Straddling the boundary of British Columbia and Yukon, our Northern Boreal Mountains site covers a remarkably diverse and ecologically rich area, including a large salmon-bearing river, magnificently clean lakes, large wetlands, grasslands, boreal and subalpine forests, and tundra. These wildlife-rich areas provide subsistence foods to spiritual sustenance for people locally, nationally, and internationally.
The winters of the Northern Boreal Mountains are long and cold and the summers are short. Melting winter snows fill the rivers and streams in spring. The valley bottoms provide some of the richest and most productive habitats where most of the regions lakes, wetlands, and rivers are found. The forests in the valleys are lodgepole pine and white spruce, with pockets of old growth found along rivers and streams where the forests have escaped fire for over a hundred years. With increasing altitude, the area changes to open woodlands, subalpine shrubs and finally to the sparse vegetation of the higher alpine areas.
Wildlife of the region includes gray wolf, wolverine, Canada lynx, river otter, grizzly and black bear. It also abounds with their prey, which includes 20 herd of northern mountain caribou, most of the world’s population of Stone’s sheep, Dall’s sheep, moose, elk, bison, mountain goat, beaver, and snowshoe hare, whose 8-11 year population cycle drives the food web of the boreal forest. Wildlife found in the region’s alpine areas includes brown lemmings, pikas, hoary marmots, ptarmigan and grizzly bears. The Yukon River and its tributaries support a strong Pacific salmon run that supplies food for river otter, bears, and bald eagles, as well as people.
While only a handful of birds are resident here year-round, more than 150 species use the region’s diverse habitats during migration or for breeding. This landscape is a part of a major migration corridor. Several large lakes and wetlands are critical resting and refuelling stops for waterfowl, geese and swans migrating to and from the Arctic where they breed. Songbirds, like Wilson’s Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush, winter as far away as Central and South America only to undertake the long migration to breed in the region’s lowland forests, where they feed on the abundant insects of a boreal summer.
This large region is also home to 14 First Nations, including 7 whose Traditional Territories cross the boundaries between British Columbia, Yukon, and Northwest Territory. An umbrella land claim agreement has been signed by 14 of Yukon’s First Nations and the federal government; 11 First Nations have negotiated land claims and self-government agreements. First Nations with settled land claims own parcels of land, which include rights to sub-surface minerals. Outside First Nation Settlement Lands and protected areas, the great majority of land and water in this region is public and is managed by federal, territorial, and provincial governments. Future management of these public lands is a key concern. In addition to supporting high quality wildlife habitats and healthy wildlife populations, they also provide important services for the people of this region, including clean water, subsistence foods (mammal, bird and fish protein, and edible plants), medicines, soil for growing crops, and wood for heating, building, and woodwork.
- Total Area = 419,552 km2
- Population = ~32,000 of which >80% reside in Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse
- Existing Protected Areas:
- Federal: 1 National Parks and 1 National Wildlife Area
- Yukon: 4 Territorial Parks and 8 Habitat Protection Areas (existing and in progress)
- BC: 25+ Provincial Parks and 30+ Recreation Areas, Ecological Reserves, Protected Areas, and Conservation Study Areas.
- Species-At-Risk: The NBM supports healthy populations of wildlife and fish listed as threatened or ofspecial concern by Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, including 4 mammal species (wood bison, caribou, grizzly bear, and wolverine), six bird species (short-eared owl, olive-sided flycatcher, common nighthawk, rusty blackbird, and peregrine falcon).
Many parts of this region are regarded as pristine wilderness. But look a little closer and there is mining, oil and gas extraction, agriculture, and forestry all of which require roads and trails, and bring people deeper into wilderness areas threatening some of its richest wildlife habitats.
The Yukon may be best known for the Klondike gold rush of the late 19th century, but its vast mineral resources place it on the edge of a mining boom and companies and individuals are rushing to stake their claim. This region hosts significant deposits of copper, lead, tungsten, zinc, silver, iron ore, and placer gold. New mines bring new roads into wilderness areas, providing increased access for hunters and recreationists. The proposed Alaska Highway Pipeline will cut through this region carrying natural gas from Alaska to Alberta.
There is limited economic potential for large-scale forestry and agriculture in this region. However, harvest for firewood and local manufacture is considerable in southern Yukon. And, increasingly Yukon residents are demanding local agricultural products. These activities concentrate in the valley bottoms where they compete with key wildlife habitats and corridors.
Many people are drawn to this vast landscape for its backcountry recreation opportunities. However, there is increasing public concern about snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle activity off trails and in sensitive habitats, such as wetlands and alpine areas.
These challenges to wildlife and ecosystems are complicated by a climate that is changing more rapidly in the NBM than many other places globally. Temperatures are generally warmer, especially in late winter and spring, but record cold has been recorded in some months. Some regions are receiving more snowfall, resulting in unprecedented flooding. Fire frequency seems to be increasing in some places, and there is evidence that some forest types, such as white spruce, will not regenerate. Wildlife faced with habitat loss due to human activity are now also faced with adapting to a changing climate and ecosystem.
Our vision for the Northern Boreal Mountains is a region in which wildlife and ecological processes continue to thrive, or adapt as a result of forward-looking land use planning and management, and wise use, based on solid scientific information.
To realize this vision, WCS Canada is engaging in work that will address widespread conservation challenges and opportunities across this large piece of geography. Our work will be precedent-setting, in that it will bring a novel view of the world through analysis or synthesis, and empowering, in terms of being a useful tool for agencies with the power to make decisions.
In 2009, we completed a Strategic Conservation Assessment, a document that provides direction for selecting institutional partners, research topics, and conservation agendas. Major opportunities for addressing conservation challenges will be found in land-use planning and forest management planning processes and by partnering with federal, territorial, provincial, and First Nations governments. First Nations governments, in particular, are keen for our help in building scientific arguments to guide land-use planning and to help resolve day-to-day land-use issues.
In the Northern Boreal Mountains WCS Canada is working to address:
- Land Use Disposition – The current approach to land use disposition is piece-meal, based largely on a first-come, first-served basis through the free entry staking and agricultural land application process. Upcoming forest management and land use planning processes will facilitate a more strategic approach, including consideration of wildlife values. Through strategic partnering with First Nations and the Territorial Government, we are bringing new analysis and synthesis to these planning processes. We are engaging in efforts to map key wildlife habitats and corridors. And, we are using novel tools to assess the extent of the human footprint and it’s impact on wildlife habitats across this region.
- Valley Bottoms, Riparian, and Wetland Habitats – Wildlife faces its biggest threats in the loss of valley bottom, riparian, and wetland habitats. We are conducting new field research regarding how wildlife use and rely on valley bottom and riparian habitats. We will use our new knowledge to develop best management practices for these habitats and will work with our government partners to implement these practices in areas developed for forestry and agriculture.
- Climate Change – The risk of climate change to conservation actions will pervade all our activities. We consider it as a dominant factor in our decision about what and where we choose to work.