Northern Boreal Mountains

Northern Boreal Mountains Photo
The Canadian Boreal Forest stores about 186 billion tons of carbon in its forests and peat substrate, roughly the equivalent of 27 years worth of global carbon emissions.
©Justina Ray

A magnificent coastal chain, the Northern Boreal Mountains run from the western United States north through Canada’s British Columbia and Yukon. The mountains encompass remarkably diverse ecosystems, including continental boreal, subarctic taiga, and humid subalpine forests. Wetlands and lakes, some fed by glaciers, abound in the valley floors, and alpine tundra adds to the mix of habitats.

This relatively young set of ecosystems was born during the retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers 10,000 years ago. Today, forest and mountain predators like gray wolf, wolverine, Canada lynx, river otter, grizzly bear, and black bear prowl through the region. It also abounds with their prey, which includes 20 herds 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. The world’s longest salmon migration, up the Yukon River through Alaska, culminates in spawning streams in northern British Columbia and southern Yukon. The forest ecology is driven by summer wildfires that cyclically create new habitats for some wildlife and remove habitat for others. Long winters are punctuated by short growing seasons during which the abundance of forage, and consequently of herbivores, varies with changes in the flow of moist Pacific air over the mountains.

The region is home to Han, Tutchone, Kaska, Tlingit, and Tahltan First Nations peoples who live in at least 20 settlements. They rely heavily on wild game, fish, berries, and herbal medicines in a subsistence economy, supplemented by a cash economy derived from fur-trapping, guided hunts, and ecotourism.

Fast Facts

  • This region covers more than 103,000 acres, nearly twice the size of the United Kingdom.
  • The human population is approximately 35,000, with most people living in the greater Whitehorse city area.
  • The landscape is home to fairly healthy populations of four mammal species (wood bison, caribou, grizzly bear, and wolverine), six bird species (including the short-eared owl), one amphibian species, and two fish species listed as threatened or of special concern by Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife.


Although most of this landscape is wilderness, there is a fairly extensive network of roads and trails. Many of the roads resulted from mineral exploration during the 1900s, and some are First Nations travel routes. The Alaska Highway is the main route linking Alaska to the rest of the continent. The proposed Alaska Highway natural gas pipeline will likely follow a parallel course. New roads to access proposed mines are planned. All-terrain vehicles are readily affordable to many and encourage use of rudimentary roads and trails. There is a pressing need for controls on vehicle traffic on new roads and in heavily used areas.

The economy depends in large part on the influx of food, goods, and energy (petroleum products) from the south and cannot be sustained by the harvest of wildlife. With rising transportation costs and heightened economic uncertainty, local communities have a greater need for local agricultural food production, are using more wood for heating, and are taking up more jobs in the resource extraction industries. First Nations communities are the fastest growing groups in Canada, and the people need employment. Unfortunately, the pursuit of economic activities will place wildlife and wild habitats at risk, especially animal populations close to settlements and along valley bottoms where most development occurs.

Relative to other parts of the globe, the climate in this landscape is changing quickly. 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 concern that certain forest types will not regenerate.

WCS Responds

In 2009, we completed a Strategic Conservation Assessment, which provides direction for selecting institutional partners, research topics, and conservation agendas. First Nations governments are keen for our help in building scientific arguments to guide land-use planning, forest management planning, and to help resolve day-to-day land-use issues. Our priority is to construct habitat suitability maps for key wildlife species, demonstrating habitat needs and potential conflicts with other land uses. These maps will also help to identify new protected areas.

Protecting wetlands and riparian areas is crucial to our mission. These habitats support a unique array of plants and wild animals—including important fish stocks—in the larger landscape, and are frequently where people want to live and recreate. We are working with various government and non-governmental organizations to produce a set of best practices for managing these habitats that can be used by decision-makers in the agricultural, forestry, and residential sectors.

We are also helping to develop regional climate models to understand risks to various portions of the landscape. Our researcher look at the historical role of natural disturbances—such as wild fires, insect infestations, and beavers—on a landscape, and study how this may be changing. Our goal is to help maintain connectivity of habitats and the seasonal migrations of wildlife.

From the Newsroom

The Buffalo has Earned Recognition as our National MammalAugust 3, 2012

WCS has been leading bison conservation efforts since 1905, when William Hornaday co-founded the American Bison Society with Theodore Roosevelt. In addition to supporting bison and the landscapes they roam, WCS has joined efforts to craft the National Bison Legacy Act--Congressional legislation that would designate bison as our country's national mammal. 

Senators Seek to Name Bison 'National Mammal'May 25, 2012

In concert with the introduction of the National Bison Legacy Act in the U.S. Senate, WCS and its partners have launched a campaign to make the American bison our national mammal.

Reindeer Are Fading into Holiday MythDecember 25, 2011

Executive director of WCS-Canada Justina Ray discusses how changes to the landscape and climate of the far north affect its iconic caribou herds, and what we can do to safeguard these beloved Yuletide symbols.

Rudolph’s Real-World TroublesDecember 15, 2011

WCS and Canada’s Earth Rangers join forces to protect woodland caribou. WCS conducts scientific research on caribou, which are threatened by development of their home in the far north.

The Eagles Have LandedFebruary 15, 2011

Two injured bald eagles find a new home at the WCS Bronx Zoo. These young birds from Wyoming add to the growing ranks of this once-endangered species now making a comeback in New York.

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