or status data were found on dams/river diversions; however, data from the provincial energy agencies on hydro projects could be compiled for future reports.

Water usage and allocation

In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, the amount of water allocated for human use was increasing as of 2006, yet still below 1% of the average annual flow for the Peace/Slave, SK, North Saskatchewan, SK, and the Churchill, MB basins.Reference 86, Reference 87 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 (Figure 13).Reference 87 Oil sands open pit mining, steam-assisted gravity drainage, and conventional oil production rely heavily on water inputs drawn from surface freshwater resources such as rivers.Reference 88 Continued development in the oil sands region in Alberta combined with climate change could compromise water security in the Athabasca River Basin in the future.Reference 89

Figure 13. Sectoral water allocation of the Athabasca river basin, 1950 to 2010.
Graph-Sectoral water allocation of the Athabasca river basin, 1950 to 2010
Source: Alberta Environment, 2006,Reference 87 updated by M. Seneka (April 2012)
Long description for Figure 13

This bar graph shows the following information:

Sectoral water allocation of the Athabasca river basin, 1950-2010. Water volume (m2)
YearOther UsesMunicipalIndustrial
(Oil, Gas)
AgricultureCommercial
19509,728,460125,8100823,1300
196015,309,5701,585,093886,8301,173,14974,012,620
197015,309,6903,610,28855,119,6102,298,82878,015,260
198019,542,37020,365,73098,641,2105,315,304140,393,800
199022,877,92043,356,904104,816,3228,021,626196,380,830
200023,487,23345,524,565194,473,34210,805,121219,246,648
200423,877,12447,150,179516,122,52812,491,538222,402,886
200524,356,74246,743,872481,573,48813,505,395238,724,969
200627,243,214111,995,356485,417,19114,355,537238,698,337
200727,838,572113,421,511588,905,77214,374,516244,434,082
200827,691,64048,790,844591,717,44113,282,850241,304,155
200928,028,40949,065,009628,050,77613,605,824240,831,934
201028,718,76748,685,407727,037,53113,458,903158,550,919

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Water quality

Water quality in lakes and rivers can be measured by examining the amount of metals, nutrients, bacteria (fecal coliforms), and pesticides in a water body. Changes in water quality can occur when nutrients and/or pollutants are added through agricultural run-off, sewage effluent, air emissions that are later deposited on earth, and industrial waste. Ecozone+-wide status and trend data on water quality were unavailable; however, refer to Nutrient loading section for impacts on nutrient loading and its effects on lakes and rivers in the Boreal Plains ecozone+. In general, nutrient inputs from agriculture are increasing, most notably in the Red River drainage, which is influencing the frequency of algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg, MB. The data for assessing trends in chemical contaminants in river and lake ecosystems in the ecozone+ are sparse.Reference 90 Localized data suggest contaminants are increasing in some areas; a more detailed discussion of contaminants in the ecozone+ is covered in the Contaminants section.

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Key finding 7
Ice across biomes

National key finding
Declining extent and thickness of sea ice, warming and thawing of permafrost, accelerating loss of glacier mass, and shortening of lake-ice seasons are detected across Canada's biomes. Impacts, apparent now in some areas and likely to spread, include effects on species and food.

Ice cover plays a fundamental role in the structure of freshwater ecosystems,Reference 91, Reference 92, Reference 93, Reference 94, Reference 95 and can cause both direct and indirect changes to the hydrological regime of lakes and rivers (for example refer to Peace–Athabasca Delta Case Study). Consequently, these changes impact biotic and abiotic processes in aquatic ecosystems.Reference 96 Available data suggest the ice season is shortening in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Permafrost is also declining and has completely melted from the southern extent of its historical range.Reference 84, Reference 85

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Lake and river ice

Despite the importance of ice processes to freshwater ecosystems (reviewed in Prowse and Culp, 2003),Reference 96 long-term biological monitoring data during the ice season were limited at the ecozone+-wide scale and few trends were available. Six lakes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+tended towards later freeze-up dates between 1970–2005, but this trend was significant only for Churchill Lake, SK. Freeze-up on Churchill Lake occurred 0.5 days later per year between 1970 and 1985, totalling 10 days later after 25 years.Reference 97 Freeze-up occurred 12–13 days later on the Red River, MB, in the 20th century compared to the 19thcentury.Reference 98, Reference 99 Finally, freeze-up on Lake Athabasca in Alberta occurred 1.25 days per year later between 1965–1990, for difference of more than 30 days.Reference 100

The ice season is also changing because of trends towards earlier ice break-up. From 1961–1990, the timing of ice break-up occurred significantly earlier in Bear and Lesser Slave lakes, AB.100 These tendencies towards earlier break-up continued, although not significantly, from 1971–2000.Reference 100 Ice break-up occurred 10 days earlier in the Red River, MB, during the 20thcentury compared to the 19thcentury.Reference 100 In Lake Winnipeg, MB, there were no significant trends prior to 1970 in ice break-up but since 1970, ice break up has occurred earlier in the year (Figure 14).Reference 97 These trends are consistent with increasing annual temperatures since 1950, particularly in spring (refer to the Climate change section).

Figure 14. Trend in lake ice break-up dates before (dark blue circles) and after (light blue squares) 1970 for Lake Winnipeg, MB.
Graph-Trend in lake ice break-up dates for Lake Winnipeg
Source: Latifovic and Pouliot, 2007Reference 101
Long description for Figure 14

This scatterplot shows the date of lake ice break-up. A trend line indicates no significant difference between 1950 to 1070. Between 1970 and 2007, the trend shows an earlier break-up by 10 days.

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Permafrost

The northern reaches of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+are within the sporadic permafrost zone in Canada (Figure 15). In 2003 it was estimated that 37.5% of land covered by bogs and 9.1% of land covered by fens have localized permafrost (frozen peatlands) in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 102 However, over the last century, permafrost has completely thawed or shrunk in some locations, especially at the southern limit of the permafrost zone.Reference 102, Reference 103 For example, 32–70% of the permafrost field sites in Alberta have degraded over the last 100–150 years.Reference 102, Reference 103 In northern Manitoba in the neighbouring Boreal Shield Ecozone+, tree ring analysis revealed that boreal peatland permafrost thaw accelerated significantly (200 to 300%) between 1995–2002 relative to rates from 1941–1991.Reference 86

Figure 15. Permafrost map for Canada.
Permafrost map for Canada.
Source: adapted from Heginbottom, 1995Reference 104
Long description for Figure 15

This map presents the distribution of continuous, extensive discontinuous, sporadic, and mountain permafrost throughout Canada in the 1990s. Continuous permafrost extended across Northern Canada, including the archipelago of northern islands, to the southern shoreline of Hudson's Bay. A thin strip of extensive discontinuous permafrost bordered the southern limit of the continuous permafrost zone. Sporadic permafrost was located along the northern limit of British Columbia, AB, MB, ON, and QC. The northern edge of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was composed of sporadic permafrost. The western limit of the ecozone+ was composed of mountain permafrost.

