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My Reflections on the Release of the "Birds at Risk" Report
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My Reflections on the Release of the "Birds at Risk" Report

  For over a year, I have worked with colleagues with National Resources Defence Council and Boreal Songbird Initiative on writing the Birds at Risk: The Importance of Canada’s Boreal Wetlands and Waterways. It is good to see it out in the public forum. Though I’ve lived most of the my life in southern Canada, I have spent considerable time in the boreal region, first as a Park Naturalist on Lake Superior, and afterwards as an atlasser for the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario – both in the early 1980s, and between 2001 and 2005, with the Quebec Breeding Bird Atlas in 1987, and a range of other trips both related to work and pleasure. I’ve learned that canoeing is the only viable means of getting around in the summer, that in the Hudson Bay lowlands, even with gloves, long sleeves and a bug net over my head, 64 black flies can bite me under my watch band in one day, that there can still be ice along some of the rivers in late June, and most importantly that the vast forests and river systems are not uninhabited, but rather part of the homelands of First Nations peoples. The bugs, the rapids and the sudden changes in temperature do not scare me . . . but the red tinted water escaping from the mine tailings empoundment, the sickly smell of herbicides from aerial spraying and the distant din of machines do.
I am one of those auditory birders – though I enjoy seeing birds, I love hearing them and find great satisfaction in knowing their voices. The sound scape of the boreal wetlands is unequal for drama and beauty. The Common Loon’s song is at the top of the most emotive and haunting sounds on earth. Add to this the melodic flute-like refrains of Hermit Thrushes, a cheery chorus of White-throated Sparrow, the staccato explosiveness of a Connecticut Warbler’s song, and the emphatic “Whip-three-beers” of the threatened Olive-sided Flycatcher, and you have, in my view, the perfect symphony.
Sadly, members of the orchestra are dropping out as pressures to exploit the rich resources of the boreal accelerate destruction and change, and climate change tightens its grip on these northern biomes.
As manager of bird conservation programs for Nature Canada, I know that part of our mission is to be a voice for nature, including the species that are being silenced. We hope that the messages from this report will be discussed, debated and inform decisions related to this precious biome. This is our chance as a country to make a difference for our children, and their children with our largest ecological contribution to the earth’s health, our boreal forest.

Nature Canada Responds to Release of Government Recovery Strategy for Threatened Boreal Woodland Caribou
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Nature Canada Responds to Release of Government Recovery Strategy for Threatened Boreal Woodland Caribou

caribou bull Wayne Sawchuck
Nature Canada issued the following statement in response to the release today of the federal government’s proposed strategy to recover Canada’s threatened boreal woodland caribou. “Nature Canada is pleased that the federal government has finally released its draft national recovery strategy for the threatened boreal woodland caribou. The majestic woodland caribou, nicknamed ‘grey ghosts’ for their shy, elusive nature, play a significant role within the forest ecosystem and are very important to many aboriginal communities.  Yet industrial activities in the caribou’s habitat have caused some herds to be critically endangered, and the rest are under increasing pressure. “This recovery strategy is an important step towards developing a concerted effort to prevent further declines in populations and rebuild the populations that have been decimated by human activities. It is unfortunate that this recovery strategy was not published before the statutory deadline in 2007, or before a new deadline was imposed by court order. It is important to recognize that this recovery strategy is just a step towards protecting and recovering caribou. Much more remains to be done to actually reduce the harm that is being done to caribou every day. “At first glance the strategy appears to include the key ingredients for success which Nature Canada has advocated for years, including an identification of the species’ critical habitat. We commend the many people who put in a lot of hard work to get this strategy to where it is today: scientists, public servants, and engaged stakeholders from industry and environmental organizations. Nature Canada will be reviewing the proposed strategy in detail over the next 60 days and working with government and other stakeholders to ensure Canada adopts a strong and effective strategy to ensure a return to vibrant woodland caribou populations across the country.” The Government’s proposed boreal woodland caribou recovery strategy is available online here. 

