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Opinion Boreal forest will become birds’ Noah’s Ark, and Canada must protect it

Jeffrey Wells, Ph.D., is senior scientist, International Boreal Conservation Campaign, author of Birder's Conservation Handbook and editor of Boreal Birds of North America

The National Audubon Society's report on the threat North America's bird species face from unchecked climate change produced some frightening results – 314 of 588 species are projected to lose half of their current habitat ranges by 2050 or 2080.

Here's what seven years of painstaking research from Audubon produced: A list of at-risk species that includes beloved Common Loons, Bald Eagles and Canada Warblers.

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Even Mallards, those wonderful green-headed ducks that we like to feed at the park, face a gloomy future. Gary Langham, the lead author of the report, aptly described the findings as a "punch to the gut."

Yet what are we to do about this kind of dire report, which joins a long and growing list of studies that describe the problems that causing current and future declines and changes in our environment?

It is clear we must continue pressing governments to embrace policies that lessen the global warming pollutants that have put the continent's bird population on "the brink" of a grim future. And even if government won't help, then we can make smarter personal decisions in our own lives about what energy sources we use in our homes, vehicles, and businesses. People can demonstrate a commitment that political leaders may one day deem safe to emulate.

Canada also has a particularly important stewardship role for birds and other wildlife that becomes clear upon close scrutiny of the Audubon study. That's because most of the birds examined are expected to shift their ranges northward. In fact, many species are projected to disappear from their United States range as they are forced north into more hospitable climate space. Other birds that now occur in southern Canada will also shift north. The familiar sound of the Common Loon at the cottage in summer may become a thing of the past for many Canadian families.

The ability of bird species to survive these shifts in range (and many birds have already started moving northward) depends to a significant degree on the continued presence of vast areas of intact habitat where populations can thrive and adapt.

Fortunately Canada's boreal forest region is one of the world's last, large intact ecoregions. The analogy of the boreal forest as the world's Noah's Ark is an apt one under climate change projections like those in the Audubon's study.

One of the most important contributions the people of Canada can make to their future generations and to the world will be to maintain very large areas of intact forest within the country's boreal region.

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Government leaders in provinces like Ontario and Quebec have already shown that they understand this fact and have made strides, working especially with First Nations, to ensure that large areas of intact habitat are maintained. In fact, First Nation governments and communities are among the most progressive leaders in ensuring a balanced approach in the North that would give the space to wildlife populations to survive the impending climate change impacts.

Conservation groups including Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Boreal Songbird Initiative, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and others have recommended that maintaining healthy populations of wildlife and ecosystems that provide clean air and water will require conserving a minimum of half of the boreal forest ecoregion in a series of large, intact forest and wetland landscapes.

Audubon's study makes it more clear than ever that the impacts of climate change are personal, changing the details of the world that generations have come to know and love including those favorite and loved birds of backyard and cottage.

But solutions are possible. More of us need to help government leaders at all levels by showing our support for the good ideas – like protecting our boreal forest landscapes – while also lowering the levels of climate change pollution burned into our skies.

The Common Loon may thank you for your efforts, by still being there for your grandkids to enjoy with their own family in 2050.

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