Northern shorebirds conservation strategy

Environment and Climate Change Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), as the federal wildlife agency, has the lead responsibility for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Traditionally, bird conservation focused on species that were hunted or otherwise of direct use to humans. Increasingly, however, conservation efforts have also been directed toward non-hunted birds. Shorebirds (plovers, sandpipers, and associated species) fall into this category and are addressed by this Strategy, which will guide CWS efforts in maintaining the diversity and abundance of shorebird species in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. It is a tool to help CWS plan specific monitoring and conservation initiatives called for in the Canadian Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Shorebirds in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut

Birds are a conspicuous and vital part of northern ecosystems. Canada's North provides breeding habitat for numerous bird species, and the sheer geographic extent of these Territories means that even those species which breed at low densities can occur in great numbers. Of the 42 shorebird species that breed in Canada, 31 breed regularly in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and Nunavut, and these two territories contain all of the Canadian breeding habitat for 21 of those species. The abundant lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the forested portion of the NWT provide ideal breeding habitat for boreal shorebirds. All of the NWT and Nunavut's shorebird species are migratory and spend parts of their life cycle in southern Canada, the United States, and Central and South American countries. A few species also migrate to Europe, Africa and the Pacific Rim.

Bird species included in the strategy and action plan

Table of Bird species included in the strategy and action plan

Bird species Scientific name
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialus squatorola
American Golden-Plover Pluvialus dominica
Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica
Eskimo Curlew Numenius borealis
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes
Solitary Sandpiper Tringa solitaria
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicaria
Wilson’s Phalarope Phalaropus tricolor
Short-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus griseus
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus
Stilt Sandpiper Calidris himantopus
Wilson’s Snipe Gallinago delicata
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima
Red Knot Calidris canutus
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Sanderling Calidris alba
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris uscicollis
Baird's Sandpiper Calidris bairdii
Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos
Upland Sandpiper Bartramia longicauda
Buff-breasted Sandpiper Tryngites subruficollis

Bird species addressed by action plan

a. Evaluate the ability of the current Checklist Survey database to identify trends in shorebird species distribution and abundance:
All birds.
b. Implement PRISM (Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring) in the Canadian Arctic:
Arctic breeders.
c. Implement recommendations in "Boreal Shorebirds: An Assessment of Conservation Status and Potential for Population Monitoring:"
Boreal breeders.
d. Monitor changes in the composition and structure of Arctic shorebird communities that may result from climate change:
Arctic breeders.
e. Determine population demographics, habitat requirements and migratory pathways of Arctic shorebirds, particularly those that have exhibited declining population trends:
Arctic breeders: American Golden-Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Hudsonian Godwit, Whimbrel, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, Ruddy Turnstone, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin
f. Determine breeding habitat requirements, breeding parameters and migratory pathways of boreal shorebirds, particularly priority species:
Boreal breeders: American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Wilson’s Phalarope, Upland Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper
g. Identify key bird habitat sites and recommend areas for protection:
All birds.
h. Monitor the extent of lowland habitat destruction by snow geese on nesting shorebirds:
Arctic breeders.
i. Provide expert input to environmental assessments and follow-up monitoring programs:
All birds.
j. Institute a simple and concise communications process for the Shorebird Conservation Program:
All birds.

Issues and initiatives

Recent trends in shorebird populations, pressing environmental issues, political development in the north, and promising conservation initiatives are described below.

Declining bird population trends

Population trends for over half of Canadian shorebirds are negative. Out of the 28 Northwest Territories / Nunavut-nesting species that were analysed, 26 show persistent, negative trends.

Regional development issues

Loss or contamination of breeding or staging habitat, together with increased access by humans to large areas of the North, is the source of the greatest impacts to migratory birds from development. Some effects of development are cross-cutting and cumulative, such as ancillary developments (roads) from forestry operations and an oil and gas project in the same area. Generally, the geographic regions where impacts will be greatest over the next ten years are the southwestern Northwest Territories (NWT), the Slave Geological Province/West Kitikmeot mining clusters, and the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea region.

