The deciduous forests of this ecoregion can be found in the lowlands of impressive but looming, active volcanoes. Amongst the oaks, maple, bamboos, and conifers covering the five islands is a whole host of diverse wildlife, such as the critically endangered yellow-breasted bunting, the endangered Blakiston’s eagle owl, and a peculiar variety of Brown bear with white pelage.
The ecoregion covers 36,301 km2 of lowland temperate deciduous forests mostly on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. It also covers the smaller volcanic islands of Kunashir, Shikotan, and Iturup, part of the disputed Kuril archipelago, and on the southern tip of the Russian island, Sakhalin. In Hokkaido, Mount Yotei, an active volcano, is prominent and a central feature of the Shikotsu-Tōya National Park.
There are other impressive volcanoes on Kunashir and Iturup islands. The average annual temperature in this ecoregion is 5.2 ºC, with the maximum average temperature of 21.9ºC and a minimum average of -11.6ºC. There is a predominant warm, continental climate with a mean annual precipitation of 1,083.4 mm.
The cool-temperate forest consists of Mongolian oaks, painted maple, Japanese larch and elm, birch, different species of spruce and fir, as well as bamboo thickets, which are the predominant vegetation on the southern Kuril Islands. Also, on these islands, you will find meadow vegetation with tall grasses that offer a stable forage for many species, such as small mammals. Some of the plants endemic to these islands are Lycopus kurilensis, Erigeron schikotanensis, Taraxacum vulcanorum, Clinopodium kunashirense, and Pulsatilla taraoi.
Interesting bird species found here include the endangered Blakiston's eagle-owl or fish owl, which has a unique and large population of a regional subspecies in the Kunashir Island. Also found on these islands are the endangered Oriental stork, red-crowned crane, far eastern curlew, and spotted greenshank, as well as the critically endangered yellow-breasted bunting.
On Kunashiri and Iturop Islands, individuals of the Brown bear with a peculiar white pelage can be found there. Other mammals commonly found on the islands are the Hokkaido red fox, the Hokkaido red squirrel and the Siberian flying squirrel.
The Island of Hokkaido, Japan's second-largest island, concentrates the most extensive natural deciduous forest areas. Within this ecoregion, the most significant protected area can be found in Shikotsu-Toya National Park (993 km2). It is also considered an Important Bird Area under high pressure. It has vast volcanic lakes and active volcanoes and is also a critical habitat for the brown bear.
The Utonai-ko Ramsar area in Kanashir partially overlaps with an Important Bird Area of the same name. It is considered one of the most important stopover and wintering sites for migrating birds in Japan. Amongst the visitors are the white-fronted goose, whooper swan, and tundra swan.
It is also a breeding ground for the Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting and for the Siberian Rubythroat. Another 7% of the ecoregion is in protected areas in Russia, mainly the Kurilsky Zapovednik on the island of Kunashir, Ostrovnoj Zakaznik on Iturup, and Poluostrov Kril'on Zakaznik protected areas on the southern tip of Sakhalin. Most of this ecoregion is covered by forest vegetation, including in Hokkaido where it is most densely populated.
Hokkaido Island only started to be fully developed in the late 19th century, and Shikotsu-Tóya National Park was designated as such in 1949, which helped to preserve the area, although logging and mining were allowed still. Industry polluted rivers, and dams for irrigation affected rivers and streams. Agriculture has decreased since the 1990s, but the area of wetland was extremally reduced. Ecotourism is now a huge market, which also brings some problems.
Some of the main threats to bigger birds, like Blakiston's Eagle-owl, include collisions with powerlines and traffic, as well as drowning in fishnets. In the Russian area of the ecoregion, human presence is very sparse. However, poaching of Sakhalin musk deer and brown bear occurs. There is also gold mining that threatens to pollute the rivers. Territorial dispute on the south Kuril Islands is also a potential issue to the area.
The priority conservation actions for the next decade will be to: 1) reduce the rate of loss, degredation, and fragmentation of natural habitats, with initiatives such as developing ecological networks, especially on Hokkaido Island; 2) enhance management effectiveness of protected areas while identifying further regions that contribute to biodiversity conservation and creating new areas; and 3) create an International Peace Park in the South Kuril Islands to enhance biodiversity conservation, especially of the Ininkari (white-coloured) brown bear.
1. Sato, Y., Nakamura, H., Ishifune, Y. and Ohtaishi, N. 2011. The white-colored brown bears of the Southern Kurils. Ursus. 22(1), pp.84-91.
2. McKinnon, J. and Xie, Y. 2008. Regional Action Plan for the Protected Areas of East Asia. 2006–2010. IUCN, Bangkok, p.82.
3. Government of Japan. 2014. Fifth National Report of Japan to the Convention of Biological Diversity.