02/05/2013 11:00 EST | Updated 04/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Canada's Wetlands Matter to the World

Here's a surprise for you. You may already know that the list of the world's largest and most important wetlands includes the Amazon Basin and the Pantanal of South America; the Nile River Basin and Congo Basin of Africa; and the Mississippi River Basin in the United States. But did you know that list also includes two boreal wetland systems right here in Canada? Perhaps the most pristine of the world's largest wetlands are the wilderness wetlands of the Mackenzie River Basin and the Hudson Bay-James Bay lowlands.

In fact, these special places have only recently begun to be studied enough to reveal their globally important conservation values.

Not only are these among the world's largest wetlands, but they are also more pristine than any others on earth. They have sustained the lowest levels of human impact, whether measured by the size of the industrial footprint or in amounts of excessive phosphorus and nitrogen inputs.

The surprises keep coming. Research in recent years has shown that these northern wetland have stored up and now hold mind-boggling amounts of carbon -- in fact, more carbon than in any other terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Canada's boreal peatlands hold an astonishing 147 billion metric tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 280 years' worth of Canada's annual human-caused carbon emissions. The world's largest peatland system in the world extends from the shores of Hudson and James Bay inland hundreds of kilometers, encompassing 373,700 square kilometers of wetland wilderness.

Canada's boreal forest region is where the longest undammed rivers in North America still provide nursery habitat for thriving migratory fish populations. The 4,000 kilometer Mackenzie River flows from British Columbia and Alberta north through the Northwest Territories before emptying its massive flow of freshwater into the Beaufort Sea.

Fish tagged in the foothills of the Rockies have been found at the mouth of the Mackenzie as they migrate to the sea -- a migratory feat impossible in most of the world's rivers because of the ubiquity of dams. The region is home to three of the world's 10 largest lakes -- lakes that also are the source of the world's largest lake trout. And if you start counting smaller lakes and ponds, the number in the boreal region quickly mounts into the millions -- Canada's boreal forest region has more surface freshwater than any other ecoregion on earth.

The vast global wetlands of Canada's boreal forest region are, of course, also host to birds: about 400 species numbering together in the billions. Some, like the Bufflehead, a small black-and-white diving duck that nests in old woodpecker cavities, breed almost exclusively on small lakes in the boreal forest region of Canada and Alaska and winter largely in the U.S. Larger ducks like the Surf Scoter nest exclusively in the boreal forest.

Satellite tagging of individuals wintering in San Francisco Bay, Delaware Bay, and other places along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts have recently shown that these birds make an amazing journey of thousands of miles to nest on the shores of lakes in places like the Northwest Territories.

Shorebirds too nest in or stop off at boreal wetlands. Solitary Sandpipers nest only in the boreal forest region, reusing the old nests of songbirds along the shores of streams and ponds. The Whimbrel, a gull-sized shorebird with long legs and a striking long, down-curved bill nests in high spots among the spongy tundra along the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba and further north to the Arctic.

Several female Whimbrels nesting near the mouth of the Mackenzie River were satellite-tagged last year and followed on their flights south. Their re-fueling stops included intertidal wetlands along the shores of Hudson Bay as they made journeys of thousands of miles before reaching wintering areas in South America and the Caribbean.

Songbirds, too, make use of boreal wetlands. Some like the tiny rusty-capped Palm Warbler have an intimate relationship with peatlands. There they occur in great abundance, never knowing that the wilderness peatlands where they nest, and that stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see, sit atop some of the world's largest carbon deposits. Palm Warblers might have been better named "peatland warblers," except that they spend their winters flitting among the palms of Florida and other parts of the southeastern United States.

Canada's boreal wetlands are a global treasure, and their significance has only recently become known and appreciated. Fortunately some Canadian leaders are recognizing just how important they are.

The government of Quebec in partnership with the Inuit of Nunavut and the Grand Council of the Cree recently announced the creation of Tursujuq National Park --now the largest protected area in eastern North America -- which boasts a bevy of lakes and wetlands and is home to a rare population of freshwater harbour seals. Manitoba is showcasing a very promising peatlands stewardship strategy as part of their shiny new Green Plan.

Ontario recently renewed a partnership with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) on wetland conservation, restoration, protection and management as part of DUC's 75th anniversary.

Despite these efforts, numerous threats remain. Oil and gas extraction, logging, mining and hydroelectric development all pose enormous threats to wetlands. Each year the cumulative footprint of resource development races further into the heart of Canada's north. Add to these the unrelenting pressures from climate change and it is clear that without careful planning and proactive conservation, Canada's global wilderness wetlands could be lost.

While 100 years ago we could blame a lack of scientific understanding for the widespread and wholesale destruction of wetlands, today we cannot claim that excuse. With conservation momentum booming, it's time for more proactive conservation measures to keep Canada's boreal wetlands intact and safe for generations to come.