Half of North American Birds Rely on Vanishing Boreal Forest

SEATTLE, Washington, May 11, 2005 (ENS) - The 1.5 billion acre North American Boreal Forest Region, stretching from Alaska to Newfoundland, holds one-quarter of the Earth's remaining intact forests. It is one of the largest forested wilderness areas left, larger than even the Brazilian Amazon. But the boreal forest is disappearing - logged and fragmented to supply U.S. markets for junk mail catalogs, disposable tissue paper, and energy.

Nearly half of all bird species in the United States and Canada rely on the Boreal Forest Region for survival, finds a new scientific study released last week that provides the first comprehensive analysis of the region's vital role in sustaining North American bird life.

"The Boreal Forest Region: North America's Bird Nursery," written by a prominent bird scientist from the United States and another from Canada, shows that this region is more important to landbirds, shorebirds, waterbirds and waterfowl than anyone had previously realized.


Canada warblers, Wilsonia canadensis, dependent on the Boreal Forest for their survival, are quickly declining. (Photo courtesy Boreal Songbird Initiative)
The region represents 26 percent of the land area of the U.S. and Canada - yet this report shows that it supports nearly 50 percent of all North America’s bird species.

"The more we study the Boreal region, the more we discover that it is essentially responsible for the abundance of bird life in the U.S. and Canada," said Jeff Wells, PhD, a scientist with the Boreal Songbird Initiative, based in Seattle. "Simply put, the future of bird life across North America depends on how well we steward the Boreal Forest Region."

Dr. Wells served on the search team of scientists who recently confirmed sighting the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, a bird that had been considered extinct since the 1940s due to destruction of its habitat.

"While I can not describe the thrill of rediscovering this legendary bird, the experience drove home even further for me why protection for the Canadian Boreal Forest is the greatest bird habitat conservation opportunity and challenge of our day," Wells said.

"We have the capacity and responsibility to forestall future extinction of the multitudes of birds that depend on this northern forest," he said.

Co-author Dr. Peter Blancher has recently returned to Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service after four years as Partners in Flight (PIF) scientist with Bird Studies Canada. He continues to provide technical support for landbird conservation planning at continental, national and regional scales.


Swainson's thrush, Catharus ustulatus, spends summers in the Boreal Forest, winters in South America. (Photo courtesy USGS)
As a member of the PIF Science Committee, Blancher is a co-author of the 2004 Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan which developed methods of estimating bird population size used in this report.

The two bird scientists used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping coupled with bird abundance data in this first effort to quantify the importance of a large-scale ecosystem to an entire continent's bird population.

Thousands of volunteers contributed field reports to the pool of scientific information on which this report is based.

Nearly half of all North American birds - 325 species - rely on the Boreal Forest Region for survival, the report shows. Over 300 of those species regularly breed in the boreal forest, accounting for billions of migrating birds annually.

Eighty percent of the waterfowl species of North America, 63 percent of finch species, and 53 percent of warbler species breed in the Boreal Forest Region, Wells and Blancher found.

In nearly 100 species, 50 percent or more of their entire breeding populations occur within the boreal forest.

Though it is largely still intact, the Boreal Forest Region is under rapidly increasing threat from industrial development and less than six percent of the region is permanently protected.

As logging and oil and gas development penetrate the Boreal Forest Region, the birds are disappearing.


The rusty blackbird, Euphagus carolinus, is increasingly rare. (Photo by Dave Menke courtesy USFWS)
Two of the species showing the most severe documented declines are highly reliant on the boreal forest - the long-legged lesser yellowlegs and the ecologically specialized rusty blackbird. Both birds have declined by more than 90 percent over the past 40 years.

Other species have had less severe but still steep declines. Tree-tops once full of olive-sided flycatchers now shelter 40 percent of their previous population, and Canada warbler populations are down by 45 percent.

Wells says that many of North America's most rapidly declining birds are among those most reliant on the boreal forest for their survival.

Waterfowl like Greater and Lesser Scaup have declined by about 150,000 birds a year since the late 1970s, he said, while the three scoter species have dropped by over 50 percent since the 1950s.

Another wetland bird species, the horned grebe, has declined by 60 percent since the late 1960s.

In Seattle, Marilyn Heiman, director of the Boreal Songbird Initiative, said American consumers need to be aware of the role they are playing in the destruction of the Boreal Forest Region.

"Logging and oil and gas development in the Boreal continues to ramp up to quench our American thirst for paper and energy. All that junk mail like Victoria's Secret catalogs, tissue paper from companies like Kimberly Clark, and lumber and paper from companies like Weyerhaeuser drives the large scale logging that is directly threatening the Boreal Forest Region's ecosystem and the birds that breed there," Heiman said.

The best way to protect this vulnerable region couples long-term economic development and broad conservation goals, Heiman said.

In 2003, an alliance of conservation organizations, First Nations and resource companies, convened by the Canadian Boreal Initiative, drafted the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework.

The Framework would safeguard the forest by establishing a network of large, interconnected protected areas covering at least half of Canada's Boreal Forest Region.

In addition, it would require verifiable, sustainable development practices, such as Forest Stewardship Council certification, in the remaining areas.


Hooded mersangers, Lophodytes cucullatus, like this one depend on the Boreal Forest Region for survival. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Conservationists have overlooked the Boreal Forest Region "precisely because of its abundant wildlife," Blancher and Wells write.

"Areas with a high number of different species tend to be given more attention, especially when many of those species have become rare so that they can rightly be considered endangered," they write. "In contrast, the Boreal Forest Region has lower species diversity and fewer rare species than most tropical regions and significant threats to the Boreal Forest Region ecosystem have only recently become more widely understood."

In the past five years, some scientists and conservation organizations, such as BirdLife International, have begun considering abundance and intactness of ecosystems as equally important factors in developing conservation priorities.

"The Boreal Forest Region: North America's Bird Nursery," is online at: www.borealbirds.org