Major victory in Northwestern Ontario for nature and First Nations rights
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Major victory in Northwestern Ontario for nature and First Nations rights

Yesterday, the Ontario Superior Court made a very significant ruling that appears to be a major victory for nature and for First Nations communities in Northern Ontario. The essential point of the decision is Justice Mary-Anne Sanderson's declaration that the Ontario Government cannot take away the rights of the Grassy Narrows First Nation, as described in Treaty Three, by authorizing development including logging and mining. Grassy Narrows First Nation was among the first to suffer significantly from the effects of mercury poisoning when the English and Wabigoon River systems were polluted by a notorious Dryden pulp mill in the 1970s.In a press release by the Anishinaabe First Nation about the court decision yesterday, there was a call on the federal and provincial governments to "honour the spirit and intent of this decision by moving to eliminate clearcut logging in Grassy Narrows Traditional Territory and to develop a meaningful new approach to the management to this territory in partnership with Grassy Narrows."
For Nature Canada, this decision is very encouraging, and we hope that it begins a new era and approach in the north that puts the rights of First Nations, and the protection of their culture and the environment ahead of industrial development.
 

Red Knot Suffers Rapid Decline: Latest Report
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Red Knot Suffers Rapid Decline: Latest Report

A new draft report on the status of the Red Knot has been released -- and the news isn't good. Except for a slight increase seen in 2009, the number of rufa knots (an imperiled subspecies) wintering in Tierra del Fuego has been in decline for the last decade. This year's update reports one of the sharpest declines yet, from 16,260 birds in 2010 to now 9,850 – a nearly 40% loss. There's also apparently no evidence that horseshoe crab numbers are recovering; their eggs provide critical nutrition for knots as they refuel on the U.S. mid-Atlantic Coast en route to Arctic breeding grounds. The draft report is available here. The Red Knot is one of many bird species that stop over along the coasts of Hudson and James Bays before migrating south to destinations in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Protecting birds along their flyway – the route between breeding and wintering areas – is the cornerstone of global bird conservation. The health and integrity of these sites are important in maintaining stable and thriving populations of migratory birds. Engaging these northern communities is an important step toward protecting these birds. That's why Nature Canada's manager of bird conservation, Ted Cheskey, has travelled repeatedly in the past year to the region, where we're working with First Nations communities to find ways of protecting migratory birds that nest, breed and feed in Important Bird Areas in Cree homelands.

Review of Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Begins
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Review of Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Begins

Photo: Tom Middleton
On July 12, 2011, Nature Canada and BC Nature officially registered to participate as interveners in the environmental assessment review of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project. As interveners, Nature Canada and BC Nature will provide information on the impacts that the project could have on birds, bird habitat and terrestrial wildlife to a panel that will ultimately decide whether the project is in the public interest. As we've said here before, this tar sands shipping project poses unacceptable risks to the ecosystems and biodiversity of the Northern B.C. Coast. There are 28 Important Bird Areas in the Northern B.C. coast and the whole Queen Charlotte Straight is an extremely globally important area for marine birds, other marine animals and fish. This rich ecosystem would be exposed to oil pollution from increased tanker traffic and an impossible-to-rule-out oil spill. The pipeline will also fragment the pristine habitat of boreal birds and other wildlife, including Caribou and Grizzly Bears. Over the next year or so (assuming no delays) a Joint Review Panel (JRP) will examine the application submitted by Enbridge, as well as evidence and comments from First Nations, individuals, environmental organizations, and other interested persons regarding the project and its environmental impacts. There JRP will hold hearings starting in January 2012 to decide whether the project is in the public interest. The deadline to register as an intervener today, Thursday, July 14, but there are other ways you can  participate and comment. We hope that the Panel will not allow the project to proceed after considering the impact on wildlife and many other objections to the project, particularly from First Nations. But we're at least a year away from that decision with much work ahead. We will keep you posted!

