The boreal forest and lowlands of northern Ontario (north of 51 degrees latitude) comprise the most intact boreal forest in the world and cover an area the size of France. This area includes the Hudson Bay lowlands, one of the most expansive wetlands in the world. Abundant populations of caribou, wolverine, wolves, and Canada lynx live here, and its waters are home to myriad fish, such as sturgeon, walleye, and lake trout.
This remote stretch of Ontario remains largely undeveloped, although climate change is an important threat. Roughly 24,000 people live there, spread over 34 Cree, Ojibway, and Oji-Cree First Nations. These communities are trying to balance industrial economic opportunities with their traditional, cultural, and spiritual values.The future of the region will depend on conserving the land, water, and wildlife while managing resource development, including mining, logging, and energy projects.
Large-scale industrial development is creeping north in Ontario. Mining, logging, and hydroelectric projects—along with the building of all-weather roads and transmission features to facilitate access and energy supply to the region—will permanently alter the landscape. In addition, climate change poses serious threats in subarctic regions such as these. A warming climate has already affected freshwater lakes and rivers, with later freeze-ups, warming waters, and shorter periods of ice cover, impacting cold-water fish such as lake trout and brook trout. In southern Canada, both wolverine and caribou have declined as logging, oil and gas extraction, and road development have changed forests, and the same fate could await species in northern areas.
WCS is leading field research in the region while providing independent scientific advice through a number of key government policy processes. We have helped to develop endangered species legislation and provided input on government recovery plans for caribou and wolverine species. Our researchers are also sharing scientific knowledge about species and climate change with local communities as they begin land use planning in the region. WCS studies the status, distribution, and ecology of wildlife and fish in the Northern Ontario Boreal, including caribou, wolverine, lake sturgeon, and lake trout. WCS and its partners use the results of our work to inform land-use planning decisions and to help position conservation as a top priority.
Planning- Land Use and Environmental Assessment
WCS is using a cumulative effects simulation tool (ALCES) to examine how changes in natural land cover and human land uses (footprints) affect fish and wildlife populations and what the trade-offs may be given different development and conservation scenarios for the region. In addition, we are seeking to address the impacts of multiple developments and climate change on watersheds and to address thresholds for species survival, environmental assessment, and monitoring, particularly for caribou, wolverine, lake trout, and lake sturgeon. Through this work, WCS hopes to inform land use planning and decision-making.
Populations of forest-dwelling caribou have receded in the face of industrial forestry in Ontario. In northern Ontario, there is limited information on the status of the herds or populations. WCS is working to compare scientific information about where caribou were once found in Ontario with data on human-caused disturbances, including wildfires, logging, roads, and tourism infrastructure, to understand what level and types of disturbance caribou can tolerate.
Wolverines have a low tolerance for changes caused by industrial development, particularly roads, and they are affected by changes in snow pack. Previously, there was almost no information about the species in lowland boreal habitats like Ontario's northern boreal. We have gathered traditional knowledge from First Nations Elders and trappers about the wolverine in northern Ontario. We also conducted the first broad-scale aerial surveys of the species in this region. WCS partnered with scientists from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Wolverine Foundation on the first-ever radio-tracking study of these elusive carnivores in the vast swath of lowland boreal forests in northern Ontario. Results from this fieldwork have been used to support Ontario's recovery strategy for wolverine, including best management practices for preventing wolverine incidental harvest.
Freshwater Fish Conservation
The lakes and rivers in northern Ontario represent one of the largest areas of high fish biodiversity experiencing the least amount of human alteration. Five of the 12 remaining undammed and unregulated watersheds in North America south of 55 degrees latitude are in northern Ontario. WCS is focusing on understanding how coldwater fish like lake trout and brook trout respond to warmer temperatures due to climate change. We are also looking at ways to understand the impacts of dams on lake sturgeon populations and of fish stocking and climate change on smallmouth bass invasions using genetic analyses. Finally, we are examining how increased road access to previously remote lakes impacts fisheries. This information will help decision-makers consider the impacts of climate change and industrial development on the aquatic resources in the region.