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Plants and Animals

The Ring of Fire region is notable for its diversity of species including plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fishes, and mammals. These include species at risk designated by provincial and federal governments, such as caribou, wolverine, and lake sturgeon. 

Ecological keystone species are species that contribute to the structure and function of the ecosystem, and play an important role in community and ecosystem functions and processes. Their presence and population status tell scientists that the ecosysem if functioning and healthy. An example of an ecological freshwater keystone species is lake trout, while grey wolves are an ecological keystone in terrestrial boreal systems. 

Highly valued species include those that are culturally important, economically valuable, or both, particularly to First Nations. These species are sometimes called cultural keystone species. Cultural keystones include species that are very important food sources, focal points for culturally significant events, ceremonies, and intergenerational teachings. Examples of cultural keystone species are lake sturgeon, American marten, and moose, because of the importance and cultural value of these species to First Nations, including for food sovereignty.  

The region is also unique compared to other parts of Ontario because there are few non-native or invasive species. This is another scientific indicator of ecological value and integrity. 

Grey wolves in northern Ontario.  Photo by Jerry Lee

Brook Trout

Animals of the Land

Mammals in the area 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 and bats. 

The region is part of an ecological transition zone, or ecotone, at the boundary between two large ecozones (Hudson Bay Lowland and Boreal Shield). This transition habitat is particularly important for terrestrial species such as caribou, wolverine, and boreal songbirds that depend on upland habitats.

Caribou

The Ring of Fire contains important habitats and movement corridors for sedentary and migratory ecotypes of caribou.  

The Eastern Migratory population of caribou is designated as Threatened by Canada and Special Concern by Ontario, and the Boreal population of caribou is designated as Threatened by both Canada and Ontario. 

The Ring of Fire overlaps with a number of ranges of caribou including Missisa, Ozhiski, and James Bay. 

Wolverine

bWolverine that travel throughout the Ring of Fire region of Northern Ontario are part of the easternmost population of wolverines in North America and are classified as Threatened under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act.

Wolverines have a reputation as clever scavengers traveling throughout the region.

WCS Canada led a seven-winter survey effort to better understand where wolverine are – and aren’t – in the region.

WCS Canada also led a wolverine radiotelemetry study in Red Lake, Ontario from 2003-2005 and was a major partner in a similar wolverine radiotelemetry study in northern Alberta from 2013-2016. These studies highlighted the need to limit industrial activity and infrastructure in wolverine habitat. 

Since 2017, WCS Canada has been repeating the radiotelemetry work in Red Lake. This new research is helping us understand whether wolverines are recovering in the region, as well as better understand the impact of roads and forestry operations on wolverine habitat choices, movements and survival. We are particularly interested in female wolverine habitat needs and their reproductive success, which is vital to the survival of the species. 

Read more about WCS Canada’s research on wolverine in northern Ontario to support wolverine recovery and understand the conditions wolverines need to survive – and thrive.

You can see the different caribou ranges in the Ring of Fire region in our StoryMap about mining and caribou. 

Wolverine in the Ring of Fire region of Northern Ontario. Photo by Jerry Lee

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Animals of the Air

The Ring of Fire overlaps two Bird Conservation Regions or BCRs: BCR 7 and BCR 8. 

These are important overwintering, year-round, and stopover habitats for many species of birds throughout the forests, wetlands, and waterbodies including 45 species of waterfowl like canvasbacks and scaups. 

This area contributes to North America’s boreal bird nursery for hundreds of nesting and breeding songbird species that migrate to Ontario every summer, including habitats for species at risk such as Canada Warbler, Common Nighthawk, Rusty Blackbird, and Olive-sided Flycatcher among others. 

Habitats are part of a continental flyway for both landbirds and shorebirds which use boreal habitats in and around the Ring of Fire when traveling to and from the Arctic and Hudson Bay. 

Impacts on these species and their habitats in the Ring of Fire region have provincial, continental and global implications for migratory bird populations. 

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Animals of the Water

The abundant and diverse freshwater ecosystems in the Ring of Fire support at least 50 species of freshwater fish and is part of the largest area of high fish biodiversity with low human impacts within Canada.  

Walleye and northern pike are the most common top predators in the lakes and rivers flowing through the Boreal Shield ecozone; deeper lakes have lake whitefish, lake trout, and cisco. In the Hudson Plains ecozone, brook trout are often the top predator and all of the major rivers support lake sturgeon populations.

There are unique populations of sea-run brook trout and migratory lake whitefish and cisco.

Many species that are typically thought of as exclusively freshwater species – such as lake sturgeon, northern pike, and walleye – move out of the rivers into the brackish waters of Hudson Bay and James Bay to feed.

Scientists suggest that the short time since glaciation means that the diversity of fish species may not be as high as more southerly regions of Ontario, but those that are present are highly adapted to Arctic and sub-Arctic conditions. Other notable fish species include threespine stickleback, fathead minnow, burbot, and mottled sculpin. 

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 it very vulnerable to over-harvest and habitat change, particularly spawning and migration routes.  

Sturgeon globally are the most imperiled group of species on the IUCN Red List, with 85% of sturgeon species facing extinction.

However, lake sturgeon in northern Ontario represent some of the last healthy populations of wild sturgeon living in free-flowing rivers.

Read more about WCS Canada’s research on lake sturgeon in Northern Ontario.

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.  

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. 

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!

Moose Cree First Nation
Brook Trout
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Plants and Fungi

There are at least 150 species of plants that occur in Ontario only within the northern region. Almost all of these are restricted to the Hudson Bay Lowland in which the Ring of Fire is located, and many of them are rare species at the southern edge of their global ranges.  

Many of these plants define the ecosystems associated with the Ring of Fire including forests, peatlands, and wetlands. Some plants are particularly important within peatland ecosystems because of their role in the exchange of greenhouse gases, particularly methane.  

Many plants in the region have cultural and spiritual significance for First Nations, important for maintaining cultural well-being and identity. The relationships between plants and Indigenous communities also form the basis of Indigenous food systems and food sovereignty across the north. In addition, Indigenous Knowledge Systems around plants in the region include their use for food, medicine, shelter, transportation, and art and many plants are the foundation for inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty rights. 

Prior to colonization, First Nations maintained ecological conditions to support the production of certain plants and animals, particularly through fire management. 

Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum). Photo by Lorna I. Harris

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