Canada’s Boreal Forest – World’s Largest Water Source
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Canada’s Boreal Forest – World’s Largest Water Source

The Olive-sided Flycatcher, a boreal bird 
Yesterday, the Pew Environment Group released a report that said Canada’s boreal forest contains more unfrozen freshwater than any other ecosystem in the world and its protection should become a global priority. Released during the International Year of Forests and one week before World Water Day, the report brings attention to the need for provincial and federal governments to restrict industrial development in the world’s largest wetland habitat. Why should we care? The report, A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal Forest, the World’s Waterkeeper, compiles decades of research that shows the great environmental and economic value of the boreal forest, which:
  • Contains 25 percent of the planet's wetlands, millions of pristine lakes, and thousands of free-flowing rivers, totaling more than 197 million acres of surface freshwater.
  • Provides an estimated $700 billion value annually as a buffer against climate change and food and water shortages.
  • Offers the last refuges for many of the world's sea-run migratory fish, including half of the remaining populations of North American Atlantic salmon.
  • Maintains freshwater flows critical to forming Arctic sea ice, which cools the atmosphere and supports marine life, from sea algae to polar bears.
  • Stores more than 400 trillion pounds of carbon in lakes and river delta sediment, peatlands and wetlands–more than any other terrestrial source in the world.
The report concludes by recommending that governments protect at least 50% of the boreal forest by preserving entire river, lake and wetland ecosystems and restates Pew’s support for the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework. In addition, the report recommends:
  • Mining legislation must be reformed to require aboriginal consultation and improve habitat protection and water quality.
  • New hydroelectric facilities should not be approved unless it can be proved there will be minimal impact on ecosystems and there has been a comprehensive environmental review.
  • Canada should follow Manitoba’s lead and develop a national peatlands stewardship strategy.
  • The Mackenzie Basin Agreement, which links land-use policies in several provinces and territories aimed at preserving the watershed, should be fully implemented.
Nature Canada supports the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, an alliance of conservation groups, First Nations, and leading Canadian companies whose aim is to protect 50% of the region and support sustainable practices in local communities. To date, it has resulted in the protection of more than 12% of the boreal forest. As a country, Canada has made good progress in protecting parts of the boreal forest. Not only is the boreal forest a globally important source of fresh water, it is the nesting ground for over 300 different species of birds – for many of these species it is their only nesting place. As North America's Bird Nursery, the boreal forest is the summer breeding ground for over 300 species of our most treasured birds, including the rapidly declining Rusty Blackbird and Olive-sided Flycatcher, and home to the some of the planet's largest populations of wolves, and woodland caribou.   Photo credit: Mark Peck

Bringing the World’s Forests Into Focus: 2011 International Year of Forests
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Bringing the World’s Forests Into Focus: 2011 International Year of Forests

