Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada

The Boreal Forest Region: Land of the Balsam Fir

The Boreal Forest Region is found at elevations above 330 metres, primarily on the south-central and western highlands. Cape Breton Highlands National Park protects over 20% of the Boreal Forest in the northern Cape Breton ecosystem .

Map showing the location and extent of the Boreal forest in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Map showing the location and extent of the Boreal forest in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park
The Deep, Dark Boreal Forest
A view of the boreal forest, veiled by fog.
The Boreal Forest Region is made up mainly of balsam fir and white birch.
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / J. Steeves

The Boreal forest is made up mostly of balsam fir and white birch, with smaller amounts of white spruce and black spruce. Compared to the Acadian forest, the mature Boreal forest has relatively few species. Dense shading and acidic soils prevent extensive growth of shrub and herbaceous layers. Mature trees are relatively small and short-lived, surviving for 50 to 100 years. Common plants on the forest floor include starflower, bunchberry, clintonia, wild lily-of-the-valley, twinflower and sphagnum moss.


A close up of the Boreal forest floor with small flowering plants.
Where enough light reaches the Boreal forest floor, small wildflowers such as bunchberry and twinflower grow.
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / Parks Canada

Although the Boreal Forest Region extends over most of northern Canada, over half of it has been disturbed by human activities such as logging or mining, making long-term studies of the Boreal forest difficult. For this reason and others, protection of the Boreal forest within Cape Breton Highlands National Park is important.

Characteristic Boreal forest animals include the moose, lynx, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, hermit thrush, boreal chickadee and gray jay.

The Spruce Budworm, the Moose, and the Boreal Forest
An aerial view of the boreal forest with a mixture of live fir trees and dead ones killed by spruce budworm.
Many of these balsam fir trees have died after a protracted and heavy infestation of spruce budworm.
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / S. Homer

Balsam fir is the dominant tree species in the Boreal forest of northern Cape Breton. The spruce budworm, in spite of its name, loves to eat balsam fir more than anything else. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, softwood forests in northern Cape Breton were heavily damaged by the spruce budworm which is nearly always present in softwood forests to some degree but every 30 years or so has a population explosion. When the population explosion coincides with a peak in the concentration of balsam fir, it's a recipe for renewal of the forest landscape.

Normally after a major natural event like an insect infestation or forest fire, the treeless land is colonized by plants like raspberry or bracken fern. Then, slowly, new trees start growing in. The colonizing trees usually include white birch, mountain ash, pin cherry and balsam fir. About 20 years after the major natural event, the new forest is mostly composed of birch and fir. The white birch grows very quickly compared to the balsam fir and takes over. This makes perfect habitat for the shade-loving balsam fir. After a few more decades, most of the forest is balsam fir, with a few white birch trees scattered about. After another few decades, balsam fir takes over completely, choking out other species and creating monoculture stands - perfect for spruce budworm. It's a continuous cycle of destruction by budworm, opening of the land, and re-colonization by balsam fir.


A moose browses off Skyline Trail where much of the regenerating forest is being killed by overbrowsing.
A moose browses away on Skyline Trail. Note the stunted, warped, leafless hardwood trees all around it. The moose have browsed so heavily here that the trees are dying.
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / Parks Canada

However, in Cape Breton Highlands National Park there is another player in the game. The moose eats aquatic plants during the summer but in the winter it depends on white birch and some other colonizing deciduous species. When the spruce budworm epidemic opened up the Boreal forest, it created perfect habitat for the moose. The regeneration of the Boreal forest is slowed and perhaps even altered by the feeding habits of the large moose population in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which often browses 90-100% of the new growth in the areas hit by budworm.