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Permafrost melting could have several severe ecological consequences. It is anticipated that permafrost thaw depth will continue to increase with increases in air temperature, further reducing the extent of permafrost throughout the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 105 The predicted decrease in permafrost will result in increased methane emissions,Reference 106 increased net carbon storage in peatmoss, and loss of wetland plant diversity where permafrost bogs produce some of the most bryologically diverse peatland ecosystem types in western Canada.Reference 107 In addition, permafrost melting will result in large-scale changes in hydrological dynamics, changing the type and expression of wetlands across the northern boundary of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 108 Melting permafrost and collapse of frozen peatlands may flood the land, replacing forest ecosystems with wet sedge meadows, bogs, ponds and fens as is happening in northern Quebec.Reference 109, Reference 110

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References

Reference 1

Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board. 2011. Lake and watershed facts [online]. (Accessed 25 February, 2012).

Return to reference 1

Reference 13

Ahern, F., Frisk, J., Latifovic, R. and Pouliot, D. 2011. Monitoring ecosystems remotely: a selection of trends measured from satellite observations of Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 17. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON.

Return to reference 13

Reference 17

Canadian Council of Forest Ministers. 2006. Criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management in Canada: national status 2005. Canada Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada. Ottawa, ON. 154 p.  + appendices.

Return to reference 17

Reference 18

Hobson, K.A. and Bayne, E. 2000. Breeding bird communities in boreal forest of western Canada: consequences of "unmixing" the mixedwoods. The Condor 120:759-769.

Return to reference 18

Reference 19

Alberta Environmental Protection. 1998. The Boreal Forest Natural Region of Alberta. Edited by Recreation and Protected Areas Division and Natural Heritage Planning and Evaluation Branch. Natural Resources Service, Recreation and Protected Areas Division, Natural Heritage Planning and Evaluation Branch. Edmonton, AB. 312 p.

Return to reference 19

Reference 20

Strong, W.L. and Leggat, K.R. 1992. Ecoregions of Alberta. Alberta Forestry Lands and Wildlife, Government of Alberta.  Edmonton, AB. 56 p.

Return to reference 20

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.

Return to reference 21

Reference 22

Hogg, E.H., Brandt, J.P. and Kochtubajda, B. 2005. Factors affecting interannual variation in growth of western Canadian aspen forests during 1951-2000. Canadian Journal Of Forest Research-Revue Canadienne De Recherche Forestiere 35:610-622.

Return to reference 22

Reference 23

Hogg, E.H., Brandt, J.P. and Kochtubajda, B. 2002. Growth and dieback of aspen forests in northwestern Alberta, Canada, in relation to climate and insects. Canadian Journal Of Forest Research-Revue Canadienne De Recherche Forestiere 32:823-832.

Return to reference 23

Reference 24

Timoney, K.P. 2003. The changing disturbance regime of the Boreal Forest of the Canadian prairie provinces. Forestry Chronicle 79:502-516.

Return to reference 24

Reference 25

Lee, P. and Boutin, S. 2006. Persistence and developmental transition of wide seismic lines in the Western Boreal Plains of Canada. Journal Of Environmental Management 78:240-250.

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Lee, P., Gysbers, J.D. and Stanojevic, Z. 2006. Canada's forest landscape fragments: a first approximation (a Global Forest Watch Canada report). Global Forest Watch Canada. Edmonton, AB. 97 p.

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Prowse, T.D., Beltaos, S., Gardner, J.T., Gibson, J.J., Granger, R.J., Leconte, R., Peters, D.L., Pietroniro, A., Romolo, L.A. and Toth, B. 2006. Climate change, flow regulation and land-use effects on the hydrology of the Peace-Athabasca-Slave system; findings from the Northern Rivers Ecosystem Initiative. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 113:167-197.

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Peters, D.L., Prowse, T.D., Marsh, P.M., LaFleur, P.M. and Buttle, J.M. 2006. Persistence of water within perched basins of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, northern Canada. Wetlands Ecology and Management 14:1-23.

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Wolfe, B.B., Karst-Riddoch, T.L., Vardy, S.R., Falcone, M.D., Hall, R.I. and Edwards, T.W.D. 2005. Impacts of climate and river flooding on the hydro-ecology of a floodplain basin, Peace-Athabasca Delta, Canada since A.D. 1700. Quaternary Research 64:147-162.

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Revenga, C., Brunner, J., Henninger, N., Kassem, K. and Payne, R. 2000. Pilot analysis of global ecosystems - freshwater systems. World Resources Institute. Washington, DC. 64 p.

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Jones, S.N. and Bergey, E.A. 2007. Habitat segregation in stream crayfishes: implications for conservation. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 26:134-144.

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Schindler, D.W., Donahue, W.F. and Thompson, J.P. 2007. Section 1: future water flows and human withdrawals in the Athabasca River. In Running out of steam? Oils sands development and water use in the Athabasca River-Watershed: science and market based solutions. Environmental Research and Studies Centre, University of Alberta. Edmonton, AB. 36.

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Footenote 90

Monk, W.A. and Baird, D.J. 2014. Biodiversity in Canadian lakes and rivers. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 19. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. Draft report.

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Footenote 91

Prowse, T.D. 2001. River-ice ecology. I: Hydrologic, geomorphic, and water-quality aspects. Journal of Cold Regions Engineering 15:1-16.

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Footenote 92

Prowse, T.D. 2001. River-ice ecology. II: biological aspects. Journal of Cold Regions Engineering 15:17-33.

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Footenote 93

Prowse, T.D., Bonsal, B.R., Duguay, C.R. and Lacroix, M.P. 2007. River-ice break-up/freeze-up: a review of climatic drivers, historical trends and future predictions. Annals of Glaciology 46:443-451.

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Footenote 94

Huusko, A., Greenberg, L., Stickler, M., Linnansaari, T., Nykänen, M., Veganen, T., Koljonen, S., Louhi, P. and Alfredsen, K. 2007. Life in the ice lane: the winter ecology of stream salmonids. River Research and Applications 23:469-491.

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Footenote 95

Prowse, T.D. and Culp, J.M. 2003. Ice breakup: a neglected factor in river ecology. Revue canadienne de génie civil 30:128-144.

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Footenote 96

Environment Canada. 2001. Threats to sources of drinking water and aquatic ecosystem health in Canada. NWRI Scientific Assessment Report Series No. 1. National Water Research Institute. Burlington, ON. 72 p.

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Footenote 97

Latifovic, R. and Pouliot, D. 2007. Analysis of climate change impacts on lake ice phenology in Canada using the historical satellite data record. Remote Sensing of Environment 106:492-507.

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Footenote 98

Magnuson, J.J., Robertson, D.M., Benson, B.J., Wynne, R.H., Livingstone, D.M., Arai, T., Assel, R.A., Barry, R.G., Card, V., Kuusisto, E., Granin, N.G., Prowse, T.D., Stewart, K.M. and Vuglinski, V.S. 2000. Historical trends in lake and river ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere. Science 289:1743-1746.