In an effort to raise awareness on the sustainable development and management of forests, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. Why are forests important enough to warrant a  global campaign? Quite simply, the world’s forests are essential to life on this planet. For starters, the majority of the earth’s biodiversity lives in forests. Since Canada is home to 10% of the world’s forests – forests cover half the Canadian landscape – we have a key role to play in the global effort to conserve and sustainably manage forests. As the “lungs of the earth”, forests absorb carbon dioxide, reducing the effects of climate change. Among other things, forests provide wildlife with a place to live, reduce sedimentation and regulate flooding, and help people reduce their energy consumption by shading buildings and screening winds. To celebrate International Year of Forests, Nature Canada and other conservation groups will be promoting dialogue on forests and engaging people in forest activities. We’ll be following all things related to International Year of Forests on Twitter and Facebook, and providing interesting forest facts and forest ecosystem profiles on our Nature Canada blog throughout the year. We're already involved in conserving and restoring forest ecosystems in Canada, particularly in the Boreal Forest. At 1.3 billion acres, the Canadian Boreal Forest is one of the largest intact forest and wetland ecosystems remaining on earth. We support the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, an alliance of conservation groups, First Nations, and leading Canadian companies whose aim is to protect 50% of the region and support sustainable practices in local communities. To that end, Nature Canada worked with First Nations and governments at all three levels to establish the Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve, which was announced in February 2010. This Park Reserve, along with an adjacent provincial park, caps a 15-year effort and will protect roughly 13,000 km2 of boreal forest habitat. The permanent protection of such a large area of boreal forest ensures at-risk species like the woodland caribou and the harlequin duck have the habitat they need to survive. We're continuing to participate in discussions about the final park boundaries to ensure that wildlife is protected. As the boreal forest extends as far north as the Northwest Territories, so have our conservation efforts. We are working to protect the Edéhzhíe National Wildlife Area by advocating for the reinstatement of interim protection for Edéhzhíe's subsurface lands. We're also working with James Bay Cree to protect migratory birds of the Ontario and Quebec boreal region, by identifying shared conservation priorities around birds and Important Bird Areas. It's a natural relationship, since we share a common interest with many of the communities in protecting these areas - the habitat and ecosystem conservation that we are seeking acts to conserve an important part of their culture. Protecting and monitoring Important Bird Areas is the cornerstone of bird conservation in forest ecosystems like those in the James Bay region. We have also worked to protect critical forest habitat for endangered species, such as the Woodland caribou. Since leading a coalition of groups who worked to establish Canada’s Species at Risk Act, we've been hard at work ensuring that wildlife protection laws are fully in effect. Beyond our national boundaries, we've extended our reach to include a project in Haiti that provides an incentive – free education for elementary-school-aged children – for communities in the Macaya National Park to adopt sustainable forest management practices. In this way, the school offered hope for 300 girls and boys while providing incentives to relieve pressure on important habitat for Canadian migratory birds like the Bicknell’s Thrush. For its part, the UN is providing a series of communications initiatives and materials, which include a website, logo, film and art competitions, exhibits and promotional multimedia projects. Its goal, among others, is to “Promote observance of the Year not as an isolated event but as part of a continuing process of advocacy and partnership to foster greater awareness and action towards sustainable forest management at all levels.” Forests are important around the world. Here are a few reasons why:
  • 30% of forests are used for production of wood and non-wood products.
  • Forests cover 31% of total land area.
  • The livelihoods of over 1.6 billion people depend on forests.
  • Primary forests account for 36% of forest area.
  • Trade in forest products was estimated at $327 billion in 2004.
  • Forests are home to 300 million people around the world.
  • Forests are home to 80% of our terrestrial biodiversity.

Do Canadians want protected ‘National Mining Areas’ instead of National Wildlife Areas?
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Do Canadians want protected ‘National Mining Areas’ instead of National Wildlife Areas?

