Liard River Floodplain., Hilary Cooke
Liard River Floodplain. © Hilary Cooke

Boreal

Canada's boreal is one of the most important areas of intact forest and wetlands left in the world.  

Boreal forests and wetlands wrap across Canada’s central and northern expanses like a green blanket, and represent one of the most important areas of intact forest and wetlands left in the world.

Why Canada's boreal matters

Canada's boreal forest is the second biggest expanse of continuous intact forests on Earth.

Diverse ecosystems

This massive area contains the third-largest wetland in the world, the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Starting about 300km north of Thunder Bay, and stretching all the way to the shores of Hudson and James Bay, Ontario's northern boreal has seen little of the industrial resource development and urban settlement that has transformed areas to the south.

Peatlands comprise 12% of Canada’s land area, with almost all of this area located in boreal ecosystems. Peatlands are known to store a huge amount of carbon through the accumulation of thick organic soil layers. A significant block of intact forest and peatlands is located in Ontario and Québec, almost entirely within areas not currently allocated for forestry.

Running from northern British Columbia into southern Yukon, the Northern Boreal Mountains area is a magnificent rugged and remote region 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. These valleys also have ecologically valuable pockets of old-growth forest especially along gravel-bed river floodplains.

Home to people

The boreal of northern Ontario is a homeland for Anishnaabeg and Ininiw; many of whom currently live in 31 remote communities established under Treaty No. 9.

The Yukon, Taku, Stikine, and Alsek Rivers support Pacific salmon runs that sustain river otters, bald eagles, and humans, including some of the 14 First Nations whose Traditional Territories lie in this approximately 419,000 km2 region.

Home to wildlife

The boreal of northern Ontario offer an important refuge in the province for wildlife such as caribou and wolverine, because they can find the kind of undisturbed forests that they need for survival.

The northern boreal mountains boast some of the last remaining intact wildlife communities 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 mountain caribou, thinhorn sheep, moose, elk, wood bison, mountain goat, beavers, and snowshoe hare. Northern Boreal Mountain lakes provide critical refuelling stops for waterfowl and shorebirds migrating to and from nesting grounds in the Arctic, and songbirds that winter as far away as South America breed in the region’s lowland forests and wetlands.

Challenges

Mining in the Ring of Fire

  • There is growing interest in driving resource development in this globally unique region, particularly to exploit the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich crescent about 400 km northeast of Thunder Bay. Extracting ore from the Ring of Fire will require building roads and transmission lines through areas that are currently wild forests, lakes, and wetlands, and crossing dozens of rivers and streams.

Fragmentation

  • Punching roads and utility corridors through intact areas will lead to a cascading series of ecological and social impacts. We know that roads lead to more roads, and more activity in the forest, from mineral exploration to motorized recreation. For caribou and other wildlife, more roads also mean more access for predators, and more threats from humans, a recipe that has led to the disappearance of these animals in areas further south. Habitat changes brought about by forestry and mining will also affect wildlife survival.

Climate change

  • Climate change is happening fastest at northern latitudes, meaning wildlife are already seeing disruption ranging from more intense fires to warmer waters.

Our solutions

Holistic planning

  • To protect the integrity of this globally important area, we need to look at the big picture of how and where to accommodate resource development while sustaining the wild character of the region.
  • We are advocating approaches such as Regional Strategic Assessments that can be used to better understand the combined impact of roads, forestry, mines, and climate change on the region before we make decisions about individual development projects.

Working with Indigenous communities

  • We're developing knowledge by supporting community-based monitoring programs and co-developing research studies.
  • We're engaging governments and First Nations in proactive planning to protect key areas and critical habitats to ensure wildlife populations remain healthy, particularly in the face of a changing climate.

Innovative science for better policy

  • Because of the vast size of northern Ontario – the far northern part of the province is as far from Toronto as Florida, and is only accessible by air or winter ice roads – we have developed innovative approaches to everything from tracking wolverines to assessing the potential impacts of climate change on fish, so that we can create a more informed picture of what is at stake before development decisions are made.
  • Across the Boreal Mountains of the Yukon, we used novel computer modelling tools developed by the BEACONs project to identify large, intact areas that can accommodate natural disturbance regimes, key wildlife habitats, ecosystem representation, and watershed connectivity, providing the “ecological benchmarks” to frame land protection.
  • In southern Yukon, we have tracked otters over ice and land to map critical pathways for protection across the landscape.In the Tintina Trench migratory flyway, we are tracking birds to identify critical sites and habitats in need of protection.
  • In the mountainous Muskwa-Kechika area of northern BC, we are doing field research to help identify key habitats and wildlife populations to enhance previous conservation-based land-use planning in order to better protect the region’s wild character in the face of increased oil-and-gas development.

Wildlife

Programs and initiatives

Projects

Identifying key wolverine habitat

Identifying key wolverine habitat

We're surveying wolverine populations in northern Ontario to create a clearer picture of where wolverine are – and aren’t.

Ring of Fire

Ring of Fire

More than minerals at stake

Learning from Lake Sturgeon

Learning from Lake Sturgeon

Big fish need healthy rivers.

Yukon Climate Change

Yukon Climate Change

Why we need to plan for a changing climate and landscape

Resources


Stories and op-eds

New insights into an ancient fish
2024-05-09

New insights into an ancient fish

Known as namew in Ililîmowin (the Moose Cree dialect), lake sturgeon in English: these are the largest freshwater fish in Canada.
Claire Farrell
More than minerals at stake in Ontario’s claim-staking boom
2023-12-19

More than minerals at stake in Ontario’s claim-staking boom

With a click of a mouse, mining interests have laid claim to more than 72,000 square kilometres of land in northern Ontario over the last five years.
Constance O'Connor
After burn: The new face of fire puts wildlife on the hot seat
2023-11-01

After burn: The new face of fire puts wildlife on the hot seat

How Canada’s wildlife is struggling to cope with the human-induced forcings of climate change
Justina Ray, Hilary Cooke

Media coverage

Monitoring birds in reclaimed placer mine sites in the Yukon

A research project in the Yukon is using birds to signal health returning to reclaimed mine sites. Morgan Brown with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and the University of Alberta explains.
2024-04-03 | CBC

Peatlands are the climate bomb waiting to explode

The destruction of peatlands can cause billions of tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, worsening the already intensifying climate crisis
2023-08-28 | The Week

Our team

Justina Ray

Justina Ray

President & Senior Scientist

Cheryl Chetkiewicz

Cheryl Chetkiewicz

Director, Indigenous Communities and Conservation

Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle

Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle

Co-Director, Northern Boreal Mountains Program

Hilary Cooke

Hilary Cooke

Co-Director, Northern Boreal Mountains Program

Christopher Addison

Christopher Addison

Indigenous-led Conservation Specialist

Constance O'Connor

Constance O'Connor

Director, Ontario Northern Boreal Program

Laura McCaw

Laura McCaw

Wolverine Research Associate

Matthew Scrafford

Matthew Scrafford

Wolverine Conservation Scientist

Lorna Harris

Lorna Harris

Director of Forests, Peatlands and Climate Change Program

Victoria Goodday

Victoria Goodday

Policy Analyst - Natural Climate Solutions

Lynn Palmer

Lynn Palmer

Forests and Regional Policy Specialist


Press releases

Ontario's Vision for Mineral Exploration and Mining: Renewing the Mineral Development Strategy
2015-07-09

Ontario's Vision for Mineral Exploration and Mining: Renewing the Mineral Development Strategy

Even though Ontario's mining sector has been in a downturn for the past two years, mining is still big business.