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Footenote 99

Rannie, W.F. 1983. Breakup and freezeup of the Red River at Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in the 19th century and some climatic implications. Climatic Change 5:283-296.

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 Duguay, C.R., Prowse, T.D., Bonsal, B.R., Brown, R.D., Lacroix, M.P. and Ménard, P. 2006. Recent trends in Canadian lake ice cover. Hydrological Processes 20:781-801.

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 Latifovic, R. and Pouliot, D. 2007. Analysis of climate change impacts on lake ice phenology in Canada using the historical satellite data record. Remote Sensing of Environment 106:492-507.

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 Heginbottom, J.A., Dubreuil, M.A. and Harker, P.A.C. 1995. Permafrost, 1995. In The National Atlas of Canada. Edition 5. National Atlas Information Service, Geomatics Canada and Geological Survey of Canada. Ottawa, ON. Map.

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 Turetsky, M., K.Wieder, L.Halsey and D.Vitt. 2002. Current disturbance and the diminishing peatland carbon sink. Geophysical Research Letters29.

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 Beilman, D.W. 2001. Plant community and diversity change due to localized permafrost dynamics in bogs of western Canada. Canadian Journal of Botany-Revue Canadienne De Botanique 79:983-993.

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 Smith, S. 2011. Trends in permafrost conditions and ecology in Northern Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 9. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. iii + 22 p.

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 Jorgenson, M.T., Racine, C.H., Walters, J.C. and Osterkamp, T.E. 2001. Permafrost degradation and ecological changes associated with a warming climate in central Alaska. Climatic Change 48:551-579.

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 Jorgenson, M.T. and Osterkamp, T.E. 2005. Response of boreal ecosystems to varying modes of permafrost degradation. Canadian Journal of Forest Research/Revue canadienne de recherche forestière 35:2100-2111.

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Return to Table of Contents

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
established
IUCN
Categories I-IV
UCN
Categories V-VI
1922-192620,1580
1927-192924,1940
1930-193127,1490
1932-194727,1500
194827,1614
1949-195027,2884
195127,2894
1952-195427,3004
195527,3524
195627,4184
195727,4254
195827,4754
1959-196127,4894
1962-196327,4895
1964-196527,4896
196627,5657
196727,5777
196827,5787
1969-197027,5857
1971-197227,8007
1973-197427,8027
197527,8047
197627,9437
197727,94312
197827,96613
1979-198128,07513
198228,10313
1983-198628,10813
1987-198828,23013
198928,23213
1990-199128,26713
199228,89713
1993-199428,89713
1995-199629,05213
199730,29623
199830,87223
199932,85623
200039,26923
2001-200340,26223
200440,42423
200540,43723
200640,45723
2007-200940,51823
Total50,8045,075

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
Stewardship

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 (%)
200262
200372
200462
200587
200691

b) The second bar graph shows the following information:

(b) the percentage of infestation in 2005 and 2006 in northeastern Alberta.
Amount2005

Amount of infestation (%)
2006

Amount of infestation (%)
Trace4861
Low2813
Moderate1514
High912

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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
Contaminants

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
(TDP)
Total phosphorus
(TP)
nitrate-nitrite
(N-N)
Total nitrogen
(TN)
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
Cyanobacteria9233650488664067624
Chlorophytes19856103120238
Euglenophytes0.82.91.66.24.1
Chrysophytes486737.222
Diatoms180248146322603
Cryptophytes24194146292129
Dinoflagellates4738145636
Protozoa-7864-74

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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
(1950–2007)
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

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
1983$198,02914,003--
1984$187,1636,448--
1985$157,9265,302--
1986$296,7118,017--
1987$223,8257,449--
1988$141,7544,864--
1989$89,8223,252--
1990$60,2322,070--
1991$107,2274,155--
1992$58,0623,682--
1993$59,9732,922--
1994$58,4173,752--
1995$76,2853,425--
1996$112,2073,561--
1997$54,3983,451--
1998$40,2092,811--
1999$57,9592,761--
2000$57,7452,158$403,26227,319
2001$49,8881,983$531,60025,252
2002$46,3852,244$638,63631,752
2003$66,0992,802$916,01728,583
2004$61,5681,803$552,82021,341
2005$63,8092,054$399,89522,846
2006--$616,14424,193
2007--$505,87729,973

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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)
19353,125-
19405,951-
19456,073-
19506,903-
19558,028-
196010,261-
19658,130-
19708,507-
19754,090-
1999-9,224
2004-11,508

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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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Agricultural

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)
Cropland

Carbon Stock (Gg)
Wetlands

Carbon Stock (Gg)
Settlements

Carbon Stock (Gg)
Total

Carbon Stock (Gg)
19906,737-2,104-48-4864,098
19918,629-1,961-50-4706,148
19929,594-1,812-53-4667,264
1993763-1,699-55-520-1,511
19948,766-1,471-58-5056,732
1995-12,037-1,283-60-533-13,913
19968,646-1,251-65-5106,820
19978,327-1,129-69-5236,606
1998-17,933-1,202-72-515-19,722
1999-1,231-1,058-70-514-2,872
20004,976-1,009-72-5553,340
2001-261-919-69-512-1,762
2002-16,855-942-68-532-18,397
2003-2,132-866-66-560-3,624
20041,088-897-65-549-423
2005-16-774-64-565-1,419
2006-2,689-859-62-569-4,180
2007-1,345-730-59-542-2,675

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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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Footnotes

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.

Return to footnote one i

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

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Return to Table of Contents

Theme: Habitat, Wildlife, and Ecosystem Processes

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.

Figure 33. The percentage of agricultural land cover in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Map showinig the percentage of agricultural land cover
Source: Javorek and Grant, 2011Reference 237
Long description for Figure 33

This map shows that agricultural land is found along the southern boundary of the ecozone+, from central Alberta across to Manitoba, and the northwestern boundary, around the Peace Lowland and the Clear Hills Upland areas. Although most of these lands are primarily agricultural, some are also only 0-10% agricultural land.

 

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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.

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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 34. Changes in wildlife habitat capacity on farmland in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+between 1986 and 2006.
Map showing changes in wildlife habitat capacity on farmland
Source: Javorek and Grant, 2011237
Long description for Figure 34

This map shows that much of the wildlife habitat capacity on farmland remained constant, although wildlife habitat capacity declined in some areas of northeastern British Columbia and northwestern Alberta.

 

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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&lt;0.05).

Maps and graph showing wildlife habitat capacity on farmland
Map
Graph
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-&gt;100
High: 70-90
Moderate: 50-70
Low: 30-50
Very low: &lt;20-30

The bar graph shows the following information:

Share of agricultural land per habitat capacity category (percentage)
Habitat capacity Categories198619962006
&lt;20000
20-305.116.497.12
30-4022.8825.719.57
40-5030.8134.2134.33
50-6028.8424.4527.24
60-7010.277.8110.33
70-801.681.331.27
80-900.4100
90-100000
&gt;100000.12

The average habitat capacity for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was 49.75 in 1986, 47.90 in 1996 and 47.78 in 2006.