On Friday, October 29th, the federal government made an unexpected decision to permit mineral exploration in a highly anticipated protected area in the NWT. The 14,250 km-squared area west of Great Slave Lake is called Edéhzhíe (Horn Plateau) and is slated to soon become a National Wildlife Area (NWA). Perhaps the federal government instead wishes to designate a protected National Mining Area... Edéhzhíe is both culturally and ecologically significant for the Dehcho and Tłįcho peoples, and is enshrined in Dene tradition and spirituality. The Horn Plateau is an important wetland stop-over along the Central and Mississippi migratory flyways, and is not surprisingly home to the Mills Lake Important Bird Area (IBA), known for globally significant numbers of Tundra Swan and other waterfowl, and continentally significant numbers of Greater White-fronted Goose. Edéhzhíe also provides habitats for several ‘at-risk’ species including boreal woodland caribou, wood bison and wolverine. It is known as a “food basket” in times of need within surrounding Mackenzie Valley communities. Despite its rich natural and cultural heritage, Friday’s decision marks a significant policy reversal - one that opens up Edéhzhíe’s subsurface to mining and oil & gas industry interests. This ultimately poses a threat to the ecological integrity of important lakes and wetlands and boreal forest habitats in this region. This surprising decision overturns a formal request by the Grand Chiefs of the Dehcho First Nation and Tłįchǫ Government that Environment Minister Jim Prentice designate the Edéhzhíe NWA and permanently protect the subsurface lands beneath it. Friday’s decision also ignores recommendations for the same surface/subsurface protections made in a 2009 report by the Edéhzhíe Candidate Protected Area Working Group. That Working Group consulted widely with stakeholders on options for the area, as part of the multi-stakeholder NWT Protected Areas Strategy. The 2009 report was submitted to the Dehcho First Nation, the Tłįchǫ Government and Environment Canada, the federal department responsible for establishing and overseeing NWAs. Nature Canada is very disappointed with the federal government’s decision on Edéhzhíe, which was made just two days before interim government protections on both the surface and subsurface lands of Edéhzhíe were about to expire - after more than a decade of being retained. The decision was recommended by Minister John Duncan of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC; PC number 2010-1360), the federal department holding significant jurisdiction over resource management and social and economic development north of 60°. It should be noted that Minister Duncan's decision on Edéhzhíe was made indirectly: he recommended that only surface land withdrawals be 'renewed' for the area, instead of rights to both surface and subsurface lands. It's easy to get lost in the details. It's worth noting here that in 2009 the Edéhzhíe Working Group recommended a final boundary for the NWA that was 57% of the original 25,000 km-squared study area. The excluded portions represent most of the areas of significant lead/zinc and gas potential within the study area. A 2009 mining industry newsletter laments that even this reduced boundary is too restrictive and prevents the industry from understanding the “true resource potential” of the area, particularly that of diamonds. Interestingly, the 2008 socio-economic assessment of the Edéhzhíe Candidate Protected Area, done by AMEC consultants for INAC, suggests it would be 10-20 years before any non-renewable resource developments could be operational in the area. Nature Canada's disappointment in the government's Edéhzhíe decision stems from three points: First, there are clear legislative options to protect both the surface and subsurface lands of Edéhzhíe through an NWA designation combined with an Order in Council (under the Territorial Lands Act). This is what many conservation groups and the Dehcho First Nation and Tłįchǫ Government want. The Canada Wildlife Act gives the Minister of Environment authority to establish and manage NWAs across Canada, but does not protect subsurface lands beneath those NWAs. This is a serious weakness of the Act and currently makes NWAs the ‘poor cousins’ of more strictly protected areas like National Parks. Minister Duncan’s inaction with respect to protecting Edéhzhíe's subsurface suggests that INAC is not willing to support options that respect the wishes of key stakeholders. More importantly, this surprising situation suggests that INAC is not comfortable communicating its true intent to stakeholders of the Edéhzhíe NWA. Second, this decision has very serious implications for the entire network of 54 NWAs across Canada. This is the first time the federal government has 'opened' a proposed or existing NWA to industrial development. It sends a clear message that NWAs are not off-limits to subsurface resource extraction, regardless of what local stakeholders, First Nations governments and Canadians say about how these areas should be managed and safeguarded over time. While Nature Canada awaits the federal government’s final decision on Cenovus’s proposal to drill 1,275 gas wells inside the CFB Suffield NWA, we are dismayed that the writing may already be on the wall. This is even more concerning given the presence of nationally endangered species in the grasslands of Suffield NWA. Friday’s decision also raises important questions about national parks that are potentially threatened by resource extraction within or just beyond their borders, such as the recently announced Sable Island National Park or the proposed Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve. Third, we expected the federal government to respect the wishes of First Nations governments and the 2009 recommendations of the Edéhzhíe Working Group. We now question the government’s commitment to listen to First Nations and Aboriginal organizations and other stakeholders during future NWA designations through the NWT Protected Areas Strategy. This is particularly worrisome given that local communities in the NWT have shown support for subsurface protection in other candidate NWAs. While Friday’s decision opens the Horn Plateau’s subsurface to mining activity, interim protections on Edéhzhíe’s surface lands have been renewed until October 31, 2012. Please check back to follow Nature Canada's unfolding response to this story. The NWT Protected Area Strategy hosts an on-line album of Edéhzhíe photos you can view here. Photo 1: Mackenzie Valley, Jeff Wells Photo 2: Boreal Chickadee, Jeff Nadler Photo 3: Migrating Snow Geese, Stewart Marshall, Flickr

