Animals & Plants

Across Canada

wildlife species

are listed as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and near threatened on the IUCN Red List

Of these globally threatened

wildlife species

That includes

Caribou by Susan Morse/Canadian Geographic

Caribou

Photo credit: Susan Morse / Canadian Geographic

Caribou by Susan Morse/Canadian Geographic

Lake Sturgeon

Photo credit: R. Crisswell

Caribou by Susan Morse/Canadian Geographic

Red Knot

Photo credit: Jan van de Kam 

The northern half of Ontario also includes one of Canada’s hotspots for nationally endemic species. These species not found anywhere else on the planet.

Of all wildlife species in Canada, about

%

are undiscovered or poorly documented, including many species in the norther half of Ontario

The far north in Ontario is notable for its diversity and abundance of wildlife, including species at risk, such as caribou and lake sturgeon. Many of these species have disappeared from other parts of the province, and rely heavily on the northern boreal forest, peatlands, free-flowing rivers, and coastal areas as their last suitable habitats.

But if those habitats are affected by the building of roads, mines and hydropower dams, the continuation of these species in northern Ontario could be affected.

The northern boreal forest in Ontario also includes one of Canada’s hotspots for nationally endemic species — species that are not found anywhere else on the planet. This makes it even more important to assess and conserve the species living in the region.

How global, federal, and provincial/territorial agencies are tracking species at risk

The number of species at risk in Canada is on the rise. On average, the number of species assessed as at risk increases by 4% every year. WCS Canada is one of the few organizations tracking these changes on our Shape of Nature website, which offers a comprehensive look at the health of lands, waters and wildlife in the country.

Our information is based on published assessments by national and international organizations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the Red List of Threatened Species, which is a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity.

In Canada, the national status of wild species is assessed by  Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). In Ontario, it is the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk that classifies native plants or animals. Once assessed these species can be given protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act and Ontario’s Endangered Species Act.

Photo credit: Yuri Ischenko

Photo credit: Eric Engbretson / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Ecological keystone species are species that play an important role in the structure and functioning of an ecosystem. Their presence and population status tell scientists if the ecosystem is functioning and healthy. Some examples include lake trout in deep boreal lakes, caribou in boreal forests, and the tiny Sphagnum moss that forms peat soils and peat landforms.

Cultural keystone species hold great value in terms of culture or local economy, particularly to First Nations — the vast majority of the people currently living in the far north in Ontario, and the people who have called this area home for millennia. Cultural keystone species include important food sources, and important species for ceremonies and cultural teachings. Some examples include lake sturgeon, the American marten, and moose.

Across Canada, the cumulative impacts of infrastructure development, over-harvesting and resource extraction have deeply affected the populations of ecological and cultural keystone species — from the disappearance of bison on the prairies to the collapse of beaver populations in northern regions. With plans to open up areas of the far north Ontario, such as the Ring of Fire, through road construction and mining, First Nations and scientists alike are calling attention to the impacts these projects could have on vital animal and plant species.

How does development affect wildlife habitats?

The most direct threat to global biodiversity and species extinction is habitat loss and degradation, which can occur through development and fragmentation.

Ecological integrity refers to the overall state or health of an ecosystem or place, and its overall structure and function. When ecosystem integrity declines, it means there is less habitat for native plants and animals, declines in ecological processes and functions, and diminished ecosystem resilience. The ecosystem’s capacity to sustain species and to continue to provide many ecosystem services also decreases. Maintaining and restoring ecological integrity is crucial for conserving biodiversity, and helping to ensure human well-being and security in the short- and long-term.

The far north in Ontario represents one of the last remaining ecologically intact and roadless ecosystems on Earth. Conserving peatlands and forests that have a high degree of ecological integrity and intactness is one of the most important things we can do to reduce emissions, slow climate change and protect biodiversity. The key to maintaining and safeguarding high-integrity ecosystems will be through regional-scale planning and effective management of the pace and scale of development, so as to minimize cumulative effects.