 

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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.

Graph showing Annual indices of population change in open/agricultural birds
Source: Downes et al., 2011Reference 239
Long description for Figure 36

This line graph shows the following information:

Annual indices of population change in open/agricultural birds in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
YearAbundance index
197168.0
197263.3
197364.9
197473.3
197573.4
197696.7
197776.4
197880.5
197981.6
198070.9
198192.0
1982104.6
198372.5
198472.7
198583.0
198682.8
198778.8
198875.9
198981.4
199074.5
199177.0
199287.1
199372.3
199470.9
199582.3
199676.5
199755.1
199842.2
199956.3
200046.0
200126.7
200236.3
200323.3
200426.5
200532.3
200634.6

 

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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

Table 6. Intactness for different components of biodiversity in the Athabasca oil sands area of Alberta.
Biodiversity ComponentNumber of SpeciesIntactness
Native birds7192%
Winter-active mammals1395%
Armoured mites6295%
Native plants16593%
Moss7596%
Overall intactness38694%

Source: Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring InstituteReference 241

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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).

Table 7. Summary of species at risk in the Athabasca oil sands area, arrows indicate whether the species is increasing or decreasing.
SpeciesDesignationNote * of TableABMI AssessmentAbundance% Sites detected
Bay-breasted warbler (Setophaga  castanea)Sensitive - ESRD
In Process - AB ESCC 2010-
97% IntactIncreasing15
Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens)Sensitive - ESRD
Species of Special Concern -AB ESCC 2010
85% IntactDecreasing4
Brown creeper (Certhia americana)Sensitive – ESRD81% IntactDecreasing10
Canada warbler (Wilsonia canadensis)Sensitive - ESRD
Threatened - COSEWIC
Threatened - SARA
99% IntactDecreasing10
Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina)Sensitive - ESRD
In Process - AB ESCC 2010
96% IntactDecreasing26
Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)Sensitive – ESRD95% IntactIncreasing36
Least flycatcher (Empidonax minimus)Sensitive – ESRD93% IntactDecreasing44
Olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus cooperi)ESRD - May Be at Risk
Threatened - COSEWIC
Threatened - SARA
99% IntactIncreasing17
Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)Sensitive – ESRD87% IntactIncreasing22
Rusty blackbird (Contopus cooperi)Sensitive - ESRD |
Special Concern - COSEWIC
Special Concern - SARA
99% IntactIncreasing6
Sora (Porzana carolina)Sensitive – ESRD95% IntactIncreasing11
Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)Sensitive – ESRD96% IntactDecreasing36
Western wood pewee (Contopus sordidulus)Sensitive – ESRD90% Intact-14
Yellow-bellied flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris)Undetermined - ESRD91% IntactDecreasing10

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

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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.

Graph showing percentage of known taxa ranked as S1/S2 (at risk) and S3 (may be at risk) as of 2008.
Source: Haughland, 2008Reference 251
Long description for Figure 37

This bar graph shows the following information:

Percentage of known taxa ranked as S1/S2 (at risk) and S3 (may be at risk) as of 2008.
-%S1/S2
(at risk)
%S3
(may be at risk)
Birds (342)11.111.1
Reptiles (8)0.012.5
Mammals (78)16.716.7
Fish (65)16.927.7
Amphibians (7)14.342.9
Vasucular Plants(1786)21.73.8
Total (2286)19.76.1

 

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Fish

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

Figure 38. Commercial harvests of walleye (kg/ha) from lakes in Alberta's Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1942-1998.
Graph whowing commercial harvests of walleye
Source: Sullivan 2003Reference 215 with data from the author
Long description for Figure 38

This line graph shows the following information:

Commercial harvests of walleye (kg/ha) from lakes in Alberta's Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from 1942 to 1998.
YearLac La BicheCalling LakeTouchwood LakeWolf LakeBeaver LakeMoose Lake
19420.192.031.601.382.15-
19430.962.260.491.372.651.31
19441.992.820.650.120.720.63
19451.633.420.780.431.131.25
19462.501.550.050.102.811.40
19470.110.270.381.735.280.27
19480.000.030.041.150.890.48
19490.070.100.700.160.270.86
19500.140.180.350.410.170.29
19511.570.160.120.060.570.13
19520.760.250.430.000.390.23
19530.050.370.210.610.170.76
19540.000.250.000.743.660.89
19550.130.590.050.030.041.23
19560.320.120.000.330.093.25
19570.470.560.182.070.111.84
19580.500.050.002.160.002.07
19590.340.060.002.310.070.81
19600.310.070.461.600.071.71
19610.260.080.721.500.050.76
19620.300.050.111.150.010.74
19630.080.090.070.850.062.36
19640.040.080.000.430.030.20
19650.100.000.001.530.100.31
19660.030.000.171.880.160.15
19670.000.000.380.680.690.08
19680.010.130.020.460.400.17
19690.000.010.010.190.790.12
19700.000.020.020.291.270.45
19710.000.020.120.421.110.31
19720.020.010.100.340.420.03
19730.000.000.010.390.040.10
19740.010.070.020.320.010.04
19750.010.000.000.390.040.02
19760.010.000.010.260.070.11
19770.000.020.050.230.080.28
19780.010.010.010.320.030.11
19790.010.030.250.270.080.11
19800.010.000.110.270.040.05
19810.010.010.050.120.030.04
19820.010.000.310.230.030.03
19830.010.020.160.150.010.08
19840.010.020.000.080.030.04
19850.010.010.010.070.000.05
19860.000.000.180.050.040.01
19870.000.000.370.130.070.12
19880.040.000.010.070.090.16
19890.030.000.000.110.100.08
19900.090.020.040.060.120.04
19910.200.040.010.070.100.05
19920.090.030.010.160.130.01
19930.020.000.040.060.140.00
19940.020.000.140.070.050.08
19950.010.010.020.160.060.12
19960.000.020.01closed0.05trap
19970.000.0360.014closed0.030.02
19980.0090.0250.0420.0170.0550.08

 

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Birds

Landbirds

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 &lt;0.05; n indicates 0.05&lt; p &lt;0.1; no value indicates not significant.

