The Boreal is beluga habitat


On January 8, the province released a draft Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan that outlines threats to beluga habitat in western Hudson Bay and identifies opportunities to minimize these threats. Though one might intuit the necessity to control local pollution, boat traffic and hydro development, maintaining a healthy boreal forest offers a less obvious insurance policy to the security of the beluga habitat in question. 

Western Hudson Bay is home to the largest beluga population in the world; an estimated 57,000 (possibly much more) animals congregate during the summers in the estuaries of the Seal, Churchill and Nelson Rivers. Though the reasons are not entirely understood (one hypothesis poses the habitats are predation refuges) the estuaries have fulfilled a seasonal habitat need for these whales.

The waters that drain into these estuaries are sourced from roughly 1.4 million km2 of the North American landscape (about twice the size of Alberta). This immense swath of the continent contains regions of concentrated development (urban, industrial and agricultural) as well as large areas of boreal forest left largely unchanged by the last 100 years.

While the province rightly presses the federal government to step up efforts to protect the coastal estuaries, it must also honor its commitment to examine the need and opportunity for conservation of areas upstream, much of which fall within Manitoba provincial jurisdiction. The Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society participated in the Beluga Habitat Planning Committee responsible for advising on the plan and took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of ensuring the health of the lands that funnel their waters into these thriving beluga habitats. 

The plan identifies pollutants as the greatest concern to beluga habitat sustainability. This would include both local sources such as shipping waste discharge but also current and anticipated contaminants originating upstream.

‘What flows off of farm fields across the prairies or what may be contaminated by a faulty tailings pond or a fractured pipeline is the same water that eventually feeds these whale habitats’ says Ron Thiessen, Executive Director of the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. ‘Contamination could have incredibly detrimental impacts to these whales and their dense congregation in the summertime could make the population especially vulnerable ’. 

Conversely, waters that flow through and off of the vegetation and peat rich soils of healthy ecosystems like the northern Boreal forest also end up in these estuaries; nourishing these coastal areas with clean water and sediments as they have for thousands of years.

It’s a fact that has been diligently reinforced further south on Lake Winnipeg. Intact forest and wetland ecosystems provide both clean sources of water and filtration of contaminants from other upstream sources. Just like the lake, Belugas need a healthy upstream landscape.

With the three major rivers in question there is no shortage of ‘upstream’ to consider. The protection and wise management of the drainage areas of each of these rivers will ensure they remain a strong buffer against threats to beluga habitat rather than a part of the problem. One of these watersheds falls almost entirely within the jurisdiction of this province. It offers a unique opportunity for proactive beluga habitat management with incredible positive side effects for other species and the climate change battle.   

The Seal River watershed extends over 46,000 km2 (an area larger than Denmark) of the Boreal. This watershed is healthy, biologically diverse and thus far intact; largely untouched by industrial development.

It continues to support traditional land use practices undertaken by local Indigenous communities. Rare species, healthy populations of fish, bear, wolf and moose (a species seeing worrisome declines in other parts of the province)  and the wintering grounds for a barren ground caribou herd hundreds of thousands of animals strong all thrive in this watershed.

The carbon stored in its peat rich soils offers a significant buffer against the impacts of climate change (another habitat threat identified in the provincial plan). Though the health of this watershed has been preserved up to now with little formal protection, the steady northward movement of development will no doubt begin to change that. Planning for land use and land protection in this region, in partnership with affected communities can ensure its integrity is preserved.

The province has enthusiastically asserted that exploring protection in the Seal River ecosystem is a ‘key element’ of the Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan. The charismatic ‘canaries of the sea’ may just be the perfect ambassadors to motivate a holistic and proactive approach to habitat conservation in their region. I’m content if the survival of the ecological services and breathtaking inland diversity of a wild and thriving boreal landscape is merely a harmonious side effect. I think the caribou would be too. 

The draft Beluga Habitat Sustainability plan is available for public comment until March 7, 2016. View the plan and submit your submit feedback here.

This article is republished from it's original publication in the Winnipeg Free Press,  February 10, 2016.