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Examining the black-backed woodpecker to explain the effects of harvesting and climate change in Quebec’s boreal forest

What can the black-backed woodpecker (BBWO) tell us about changing biodiversity in Canadian forests?

Black-backed woodpecker (BBWO)

The article “Harvesting interacts with climate change to affect future habitat quality of a focal species in eastern Canada’s boreal forest” by Junior A. Tremblay and his team at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and colleagues at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) was published in February 2018. It examined this question by delving into the effects of climate change and forest harvesting on life in the boreal forest of central Quebec.

Tremblay’s study focused on the black-backed woodpecker, which was chosen for examination as it represents a “focal species” - one that is representative of Eastern Canadian biodiversity associated with coniferous forests. The authors explain that projections in black-backed woodpecker population over time can be used to help understand the impact of climate change on boreal forests more generally.

Modelling used by the authors showed that climate change would be detrimental to these woodpeckers. Under the “worst-case” climate change scenario, there could be a potential 92% productivity decline in this bird species by the year 2100. The authors describe these climate-driven changes in woodpecker productivity by 2100 as “very significant.” They note that the changing climate could lead to more severe weather including a longer fire season. While increased fires may benefit the woodpecker in the short-term (since the species tends to forage on recently dead wood), by the end of the simulation period fires could lead to younger deciduous forests replacing coniferous forests, which black-backed woodpeckers need to survive.

The study also found, however, that forest harvesting, not climate change, is the single most important driver of change on black-backed woodpecker before 2080 in the “worst-case” climate change scenarios. Even with no changes in climate, forest harvesting would cause a decrease in their productivity by 69% by the year 2100.

The authors describe this result as “striking,” and contrary to their expectations that harvesting would have less impact than climate change. They suggest the result may be due to high harvesting rates in the area covered by this study, especially since the harvesting rate of future simulations is based on the last 20 years.

It is important to note that the combination of climate change and forest harvesting would be most devastating.

Our simulations suggest that the cumulative impacts of forest harvesting and climate change on the forest ecosystem will cause major reductions in the availability of future BBWO [woodpecker] habitat, with the potential productivity of this focal species being more severely reduced under stronger anthropogenic climate forcing. Among other impacts, climate change would impose changes in the relative importance of available habitat types for BBWO potential productivity” (Tremblay et. al., 2018)

Further studies currently undertaken in Alberta on more than 100 different boreal bird species show the same broad trends as the study of black-backed woodpecker in Quebec. The authors also hope to simulate different scenarios with the goal of understanding the impacts on a variety of other species across the country, including Species at Risk.

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