Graph showing trends in abundance of landbirds
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:

Trends in abundance of landbirds from the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Species AssemblagePercentage change from 1970s index
Forest Birds1%
Shrub / Successional-31%
Grassland Birds-38%
Open / Agricultural-57%
Urban / Suburban-29%

 

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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

Table 8. Trends in the abundance (% change/year) and reliability of the trend for forest bird species of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from the 1970s and 1989 to 2012.
SpeciesYearAnnual TrendReliability
American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis)1973-20121.44Low
Black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus)1978-2012-4.15Low
Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca)1970-20120.51Low
Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens)1970-2012-2.91Low
Brown creeper (Certhia americana)1977-20120.2Low
Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis)1970-2012-3.3Low
Chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)1970-20124.91Low
Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)1970-20120.73Medium
Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens)1970-2012-3.61Low
Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)1972-2012-3.62Low
Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)1972-20121.21Low
Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla)1970-2012-0.69Medium
Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus)1970-20120.14Low
Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)1970-20124.91Medium
Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)1989-2012-13.1Low
Red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)1970-2012-5.29Low
Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)1970-2012-2.2Low
Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus)1970-2012-1.4Low
Spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus)1976-2012-1.43Low
Townsend's solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)1989-2012-4.43Low
Veery (Catharus fuscescens)1970-2012-4.75Low
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)1970-20125.25Low
Winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)1972-20120.48Low
Yellow-throated vireo (Vireo flavifrons)1970-20121.53Low

Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 258

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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

Figure 40. Annual indices of population change in birds of shrub/early successional in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1971-2006.
Graph showing annual indices of population change in birds of shrub/early successional
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:

Annual indices of population change in birds of shrub/early successional in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from 1971 to 2006.
YearAbundance Index
1971157.6
1972182.0
1973154.7
1974174.4
1975183.9
1976187.4
1977158.5
1978170.7
1979162.2
1980171.9
1981163.0
1982166.4
1983156.8
1984161.3
1985136.2
1986130.8
1987156.2
1988152.2
1989122.5
1990145.0
1991156.4
1992161.0
1993143.0
1994144.4
1995151.5
1996132.2
1997130.1
1998131.3
1999126.4
2000131.1
2001116.6
2002109.9
2003120.4
2004113.3
2005113.4
2006118.1

 

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Table 9. Trends in abundance (% change/year) and reliability of the trend of selected species of shrub/early successional birds that are characteristic of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 1970-2012.
SpeciesAnnual Trend (1970-2012)Reliability
American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)-1.62Medium
Connecticut warbler (Oporornis agilis)-1.43Medium
Grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)-9.5Low
Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)-0.59High
Gray partridge (Perdix perdix)1.55Low
House wren (Troglodytes aedon)-0.67Medium
Mourning warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia)-2.32Medium
Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)-1.54Medium
Spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus)-1.43 (1976-2012)Low

Source: Environment Canada 2014258

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Shorebirds

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+.

Table 10. Trends in abundance (% change/year) and reliability of the trend for shorebirds of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from the 1970s to 2012.
SpeciesYearAnnual TrendReliability
American avocet (Recurvirostra americana)1973-20124.83Low
Greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)1970-20122.6Low
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)1970-2012-4.67Medium
Marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa)1970-20122.59Medium
Upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda)1970-2012-9.3Low
Willet (Tringa semipalmata)1970-2012-1.22Low
Wilson's phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor)1970-2012-5.62Low

Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 133,

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Waterbirds

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

Table 11. Trends in abundance (% change/year) and reliability of the trend for waterbirds of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from the 1970s to 2012.
SpeciesAnnual TrendReliability
American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)3.59Low
Black tern (Chlidonias niger)-4.2Low
Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia)-1.69Low
Common loon (Gavia immer)1.85Medium
Common tern (Sterna hirundo)-2.41Low
Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)6.44Low
Eared grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)-0.36Low
Forster's tern (Sterna forsteri)-2.13Low
Horned grebe (Podiceps auritus)-1.83Medium
Red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena)-0.14Medium
Western grebe (Clark's/Western) (Aechmophorus sp.)0.06Low

Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 258

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Waterfowl

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

Table 12. Trends in abundance (% change/year) and reliability of the trend for waterfowl of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from 1970 to 2012
SpeciesAnnual TrendReliability
American wigeon (Anas americana)-4.27Medium
Blue-winged teal (Anas discors)-0.59Medium
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)12.3Low
Canvasback (Aythya valisineria)-0.99Low
Common merganser (Mergus merganser)-0.38Low
Gadwall (Anas strepera)0.22Medium
Green-winged teal (Anas crecca)0.74Medium
Northern pintail (Anas acuta)-4.67Low
Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata)2.05Medium
Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)-1.34Low
White-winged scoter (Melanitta fusca)-19.6Low
Wood duck (Aix sponsa)3.99Low
Redhead (Aythya americana)2.02Low

Source: Environment Canada 2014Reference 274

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Mammals

Boreal Plains Ecozone+ mammals have been affected by landscape changes due to habitat loss and human disturbance.

Bison

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).

Figure 41. Number of bison in Wood Buffalo National Park, 1971-2003.
Graph showing number of bison in Wood Buffalo National Park
Source: after Bradley and Wilmshurst, 2005Reference 267
Long description for Figure 41

This line graph shows the number of bison decreased from approximately 9,000 in 1971 to 3,000 in 2003.

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There are competing explanations for the population decline:

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

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Figure 42. Number of bison in the Delta, Hay Camp, and Garden River subpopulations, 1975-2003.
Graph showing Number of bison in the Delta, Hay Camp, and Garden River subpopulations
Source: after Bradley and Wilmshurst, 2005Reference 267
Long description for Figure 42

This line graph shows that the Delta subpopulation of bison declined from approximately 4,000 to 500. Hay Camp bison increased from 1,000 to 1,200 and Garden River bison increased from 400 to 900.

 

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Caribou

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 (&gt; 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 (&gt;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

Table 13. Boreal caribou local population condition and habitat condition in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Range NameRange TypePopulation Size EstimatePopulation TrendDisturbed Habitat (%)Risk AssessmentNote *of Table 13
ChinchagaLP250Declining76NSS
Caribou MountainsLP315-394Declining57NSS
Little SmokyLP78Declining95NSS
Red EarthLP172-206Declining62NSS
West Side Athabasca RiverLP204-272Declining69NSS
RichardsonLP150Not available82NSS
East Side Athabasca RiverLP90-150Declining81NSS
Cold LakeLP150Declining85NSS
NipisiLP55Not available68NSS
Slave LakeLP65Not available80NSS
Boreal PlainCUNot availableNot available42NSS/SS
The BogNoteof Table 13ICU50-75Stable16NSS/SS
NaosapNoteof Table 13ICU100-200Stable50NSS
ReedNoteof Table 13ICU100-150Stable26SS
North InterlakeNoteof Table 13ICU50-75Stable17NSS/SS
William LakeNoteof Table 13ICU25-40Stable31NSS
WabowdenNoteof Table 13ICU200-225Stable28SS
Manitoba NorthNoteof Table 13CUNot availableNot available37NSS/SS
Manitoba SouthNoteof Table 13CUNot availableNot available17SS

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

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Figure 43. Status of boreal caribou local populations in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Map showing status of boreal caribou local populations
Source: updated from Callaghan et al., 2011Reference 275 based on Environment Canada, 2012Reference 274
Long description for Figure 43

This map shows the status of boreal caribou local populations in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ as of 2012. Of the 19 caribou local populations in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, none were found to be increasing, six were found to be stable, seven were found to be decreasing, and data for the other populations were not available, as shown in Table 13. The declining populations are located in the west of the ecozone+, while stable populations are located in the east of the ecozone+.

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In the Athabasca oil sands area, human footprint for the six woodland boreal caribou sub-population ranges in 2010 varied from &lt;1% to &gt;7%.Reference 241

Grizzly bears

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.

