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Opinion The boreal forest is North America’s bird nursery — and we must protect it

A lesser yellowlegs is shown in Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton, Alta. By investing in a suite of large-scale Indigenous protected areas, the minister can meet international commitments and preserve millions of hectares of boreal bird habitat.

The Canadian Press

Jeff Wells is vice-president of Boreal Conservation for the National Audubon Society. Fritz Reid is director of Boreal and Arctic Conservation at Ducks Unlimited Inc.

Canada is not immune to the global biodiversity crisis. A new report on the state of Canada’s birds that shows perilous declines in birds from a wide range of Canadian habitats makes that abundantly clear.

The good news? The report confirms that conservation and international co-operation can reverse these declines. Smart government policies such as banning the insecticide DDT and investing in wetlands restoration across Canada and the United States, for instance, has helped duck populations increase by 69 per cent and birds of prey by more than 100 per cent.

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Canada and the United States have worked together for more than 100 years to protect these birds and their habitat throughout their flyways. We can see our successes flying overhead every spring and fall. International treaties, co-ordinated management regimes, shared science research and major conservation funding all contribute to our joint stewardship of the resource.

Now we are all relying on Canada’s stewardship of those nesting grounds. We are looking north for global leadership in sustaining birds.

Sustaining the boreal forest is among the top priorities of this long-term effort.

The boreal acts as North America’s bird nursery. Every year, up to five billion birds emerge from it and fly south to backyards and wildlands across North America, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Some of the biggest, boldest plans for protecting boreal lands are emerging from Indigenous peoples across the region. The Sahtúgot’ine Dene in the Northwest Territories, for instance, have proposed creating an Indigenous protected area conserving 98,000 square kilometres of the Great Bear Lake watershed. Their plan would conserve nesting grounds for millions of birds, from large black-bodied sea ducks such as surf scoters that migrate to Vancouver and San Francisco, to blue-billed lesser scaup that winter from Southern Ontario to the United States and Mexico, to tiny songbirds such as the black-capped blackpoll warblers, which go south to the Amazon Basin.

This month, Canada has an opportunity to advance the ambitious conservation efforts of these and other Indigenous governments and communities.

The country committed to protecting at least 17 per cent of lands by 2020, as part of the global effort to sustain biodiversity. And soon, as part of her government’s landmark investments in nature, Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Catherine McKenna will announce support for a set of protected area proposals that, once finalized, would help reach that goal.

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By investing in a suite of these large-scale Indigenous protected areas, the minister can meet international commitments and preserve millions of hectares of boreal bird habitat.

The benefits will be far-reaching. Birds that begin life in the boreal forest go on to pollinate plants, disperse seeds and control insects throughout flyways that span the hemisphere. But they can only provide those services for as long as their nursery remains intact. And if they have a lot of space.

Many boreal birds are distributed across large areas. Nesting far apart offers an insurance policy against predators, dips in food, or changes in climate. Ducks, for instance, depend on wetlands. But to ensure the water is abundant, clean and full of nourishing food requires conserving large watersheds.

In northern Manitoba, the Sayisi Dene First Nation has proposed protection of 50,000 square kilometres of the Seal River watershed, which provides habitat for millions of nesting land birds, including species of high-conservation concern, such as olive-sided flycatchers and rusty blackbirds, and for tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl, including black scoters and American black ducks.

The world is increasingly recognizing the power of Indigenous-led conservation. The recent United Nations report on the state of nature found that lands managed by Indigenous peoples tend to be more vibrant than other areas.

Canada can honour the leadership of Indigenous governments and communities by supporting the creation of Indigenous-protected areas.

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