Fragmentation occurs when habitats, such as boreal forest, peatlands, or freshwater rivers, are broken apart through natural events like wildfires or human activities, like forestry and the construction of roads and mines. Scientific studies have shown that habitat fragmentation can have unexpected effects on wildlife populations. For example, the construction of a new road through previously untouched boreal forest can lead to an expanded range for predators like wolves, who use the new roads to travel faster and to cover larger distances seeking prey, such as caribou. In river systems, habitat fragmentation through the construction of road crossings or dams can block fish movement to annual spawning locations. This can also lead to habitat degradation.

Degradation happens when the quality of a habitat decreases, and it can happen due to natural instances or human activities, such as industrial pollution, drainage of water, or selective logging. This can affect species populations because the habitat may no longer meet the specific conditions required by the species.

Kate Boicourt, Integration and Application Network (ian.umces.edu/media-library)

Mammals

Grey wolves in northern Ontario.

Photo credit: Jerry Lee

Wolverine in the Ring of Fire region of Northern Ontario.

Photo credit: Jerry Lee

Mammals in the far north in Ontario include wolverine, woodland caribou, gray wolves, moose, black bear, American marten, American beaver, Canada lynx, and Arctic fox, as well as other small mammals like snowshoe hares, voles, shrews and bats.

An important part of the far north in Ontario is the ecological transition zone at the boundary between two large ecoregions: the Hudson Bay Lowland and Boreal Shield.

Transition zones (sometimes called ecotones, or “the land between”) are uniquely important areas for biodiversity because they have a wide range of characteristics that work for many different species. In the Ring of Fire area, for example, the transition habitat is important for caribou, which assemble in late winter and travel enormous distances along the transition zone.

WCS Canada is conducting ongoing conservation research about the population health of caribou, as well as the iconic wolverine. You can read more of this work below.

Caribou

Canada is home to most of the world’s caribou, and as such, has an important responsibility to protect and conserve these creatures roaming in our woodlands, mountains and barrens. In the last 150 years, caribou have lost nearly 40% of their historical range, first because of intensive hunting, followed by increased human settlement, resource extraction and road development.

The Ring of Fire contains important habitats and movement corridors for the two distinct types of caribou that can be found in Ontario: the eastern migratory population and the boreal population. Boreal caribou especially rely on a variety of habitats across a large area to avoid predators, like wolves, and to find foods needed for survival, like lichen. This includes large areas of dense old forest and treed peatlands, as well as lichen-covered peatlands — which make up a significant part of the Ring of Fire and Hudson Bay Lowlands areas. But human activity has dramatically reduced areas of old forest and has divided what is left with roads, transmission lines, and other developments, leading to a steady decline in the caribou populations in southern boreal forests. The cumulative effects from road development and industrial activities in the Ring of Fire could further reduce the range for boreal caribou, which is already designated as threatened by both Canada and Ontario.

Eastern migratory caribou live in the same boreal forest habitats in the fall and winter, but differ from boreal caribou in that they use tundra and forest-tundra transitional areas along the Hudson Bay coast during the spring and summer periods. The Southern Hudson Bay herd in Ontario is one of four herds of Eastern Migratory caribou in an overall range that extends from northern Manitoba across to Labrador. Its population is relatively stable at the moment, leading Ontario to assess the population as of special concern. Across Canada however, the situation is more dire. Two large herds of Eastern Migratory caribou — the George River and the Leaf River populations — have experienced significant population declines, leading COSEWIC to assess the species as endangered.

In the boreal forest, habitat loss is an ongoing concern due to planned road and mine construction. Climate change will also affect caribou habitat as fires become larger and more severe. Caribou calf survival and growth rates may be affected by warmer summers and insect harassment.

Caribou population health can tell us a lot about the state of our forests, and right now the continued population decline is telling us that we have pushed this species past the limit of habitat disturbance it can tolerate in southern boreal forests.