Our last "official" word on the Mackenzie Gas Project
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Our last "official" word on the Mackenzie Gas Project

Nature Canada has been involved in the review of the Mackenzie Gas Project since 2005. Last week, we made our last official intervention by submitting comments on the Joint Review Panel (JRP) recommendations to the National Energy Board (NEB) and the federal and territorial governments. The JRP concluded the Mackenzie Gas Project could be carried out without major negative impacts if all of its 176 recommendations were fully implemented. I've commented before on the huge challenge of implementing the Panel's recommendations. However, if the National Energy Board determines the project is in the public interest and decides to approve it, the NEB and governments should take every measure to ensure all the JRP recommendations are indeed implemented fully. This is the essence of our comments to the NEB and the territorial and federal governments, which also include specific comments and recommendations relating to protected areas, Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and the Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary. We also argue against the Proponents' recommendations that the NEB ignore a large part of the JRP recommendations. This would undermine the approach of sustainability that the region has chosen for its development. The Proponents show deep disregard of the JRP's efforts to ensure this basin-opening project is the foundation of the sustainable development of the region. Given this lack of commitment to sustainability, I can't imagine it could be in the public interest for the Mackenzie Gas Project to proceed. There's too much at stake. Another show of disregard for sustainability came yesterday from the new Minister of Natural Resources, Christian Paradis. While acknowledging that he has a lot to learn still, he pointed to the Mackenzie Gas Project review as an example of the "red tape" he means to eliminate to facilitate industrial development projects. He also said he believes in balancing the environment with the economy. Perhaps among the things he has yet to learn is that there is no economy without the environment; and that if sustainable industrial development can be achieved it is only through, among many other things, careful assessment and planning. And yes, this takes time and it is not easy. There is too much at stake. The NEB is considering a motion by Alternatives North for an economic update from the Proponents. If the NEB rules in favour of this motion, the hearings for final argument currently scheduled for April 2010, will likely be postponed. Why does the Mackenzie Gas Project threaten the integrity of the Mackenzie valley?

IBAs officially protected in Canada’s newest national park!
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IBAs officially protected in Canada’s newest national park!

Wow, what an exciting Friday! Today's announcement of a new national park and waterway provincial park is a great step for boreal forest conservation in Labrador - and across Canada! As Katherine blogged earlier, these new protected areas are the culmination of efforts by many, many organizations and individuals over a long period - some for more than 30 years. Despite what you might think, this announcement is for the birds... It really is. We have reports that several important bird areas (IBAs) in the Mealy Mountains region have been included in the final boundary for the protected areas. This will help to protect important breeding, staging, moulting and feeding habitats for a number of waterfowl species, including the Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Eider, Harlequin Duck, Surf Scoter and more. We'll give you specific names and locations of the newly protected IBAs as soon as Parks Canada releases an electronic version of the map to the on-line community. Breeding boreal landbirds will also benefit greatly from the new protected areas. Species such as Peregrine Falcon (threatened), Rusty Blackbird (special concern) , Olive-sided Flycatcher (threatened, no SARA status yet) and Wilson's Warbler will each benefit from the expansive mosaic of wetlands, open tundra and old-growth forests safeguarded against development by the forthcoming protected areas. So there you have it, today's announcement really is for the birds! All of us at Nature Canada once again congratulate federal Minister of Environment, Jim Prentice, and Newfoundland & Labrador Minister of Environment and Conservation, Charlene Johnson, for pledging to protect such a large area of pristine boreal forest. Canadians from coast, to coast, to coast are no doubt overjoyed by the news; a 2008 poll conducted for the Canadian Boreal Initiative found that 91% of Canadians want governments to do more to protect our nation's boreal forest. Let's keep our fingers crossed for more wonderful conservation announcements like this throughout this International Year of Biodiversity! Yours in conservation, Alex Photos: Harlequin Duck and Peregrine Falcon, both by Larry Kirtley

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