North American Boreal Forests

Named after Boreas, the Greek god of the Cold North Wind and the Bringer of Winter, the boreal biome contains some of the most extensive, intact ecosystems on Earth. Stretching from Alaska through Northern Canada, the region's size, remoteness, and the diversity of landscapes found within it allow for an incredible array of wildlife, including caribou, wolverines, bison, hundreds of migratory bird species, and numerous types of freshwater fish. The North American Boreal is also the world's largest source of unfrozen freshwater, with millions of lakes and other bodies of water, and a huge storehouse of global carbon. Further, this biome is the homeland of many indigenous peoples whose history of survival here for thousands of years (since the last continental glaciation) can provide cultural and ethical lessons for the modern world.


This vast forest biome is of great interest for natural resource development. It has become a major global source of industrial wood and pulp. Large portions have been heavily exploited for hydrocarbons and have high mineral potential. Its great rivers are increasingly under threat of hydroelectric development and the construction of new mines is further fragmenting the forests. Over 30% of Canada’s boreal forest region has already been designated for logging, energy and other development. To date, only 8% of it is protected with a conservation designation.

Climate change is putting novel pressures on boreal ecosystems. Temperatures are warming more than in southern latitudes, forest fires are becoming more frequent, and there is a risk of the region becoming a source of carbon emissions rather than a sink.

Our Goal

The great natural legacy of this region demands greater protection, and improved planning to reduce the negative cumulative effects of diverse industrial developments, which could lead to increased threats in the future. Our goal is to provide boreal wildlife and ecosystems with a more robust and viable future than they currently face.

Photo Credit: ©Ken Abraham

How Will We Get There?

WCS will use its scientific research, understanding of indigenous communities, and scenario development to promote the preservation of large, intact, wild landscapes, to conserve critical habitats, to better integrate wildlife conservation into decision-making, and to publicize how cumulative human developments risk and inevitably foreclose a viable future for numerous boreal species.

WCS’s strategic approach in the region comprises three broad programs: Wild Places, Species Conservation, and Science for Impact.

Why WCS?

WCS is uniquely positioned to do this work in the boreal because our scientists have a deep understanding of the needs of the region's wildlife gained through decades of studies, we take a collaborative approach with indigenous peoples and governments, and we have considerable experience implementing influential conservation science and policy programs in the region since 2004.

Photo Credit: ©M. Pakila

What's at Stake?

.09 people per km2 in Ontario Northern Boreal

Ontario’s Northern Boreal Forest is three times the size of New York State, yet its human population is sparse—only .09 people per square kilometer (among them 39,000 Cree and Ojibway First Nations in 34 remote communities). It’s a stronghold for wide-ranging species at risk such as caribou, wolverine, and polar bears.

450,000+ km2 in Northern Boreal Mountains

Our region of interest covers about 459,900 square kilometers in the northern boreal mountains of southern Yukon and northern British Columbia. Human population density is similarly low, mostly residing in one urban center—Whitehorse, Yukon. Indigenous Tutchone, Tlingit, and Dene cultures and communities are strongly integrated in decision-making through self-government agreements and legal recognition of land title and harvesting rights. Diverse montane and forested ecosystems support populations of mountain caribou, grizzly bear, wolverine, migratory birds, and anadromous salmon.

On Our Strategies

Wild Places

The North American Boreal is one of the few remaining intact regions on the globe. Our vision is for it to remain the largest ecologically intact boreal landscape in the world, with thriving populations of iconic fish and wildlife species within ecologically dynamic landscapes.

We undertake regional analyses to identify the highest value intact landscapes and watersheds for protection based on representation of ecosystem and habitat diversity. We combine our own field science and the work of collaborators, including indigenous communities and government agencies, to understand where protected areas need to be located and how large they need to be for key species and for the valuable ecosystem services (e.g., subsistence foods, clean water, carbon storage) they provide, and to understand how climate change is affecting protected areas.

WCS has developed an enduring commitment to work with indigenous and other communities whose livelihoods and cultures depend on wild places and on sustainable harvests of fish and wildlife species. In collaboration with indigenous communities and other conservation interests, we engage in land use planning where new protected areas can be established, and we get involved in management planning for protected areas.

To stimulate improved conservation outside protected areas, we compile scientific syntheses that lead to principles, guidelines, and best management practices for specific ecosystems, habitats, or human activities that can put fish and wildlife at risk. In addition, we are involved in the development and review of policies and regulations pertaining to important wildlife species and their habitats. At a national scale, we monitor and act on opportunities arising from the commitments by Canada and the United States to targets of protected area establishment under the Convention on Biological Diversity, protected area management under the World Heritage Convention, and delivery of ecosystem services under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Species Conservation

We have developed significant expertise on key species in the region, including caribou, wolverine, bison, migratory birds, and freshwater fishes, enabling us to deliver conservation outcomes. We combine field science, with data modeling, often in collaboration with a suite of academic and government scientists, to better understand the spatial and temporal scales of species-specific movements and habitat needs, and the species’ behavioural and demographic responses to human activities.

Our aim is to understand and publicize the risks to wildlife inherent in industrial development (forestry, mining, and hydroelectric development) in the boreal, specifically the circumstances where the human footprint puts iconic species at risk of extirpation. Through our international policy team, and national initiatives, we monitor and engage in processes dealing with commitments by Canada and the United States under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Science for Impact

Our scientists are intent on converting their significant on-the-ground knowledge into action to deliver long-term protection for wildlife and wild places. We seek to ground decision-making in reliable and comprehensive evidence, including a clear understanding of regional threats, such as climate change. We do this through publications, various media, and direct engagement in numerous decision-making fora. We work with a variety of collaborators—in academia, government, and local communities—to stay current and affect change. We upgrade and improve our own understanding by adopting new tools and staying abreast of scientific developments. To maintain momentum in the uncovering and dissemination of new science, we mentor and train students and interns to be the next generation of conservation leaders.

Also, using various media, we provide windows into our research to educate the public on the value of biodiversity, and the value of protecting large intact landscapes. Our aim is to drive public support for action, and to create a new narrative around the social and economic benefits of ensuring strong conservation outcomes.

Read more:
WCS Canada


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