In 2023, the Ontario government announced a four-year, $29 million investment to support on-the-ground habitat restoration, protection and other conservation activities. It also helps implement a federal-provincial agreement to monitor and conserve boreal caribou populations.

Wolverine

Wolverines once existed throughout the boreal forest in Ontario and the Hudson Bay Lowlands, but human activities and developments in the south have relegated wolverines to live in remote regions in northwestern Ontario.

Wolverines that reside throughout the Ring of Fire region of northern Ontario are part of the easternmost population of wolverines in North America, and are considered Threatened under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act.

WCS Canada conducted aerial surveys for wolverine tracks in the snow from 2003-2012 to determine where wolverines are most likely to be found in Ontario. The hotter colours on this map indicate places where you’re more likely to see a wolverine.

What is special about these places is that they still have wild areas and cool climates that wolverines need to thrive. Wolverine populations are threatened by the cumulative impacts of climate change combined with forest clearing and road development that reduces their habitat and survival — two activities associated with mines and forestry currently planned in the area.

Since 2017, WCS Canada has been leading a wolverine collaring study in northwestern Ontario to understand wolverine habitat use, movement, foraging and denning in a landscape with mining and forestry. We are also using cameras to get a sense of how many wolverines are using the landscape. The research is helping us understand whether wolverine populations are recovering in the region, as well as the impact of roads and forestry operations on wolverine ecology.

Read more about WCS Canada’s research on wolverines in northern Ontario to support wolverine recovery.

Birds

One to two billion birds breed in the boreal region in Canada, with more than 50% of the world’s populations for some 40-50 bird species spending time in the region during breeding season.

The Ring of Fire in particular is an important part of continental migratory corridors, providing essential stops or seasonal homes for bird species from the United States, Central America, South America and the West Indies.

Intact lands and waters provide habitat for some 45 species of waterfowl, like canvasbacks and scaups. Many bird species — especially aerial insectivores like the common nighthawk, swallows and sharp-tailed grouse — tend to use the same locations year after year for nesting, stopover and breeding. It means that any impacts to these areas could affect bird populations for years to come.

Many of the bird species that live or spend time in the Ring of Fire have considerable cultural importance for First Nations — including bald eagles, golden eagles, loons, blue-winged teals and Canada geese.

But these bird species are at risk. Three billion birds have been lost from Canada and the United States since just 1970. Aerial insectivores were listed as one of the most threatened and fastest declining bird groups in Canada.

There are a number of threats to bird species — including climate change, pesticides, and invasive species — but the main driver in the declining bird populations in Canada is habitat loss and degradation. Negative impacts such as habitat degradation and reduced food availability can be especially costly to migratory birds, because stopover habitats are where birds rest and refuel during migration.

In the Ring of Fire, a major concern is that road construction, mineral extraction and other industry activities will render large habitat areas unsuitable for migratory bird populations.

Fish

The far north in Ontario has the most freshwater fish biodiversity in Canada that have not been heavily impacted by human activities, such as urbanization or agricultural disturbances. Since the region has only recently come out of glaciation, the fish are also highly adapted to Arctic and sub-Arctic conditions.

The abundant and diverse freshwater ecosystems in the far north in Ontario support at least 50 species of freshwater fish. Many species of fish that are typically thought of as exclusively living in freshwater — such as lake sturgeon, northern pike, and walleye — actually move out of the rivers and into the brackish waters of Hudson Bay and James Bay to feed.

As the home to some of Canada’s longest free-flowing rivers and lakes unaffected by infrastructure development or damming, fish populations are quite abundant in northern Ontario. But the downstream effects of development could result in habitat fragmentation and degradation, ultimately affecting the health of important fish species. This is of particular concern to First Nations Peoples in the area, many of whom rely on freshwater fish as an essential part of their diets.