Figure 44. Reduction in the range of grizzly bear in North America.
Map showing reduction in the range of grizzly bear in North America
Source: after Hummel and Ray, 2008Reference 282
Long description for Figure 44

This map shows that the historic range of grizzly bear has retracted from the western half of North America to a current distribution of just Alaska, Yukon, most of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, and part of Alberta.

 

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Key finding 18
Primary productivity

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).

Figure 45. Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) trends for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ from 1985–2006.

Trends are in annual peak NDVI, measured as the average of the 3 highest values from 10-day composite images taken during July and August of each year. Spatial resolution is 1 km, averaged to 3 km for analysis. Only significant (p&lt;0.05) trends are reported.

Map showing Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) trends
Source: adapted from Pouliot et al., 2009Reference 284 by Ahern, 201113
Long description for Figure 45

This map shows the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is mostly positive throughout the ecozone+ with a few negative areas concentrated primarily in Alberta.

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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

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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:

  1. cumulative annual greenness (measure of primary productivity);
  2. annual minimum vegetation cover (the lowest level of perennial cover); and
  3. 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

Table 14. Summary of vegetation characteristics measured by Dynamic Habitat Index (DHI) indicators of vegetation change in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+(average over 2000–2006).
Annual cumulative greenness
(primary productivity)
Average annual minimum vegetation cover
(lowest level of cover)
Average degree of vegetation seasonality
(vegetation seasonality)
Variable; lowest in agricultural areasNote * of Table 14Variable, lower in agricultural areas; lowest in patches that are likely fire scarsVariable, 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)

Return to note * referrer of table 14

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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).

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Key finding 19
Natural disturbance

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

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

Figure 46. Trend in a) total area burned per decade and b) distribution of large fires (&gt;2 km2) by decade for the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.

The value for the 2000s decade was pro-rated over 10 years based on the average from 2000–2007.

Graph showing trend in total area burned per decade and distribution of large fires
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:

Trend in a) total area burned per decade
YearArea burned (km2)
1960s16,895
1970s7,157
1980s46,950
1990s23,921
2000s16,231

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).

 

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Insect outbreaks

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

Deciduous defoliators

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

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

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Figure 47. Area affected by mountain pine beetle increased eastward from 1999 (left) to 2009 (right).
Map showing area affected by mountain pine beetle
Source: BC Ministry of Forests and Range, 2010Reference 304 and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, 2010Reference 303
Long description for Figure 47

These two maps show that mountain pine beetle was found primarily in central British Columbia and in isolated patches near the Alberta border as well as in southern British Columbia. By 2009, the mountain pine beetle had extended its range throughout most of southern and central British Columbia and parts of northwestern Alberta.

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Key finding 20
Food webs

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+.

Food webs

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.

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Population cycles

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

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Footnotes

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).

Return to footnote three iii

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 Tonn, W.M., Paszkowski, C.A., Scrimgeour, G.J., Aku, P.K.M., Lange, M., Prepas, E.E. and Westcott, K. 2003. Effects of forest harvesting and fire on fish assemblages in boreal plains lakes: a reference condition approach. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 132:514-523.

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Reference 313

 Schindler, D.W., Bayley, S.E., Parker, B.R., Beaty, K.G., Cruikshank, D.R., Fee, E.J., Schindler, E.U. and Stainton, M.P. 1996. The effects of climatic warming on the properties of boreal lakes and streams at the Experimental Lakes Area, northwestern Ontario. Limnology and Oceanography 41:1004-1017. doi:Article; Proceedings Paper.

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Reference 314

 Winder, M. and Schindler, D.E. 2004. Climate change uncouples trophic interactions in an aquatic ecosystem. Ecology 85:2100-2106.

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Reference 315

 Schindler, D.E. and Scheuerell, M.D. 2002. Habitat coupling in lake ecosystems. Oikos 98:177-189.

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Reference 316

 Winder, M. and Schindler, D.E. 2004. Climatic effects on the phenology of lake processes. Global Change Biology 10:1844-1856.

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Reference 317

 Stenseth, N.C., Chan, K.S., Tong, H., Boonstra, R., Boutin, S., Krebs, C.J., Post, E., O'Donoghue, M., Yoccoz, N.G., Forchhammer, M.C. and Hurrell, J.W. 1999. Common dynamic structure of Canada lynx populations within three climatic regions. Science 285:1071-1073.

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Reference 318

 Stenseth, N.C., Falck, W., Chan, K.S., Bjornstad, O.N., O'Donoghue, M., Tong, H., Boonstra, R., Boutin, S., Krebs, C.J. and Yoccoz, N.G. 1998. From patterns to processes: phase and density dependencies in the Canadian lynx cycle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95:15430-15435.

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Reference 319

 Northern River Basins Study. 1996. Northern River Basins Study: the legacy. Volume 1: collective findings. Alberta Department of the Environment, Environment Canada, and Northwest Territories Department of Renewable Resources. Edmonton, AB. CD-Rom.

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Theme: Science/Policy Interface

Key finding 21
Biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, and reporting

National key finding
Long-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.

The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ does not have a harmonized framework for biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, or reporting. Although many monitoring and research initiatives are operational within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, spatial and thematic coverage is compartmentalized. Steps to harmonize biodiversity monitoring and research are underway through the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring in the western portion of the ecozone+.

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI)

The ABMI is an arm's length, not-for-profit scientific organization that measures and reports on the state of biodiversity and human footprint across Alberta.Reference 240 To do this, the ABMI has 1,656 monitoring sites systematically distributed every 20 km where this ecozone+ overlaps with provincial boundaries (Figure 48).Reference 240 Approximately 58% of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ is monitored by the ABMI. The ABMI is designed to operate in perpetuity and throughout the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ of Alberta; however, it is presently operating at only about 50% of its designed capacity in this ecozone+.

The ABMI is designed to measure and report on the state of land, water, and wildlife in Alberta using a suite of indicators including human land use, species, and habitats. This monitoring framework includes the integrated collection and management of data for many species of mammals, birds, plants, moss, lichen, soil mites, aquatic invertebrates, and fish. Data generated by the ABMI are value-neutral, independent, and most are publicly accessible. The ABMI works with federal and provincial agencies to implement scientifically credible monitoring for biodiversity in the oil sands areas of Alberta. This includes the Athabasca, Peace River, and Cold Lake oil sands areas.

Figure 48. The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute's core sampling sites across Alberta.
Map showing Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute¡¯s core sampling sites
Source: Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, 2013Reference 240
Long description for Figure 48

This map shows the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute's core sampling sites across Alberta between 2003-2013, and planned sites for 2014. Sampled and planned sites are numerous and evenly distributed throughout Alberta.

