Straddling British Columbia and Yukon, the Northern Boreal Mountains are a magnificent coastal chain with remarkably diverse ecosystems, including pristine lakes, grasslands, and boreal and subalpine forests. Valley bottoms provide the richest and most productive habitats, and include lakes, wetlands, and forests of lodgepole pine and white spruce, with pockets of biologically valuable old growth forest along rivers. The Northern Boreal Mountain region boasts some of the last remaining intact wildlife assemblages in North America. Here, forest and mountain predators like gray wolf, wolverine, Canada lynx, and grizzly bear have room to roam, while their prey populations abound, including 20 herds of woodland caribou, Dall’s sheep, moose, elk, wood bison, mountain goat, and snowshoe hare. The Northern Boreal Mountain lakes provide critical refuelling stops for waterfowl migrating to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic, and songbirds that winter as far away as South America breed in the region’s lowland forests and wetlands. The Yukon River supports a Pacific salmon run that sustains river otter, bald eagles, and humans, including some of the 14 First Nations whose Traditional Territories lie in this approximately 419,000 km2 region. The Northern Boreal Mountains support healthy populations of wildlife and fish listed as threatened or of special concern by Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, including four mammal species (wood bison, caribou, grizzly bear, and wolverine), six bird species, and three fish species.
As mining, oil and gas development, agriculture, forestry, and roads begin to carve up this vast wilderness, WCS works with local government, planning agencies, and First Nations to map out future land management. We do so by providing critical science-based information on the impacts of development and working with land-planners to incorporate wildlife habitat needs into emerging natural resources policies.
Wildlife in this region currently exist in healthy numbers with relatively intact wild areas, but will be faced with both habitat loss and changing climate in the coming years. There is a tremendous opportunity for pro-active planning to preserve gems of wilderness that are becoming increasingly rare. The Yukon is known for the late-nineteenth-century gold rush, and its diverse mineral resources, including copper, tungsten, and gold, have again placed it at the center of a mining boom, with a staking rush underway. In addition, the proposed Alaska Highway Pipeline, which may be built over the next decade, will extend across this region. While there is limited economic potential for large-scale forestry and agriculture, small-scale forestry activities are currently expanding in productive valley bottoms, threatening to fragment essential wildlife habitat. Climate change, which is causing warming and alterations in precipitation and natural disturbance patterns, is already showing evidence of altering some ecosystem functions.
Our vision is a region where wildlife species and ecological processes continue to thrive as a result of forward-looking land-use planning and management based on solid scientific information. To realize this vision, WCS is engaging in precedent-setting work across a large geography that brings a novel view of the biodiversity values of this region. We provide a scientific voice, analysis, and synthesis to empower federal, territorial, provincial, and First Nations’ governments and all citizens to include wildlife needs into natural-resource planning. All our work integrates climate change impacts into conservation planning.
Guiding Land Use Decisions
The current approach to land-use disposition is piece-meal, based largely on a first-come, first-served basis through the free entry staking land application process. By partnering with First Nations and the Territorial Government, WCS brings new analysis and synthesis to forest management and land-use planning processes to ensure the consideration of wildlife values. This includes defining key wildlife habitats and corridors; using novel modeling tools to assess the extent of the human footprint; and assessing the impact of new roads, backcountry trails, and motorized recreation in wild habitats.
Assessing the Biological Value of Valley Bottom Habitats
The loss of lowland forests, riparian habitat, and wetlands from the valley bottoms poses a threat to many species, including moose, otter, and breeding birds such as olive-sided flycatcher and American three-toed woodpecker. WCS conducts field research on wildlife use of highly valuable old-growth riparian forest. Biological assessments provide new information to government partners as they plan the disposition of these lands for forestry and agriculture and as they develop best practices for development activities.
Guiding Habitat Management for Caribou
Woodland caribou are sensitive to development. They winter in low elevation pine and spruce forests often targeted for forestry and other human activities. Many herds in the boreal plains east of the Rocky Mountains have declined due to human impacts. WCS aims to refine the scientific understanding of thresholds of human activity at which boreal caribou herds can survive to guide habitat management for herds in the Northern Boreal Mountains.
Mapping Resilient Geographies
In collaboration with academics in the Boreal Ecosystems Analysis of Conservation Networks (BEACONs) team as well as First Nations, WCS takes a wide, bird’s-eye view of the Yukon to identify large, intact areas that accommodate natural disturbance regimes, key wildlife habitats, ecosystem representation, and watershed connectivity, providing the “ecological benchmarks” to frame land protection.