Lake Sturgeon

Lake sturgeon are Canada’s largest and longest-lived (up to 150 years) freshwater fish. Their slow rate of growth, late age to maturity (15-25 years), and infrequent spawning behaviour (once every 4-6 years for females and every 2-3 years for males) make the species very vulnerable to over-harvest and habitat degradation, particularly on spawning and migration routes. The downstream effects of infrastructure and resource development, such as increased sediment or pollutants in waterways, can affect sturgeon survival.

They are a cultural keystone species for many First Nations, being harvested for food and as part of local economies. They are also central in major cultural events and intergenerational teachings. Some First Nations are worried about the proposed road developments through the Ring of Fire, and the impacts they could have on the lake sturgeon populations.

Dam construction and operations is one of the major current threats to lake sturgeon populations. This is the case in the Moose River watershed, where significant dam construction occurred 40 to 60 years ago, and Moose Cree community members have expressed worries about the effects of the dams on lake sturgeon.

Globally, sturgeon are the most imperiled group of species on the IUCN Red List, with some 85% of sturgeon species facing extinction. Historically, over harvesting by non-Indigenous fisheries was the primary threat to the sturgeon populations. More recently, habitat fragmentation and degradation due to dams have become a significant threat to populations. In northern Ontario, there is little information available due to a lack of systematic surveys or studies. But, it is believed that sturgeon in northern Ontario are persisting largely because their habitat remains untouched by industrial activity.

Learning from Lake Sturgeon is a collaborative research effort between WCS Canada and Moose Cree First Nation Resource Protection to improve stewardship of lake sturgeon and the rivers in the Moose Cree Homeland. Join the project!

Brook Trout

Brook trout are a cold water species that like cold, clean water. Many brook trout in northern Ontario are sea-run, and will migrate hundreds of kilometres out into James Bay and Hudson Bay to feed. These sea-run brook trout become much larger than the resident brook trout that spend their lives in freshwater streams and rivers.

Photo credit: Eric Engbretson

Lake Whitefish

Lake whitefish are an important food fish for First Nations in northern Ontario. Lake whitefish are so abundant in many lakes that they supported fly-in commercial fisheries from the 1950s to the 1970s. Lake whitefish are also important because they migrate between the freshwater rivers and lakes and the salty waters of Hudson Bay and James Bay, moving important nutrients between the connected rivers and oceans.

Plants & Fungi

Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum).

There are at least 150 species of plants that can only be found in Ontario within the northern region. Most of the species can be found in the Hudson Bay Lowland ecozone, in the same area as the Ring of Fire mineral deposits. Many of the plants are rare species at the southern edge of their global range.

The plants that can be found in the northern half of Ontario define the ecosystems in the region, including the boreal forest, wetlands and peatlands. Some species such as Sphagnum moss are particularly important within the peatlands because of their role in forming and shaping the landscape. These tiny mosses influence where the water ponds and flows across the landscape, which in turn, influences where species such as black spruce, cloudberry, blueberry, and bogbean, grow and thrive.

Many plants in the region — such as cedar and birch trees — have cultural and spiritual significance for First Nations, important for maintaining cultural well-being and identity. The relationships between plants and Indigenous communities form the basis of Indigenous food systems and food sovereignty across the north, and communities hold deep understandings of local plant species, including their use for food, medicine, shelter, transportation and art. Prior to colonization, First Nations played an important role in cultivating and maintaining ideal ecological conditions for certain plant species, particularly through prescribed burns. This includes a deliberate and carefully controlled fire set to achieve certain resource management objectives.

Industrial activity could disturb the highly sensitive peatland ecosystems and the plant species contained within them, which will have an impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. Such industrial activities can also produce or release minerals, pollutants and other highly toxic compounds into the ecosystems.

Ecosystems

The animals and plants in northern Ontario depend on unique ecosystems relatively untouched by industrial activity. Read about these vital ecosystems here.