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Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring

The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring is an environmental monitoring program designed to monitor the long-term cumulative effects of oil sands development on water, air, land, and biodiversity. The three-year implementation plan, which began in 2012, extends over 140,000 km2. The primary objective of Terrestrial Biodiversity (toxics) monitoring is to assess the levels and effects of oil sands‐related contaminants and their influence on the health of individual wildlife and wildlife populations proximal to and at varying distances from oil sands operations. Some of the components of the monitoring plan include:

  1. Monitoring the effects of oil sands activities on breeding waterbird populations, diet, and egg contaminants downstream from the oil sands on the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca
  2. Monitoring the impacts of contaminants associated with oil sands processing on the health and development of amphibian (i.e., wood frog) indicator species
  3. Monitoring the effects of oil sands contaminants on avian health using non-lethal measures of stress and physiological response
  4. Toxicological assessments of hunter/trapper-harvested wildlife (waterfowl and mammals), and dead and moribund birds in oil sands impacted areas and lower reaches of the Athabasca River
  5. Use of native plants to monitor the condition of oil sands-associated wetlands

The plan also includes monitoring the impact of habitat disturbance and mitigation on terrestrial biodiversity. Data from the program will be made publicly available from a portal (Joint Oil Sands Monitoring).

Boreal Avian Modelling Project

The Boreal Avian Modelling Project (BAM)Reference 320 is a land-bird data management and research initiative that aggregates data from across North American boreal forests including all of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Using quantitative modelling techniques, BAM derives information on abundance, distribution, and habitats of boreal birds, and uses this to evaluate and predict the effects of human activity. Biophysical data is also being assembled from remote-sensing and forest resource inventories including climate, land cover, and forest productivity indices. Several regional songbird monitoring initiatives are conducted under BAM through collaboration with university researchers.

Figure 49. Bird point-count sites compiled by the Boreal Avian Modeling Project.
Map showing Bird point©\count sites
Source: Boreal Avian Modelling Project, 2014Reference 320
Long description for Figure 49

This map shows bird point-count sites throughout Canada and Alaska, but concentrated along the US-Canada border. There are no sampling sites in southeastern Alberta or southwestern Saskatchewan.

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Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey

The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey is a collaborative initiative between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service that was initiated in 1955. The primary purpose of the survey is to provide information on spring population size and trends for certain North American duck species (with particular focus on mallards). Data from these surveys are used extensively in the annual establishment of hunting regulations in the United States and Canada and provide long-term time series critical to effective conservation planning for waterfowl.Reference 321

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Key finding 22
Rapid change and thresholds

Theme Science/policy interface

National key finding
Growing understanding of rapid and unexpected changes, interactions, and thresholds, especially in relation to climate change, points to a need for policy that responds and adapts quickly to signals of environmental change in order to avert major and irreversible biodiversity losses.

In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, forest fragmentation, fire and insect disturbances, invasive species, contamination, climate change, acidification, and food web perturbations are all stressors that may be causing rapid, irreversible changes to the ecozone+. However, detecting rapid change or breached ecological thresholds requires more spatially and temporally comprehensive data than is available for the ecozone+. Given available data, rapid change in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ may have been caused by insect outbreaks, habitat loss and fragmentation, melting permafrost, and invasive species.

Insect outbreaks

Mountain pine beetle

British Columbia has experienced unprecedented mountain pine beetle infestations over the last decade and infestations have recently spread to Alberta. Since 2005, the mountain pine beetle has spread eastward across the Rocky Mountains affecting tens of thousands of square kilometres of lodgepole pine and lodgepole pine x jack pine forests in western portions of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 301, Reference 302 If left unchecked, it is possible that mountain pine beetle could expand its range further eastward through the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and beyond.Reference 299, Reference 300 Warmer winters, fire suppression, and continued dispersal increase the probability of range expansion (refer to the Mountain pine beetle section on page 75).

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Forest fragmentation and loss

Woodland caribou, boreal population (i.e., boreal caribou) are classified as threatened by COSEWIC,Reference 272 and are declining and at risk of local extirpation in some areas of their range (refer to the Caribou section on page 67).The decline of boreal caribou in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has been linked to two factors that have altered predator-prey dynamics in the area. First, habitat loss and fragmentation, specifically linear disturbances (roads and seismic lines) associated with oil and gas development, has increased grey wolf access to caribou habitat.Reference 193 Second, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) populations have increased, likely in response to warmer temperatures and habitat disturbance, which has created more habitat favouring deer.Reference 309, Reference 322 More deer increases available prey for grey wolves.Reference 309 These two factors likely caused the extensive declines in caribou over the past several decades.

There is a threshold of habitat required to sustain populations of forest-dependent species, particularly old-forest specialists.Reference 323 Most of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ remains intact for most species,Reference 241 however, habitat thresholds have been breached in some areas. For example, American marten require complex habitat structure (e.g., coarse woody debris) and forest cover. Marten could not persist in parts of the west Boreal Plains of Alberta where &gt;36% of the area is developed by forestry, mining, and/or other industrial activities.Reference 324

Although populations of forest birds have not declined to date, the expected future landscape condition is not expected to support current populations of bird species that prefer mature and old boreal forests.Reference 43 Species such as black-throated green warbler, boreal chickadee, and western tanager prefer unfragmented, mature forest types. These forests are being lost, subdivided, and perforated by logging, oil sands development, and an expanding network of seismic lines, pipelines, production and exploration wellsites, power/utility lines and access roads.Reference 43 Climate change-induced forest fires are expected to increase, thus causing further population declines for mature and old forest-associated landbird species because the increased fire rate could lead to earlier and more substantial declines in old forest types.Reference 43

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Thawing of permafrost

Permafrost is melting along the northern perimeter of the ecozone+ in response to increases in average air temperature.Reference 53 Changes in biodiversity, landscape and hydrology are expected in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ but the actual impacts are unknown (refer to Permafrost section on page 23 for more details).

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Invasive species

Currently there is limited information on the distribution and abundance of invasive species across the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 126 Further, the threshold level of disturbance and/or fragmentation in the boreal forest that could enhance invasive species spread is unknown. However, continued industrial development may present windows of opportunity for non-native species to establish and spread. The populations of non-native species that are present in the ecozone+ may serve as nascent sources for a much wider invasion once a particular disturbance threshold has been reached.Reference 325, Reference 326

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References

Reference 48

Zhang, X., Brown, R., Vincent, L., Skinner, W., Feng, Y. et Mekis, E. 2011. Tendances climatiques au Canada, de 1950 ¨¤ 2007. Biodiversit¨¦ canadienne : ¨¦tat et tendances des ¨¦cosyst¨¨mes en 2010, Rapport technique th¨¦matique no 5. Conseils canadiens des ministres des ressources. Ottawa, ON. iv + 22 p.

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Reference 53

Zhang, X., Brown, R., Vincent, L., Skinner, W., Feng, Y. and Mekis, E. 2011. Canadian climate trends, 1950-2007. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 5. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. iv + 21 p.

Return to reference 53

Reference 126

 Sanderson, L.A., Mclaughlin, J.A. and Antunes, P.M. 2012. The last great forest: a review of the status of invasive species in the North American boreal forest. Forestry85:329-340.