Oil and gas:
There is significant and increasing oil and gas exploration and development activities in the southwestern NWT. The region currently supports major exploration and/or development projects and pipelines.
A proposal for gas production facilities in the Mackenzie Delta and an oil/gas pipeline down the length of the Mackenzie Valley are currently undergoing environmental assessment. If the proposal goes forward, large parts of the landscape of the NWT will be impacted by this and induced development.
The southwestern NWT has experienced considerable selective harvest, while further east, the Slave River region and the Cameron Hills have been aggressively logged. Forestry activity is usually not accompanied by onsite production facilities. Forest regeneration (i.e. replanting) has not traditionally been required of logging companies in the NWT.
Mining activity is currently centred in Yellowknife for the NWT, with several smaller mining centres in both the NWT and Nunavut. These include the NWT’s North Slave Region, southwestern NWT, and the west Kitikmeot region of Nunavut. There are also other, small projects in early stages of exploration and development scattered across both territories.
There are numerous proposals for road extensions into communities and mine sites in the NWT and Nunavut, although few of them have advanced beyond the conceptual stage. Most notable is a proposal to develop a seaport at Bathurst Inlet with a combination of all-weather and winter roads to mines in the West Kitikmeot and Slave Geological Province.

Global environmental issues

Global climate models predict that the western NWT will experience significant warming, while the eastern Canadian Arctic is expected to get cooler. A recent multi-governmental, multi-researcher report (ACIA 2005) documented signs that change is already occurring in Arctic and sub-Arctic flora and fauna as a result of climate change. Further and dramatic changes are predicted to occur in the future. The North is also a sink for airborne pollutants from industrial and agricultural centres around the world. Contaminants are present in some Arctic birds above avian threshold levels for effects. Regular, long-term monitoring is essential to determine whether contaminants are having a detrimental effect on overall bird populations.

Political development in NWT and Nunavut

All of northern Canada is subject to completed or pending land claims. Under a land claim agreement, beneficiaries surrender their claims to various lands in exchange for financial compensation, a variety of socio-economic benefits, a fixed allocation of private collectively-owned lands, certain wildlife harvesting rights, and a meaningful role in the environmental management of their settlement areas. The latter role is conducted through claim-specific co-management boards which are considered to be the "main instrument of wildlife management" within their respective settlement areas. Aboriginal views on and approaches to bird monitoring and conservation will have an impact on the development and implementation of the northern shorebird program.

Continental and national conservation initiatives

As bird conservation concerns exceed the geographic scale of most countries, there is a trend for continental-scale conservation initiatives. Canada, the US and Mexico are co-operatively managing migratory birds through the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) which acts as a coordinating body for bird conservation initiatives developed for shorebirds, landbirds, colonial waterbirds, and waterfowl. The vision of NABCI is to develop and/or integrate bird conservation plans for all bird species, based on ecological zones (called Bird Conservation Regions). The Northern Conservation Division plays a major role in developing bird conservation plans for Bird Conservation Regions three (Arctic Plains and Mountains), six (Boreal Taiga Plains), and seven (Taiga Shield and Hudson Plains).

Circumpolar conservation initiatives

The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group of the multilateral Arctic Council is the main body through which CWS is involved in circumpolar bird work. CAFF has produced circumpolar conservation strategies for eiders and murres, and a summary of predicted impacts of climate change on Arctic waterbirds. Recently, a circumpolar network of shorebird researchers was launched, and CAFF affiliates are working toward establishment of a circumpolar shorebird monitoring program and a circumpolar natural resource monitoring network.

Conservation strategy

Strategic directions

Many of our shorebird species are most effectively monitored during parts of their life cycle when they are outside of the NWT and Nunavut. For others, the northern breeding grounds are the best (and occasionally, the only) place to undertake monitoring or conservation action. The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) will put our efforts into monitoring and conservation actions that are best conducted in our jurisdiction. CWS will “err on the side of caution” in the conservation of shorebirds. Finally, CWS will create opportunities to implement the following strategies in partnership with other interested parties. These parties include other Environment and Climate Change Canada programs, land claim co-management boards, local (aboriginal and other) wildlife organizations, environmental non-government organizations, and industry.

Strategy 1. Monitor.
Undertake general population monitoring programs, which monitor many or all species over broad geographic areas, as well as more focused programs, which monitor priority species or suites of species.
Strategy 2. Research.
Undertake research to understand or interpret trends identified through population monitoring. CWS needs information about demographic parameters and ecological requirements for most species.
Strategy 3. Conserve.
Identify, monitor and protect habitats that are key to the continued prosperity of shorebird populations.
Strategy 4. Educate.
Increase awareness of these birds and related conservation issues, particularly with wildlife co-management boards, Aboriginal wildlife organizations, industry, and other government agencies.

Contact us

Consultation with interested parties is an integral component of CWS programs. If you have comments or questions concerning this strategy, or any aspect of CWS activities in the NWT or Nunavut, please contact:

Shorebird Biologist
Northern Conservation Section
Canadian Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 2310, 5019 - 52 Street, 4th floor
Yellownife, NT
X1A 2P7
Telephone: (867) 669-4709
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