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Reference 193

 Lloyd, A.H., Yoshikawa, K., Fastie, C.L., Hinzman, L. and Fraver, M. 2003. Effects of permafrost degradation on woody vegetation at arctic treeline on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes14:93-101.

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Reference 240

 Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2013. Alberta biodiversity monitoring program [online]. (Accessed 8 August, 2013).

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Reference 241

 Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2013. The status of biodiversity in the Athabasca oil sands area. Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. Edmonton, AB. 39 p.

Return to reference 241

Reference 272

 COSEWIC. 2002. COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa, ON. xi + 98 p.

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Reference 299

 Safranyik, L., Carroll, A.L., R¨¦gni¨¨re, J., Langor, D.W., Riel, W.G., Shore, T.L., Peter, B., Cooke, B.J., Nealis, V.G. and Taylor, S.W. 2010. Potential for range expansion of mountain pine beetle into the boreal forest of North America. The Canadian Entomologist142:415-442.

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Reference 300

 Rice, A.V., Thormann, M.N. and Langor, D.W. 2007. Mountain pine beetle associated blue-stain fungi cause lesions on jack pine, lodgepole pine, and lodgepole x jack pine hybrids in Alberta. Canadian Journal of Botany-Revue Canadienne De Botanique85:307-315.

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Reference 301

 Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. 2009. 2008 Annual Report: forest health in Alberta. Government of Alberta. Edmonton, AB. iv + 44 p.

Return to reference 301

Reference 302

 Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. 2009. 2008 Annual Report: forest health in Alberta. Government of Alberta. Edmonton, AB. iv + 44 p.

Return to reference 302

Reference 302

 Tyssen, B. 2009. Mountain pine beetle aerial survey 2009. Map. Government of Alberta.

Return to reference 302

Reference 309

 Latham, A.D.M., Latham, M.C., McCutchen, N.A. and Boutin, S. 2011. Invading white-tailed deer change wolf-caribou dynamics in northeastern Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Management75:204-212.

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Reference 320

 Boreal Avian Modelling Project. 2014. Boreal Avian Modelling Project [online]. (accessed October, 32014).

Return to reference 320

Reference 321

 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey [online]. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management and U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. (accessed 20 July, 2010).

Return to reference 321

Reference 322

 Cote, S.D., Rooney, T.P., Tremblay, J.P., Dussault, C. and Waller, D.M. 2004. Ecological impacts of deer overabundance. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 35:113-147.

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Reference 323

 Rompre, G., Boucher, Y., Belanger, L., Cote, S. and Robinson, W.D. 2010. Conserving biodiversity in managed forest landscapes: the use of critical thresholds for habitat. Forestry Chronicles 86:589-596.

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Reference 324

 Webb, S.M. and Boyce, M.S. 2009. Marten fur harvests and landscape change in west-central Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Management 73:894-903.

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Reference 325

 Lodge, D.M., Williams, S., MacIssac, H.J., Hayes, K.R., Leung, B., Reichard, S., Mack, R.N., Moyle, P.B., Smith, M., Andow, D.A., Carlton, J.T. and McMichael, A. 2006. Biological invasions: recommendations for US policy and managem

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Reference 326

 Denslow, J.S. 2007. Managing dominance of invasive plants in wildlands. Current Science 93:1579-1586.

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Conclusion: Human Well-Being and Biodiversity

The Boreal Plains Ecozone+ acts as a transition zone between agricultural areas in the south and forested areas in the north of the ecozone+. Historically, frequent wide-spread natural disturbances including fire, insect outbreaks and wind, created a heterogeneous landscape supporting a diversity of ecosystems, habitats and wildlife species. However, the Boreal Plains is also rich in renewable and non-renewable resources such as agriculture, forestry, and oil and gas deposits. These activities are now impacting ecosystems in a variety of ways, putting increasing pressure on ecosystem services across the ecozone+. In addition, climate change is a large-scale phenomenon that is predicted to impact all ecosystems in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.

A large number of ecosystem services are provided by the Boreal Plains Ecozone+; for example, provisioning services, such as forest harvesting and agriculture, are important economic drivers in the Boreal Plains. Forests dominate the landscape of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Forest extent and intactness have declined due to forest harvesting, agricultural expansion, and increased industrial development (refer to the Forests section on page 11). The mountain pine beetle is of particular concern to boreal forests as it expands it range in the ecozone+ (refer to the Insect outbreaks section on page 74). Agriculture has driven human settlement in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and continues to expand; however, the potential of agricultural land to support wildlife has declined mainly due to the loss of natural land cover (see the Potential wildlife use of agricultural lands section on page 52).

The Boreal Plains also provides a range of other ecosystem services (e.g., water supply and regulation, biodiversity, cultural) that are under pressure from continued human and industrial activity. For example, water allocation of the Athabasca River for oil sands processing, and reduced flow due to climate change, could reduce available habitat for fish and other wildlife (see the Water stresses section on page 21). In addition, inputs of contaminants and nutrients from a variety of sources (e.g., oil sands development, forestry, agriculture) have reduced water quality across the ecozone+ (refer to the Water quality section on page 22 and the Contaminants section on page 30).

Climate change has impacted stream hydrology, lowered lake water levels, and altered flood regimes across the ecozone+ (refer to the Climate change impacts: stream flows, temperature and water levels section on page 19, the Water stresses section on page 21, and the Climate change impacts on ecosystems section on page 44). In addition, warming has resulted in a shorter ice season and has melted permafrost from the southern extent of its historical range (refer to the Permafrost section on page 23). Combined, these effects could result in large-scale changes to hydrological dynamics across the ecozone+ in the future.

Human activities in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ are also impacting wildlife populations and food web dynamics (refer to the Species of special economic, cultural, or ecological interest section on page 55 and the Food webs section on page 76). Caribou have declined in response to increased wolf predation facilitated by human disturbance. Several commercial and sport fisheries have collapsed in boreal lakes as a result of overfishing. With the exception of the forest bird assemblage, all other bird habitat guilds are declining in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and the high rate of resource development further threatens bird populations (refer to the Birds section on page 59).Reference 255 However, other species, like Canada geese and white-tailed deer, are experiencing increases in their range and are likely benefiting from human disturbance and climate change.

Biodiversity and ecological integrity maintain the quality of life for humans.Reference 327 The steady visitation rates to national parks (refer to the Cultural services section on page 49) and the increase in protected areas in the ecozone+ (refer to the Protected areas section on page 25) indicate the value that people in this region place on preservation of the natural environment. Understanding ecosystem functions, monitoring ecosystem status and trends, and taking action to mediate negative impacts and preserve the natural legacy of the area, will ensure that the environment and the services it provides will be sustained for future generations.

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References

Reference 255

Environment Canada. 2013. Bird Conservation Strategy for Bird Conservation Region 6: Boreal Taiga Plains. Canadian Wildlife Service. Edmonton, Alberta. iv + 288.

Return to reference 255

Reference 327

Herbers, J. 2005. Biodiversity needs in Alberta: a detailed analysis. Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Program, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, University of Alberta. Edmonton, AB. 61 p.

Return to reference 327

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