Tuesday, January 12th 2021, 1:19 pm - Many of Canada's at-risk or threatened species have seen dramatic population declines for years, but there are some making a healthy comeback.
The latest report from World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada) paints a grim picture about the current state of threatened species in the country, but there is a bright side to it you may not have seen.
Populations of species of global concern and Canadian at-risk species countrywide have seen declines by an average of 42 and 59 per cent, respectively, from 1970-2016. Details of the drop in numbers was highlighted by WWF-Canada in its Living Planet Report Canada 2020, released last September.
Species at risk or in decline in Canada face multiple, ongoing threats such as habitat loss, over-exploitation of commercial species, land and shoreline developments, and pollution, among others. Every at-risk species in Canada faces an average of five threats.
While all hope may seem lost with the plunging numbers, the downward trend can't be said of all species in Canada. In fact, many of them are beginning to see a steady surge in population sizes, some to the point where they're no longer considered at risk or endangered.
In an interview with The Weather Network, WWF-Canada senior species specialist Emily Giles acknowledged Canada's insufficient conservation efforts, but said it is possible to bring at-risk species back.
"It's hard to recover species at risk...I like to compare species at risk to the emergency room or ICU (intensive care unit) at the hospital. These are species that are kind of on life-support," said Giles. "It's hard to bring them back, but we can do it."
Below are several species that are seeing a growth in numbers, thanks to a wide range of conservation efforts from groups and governments over the years.
VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT
The Vancouver Island marmot, only found within its namesake region, is a ground squirrel that only had an estimated 50-100 individuals in the late 1970s. It is an endemic species, which means it is not found anywhere else in the world.
Vancouver Island marmot. Photo: Ryan Tidman.
Giles noted habitat loss and predators are among the multiple threats facing the marmots.
Numerous recovery actions have been initiated to raise population numbers and achieve recovery objectives for the species including research and monitoring, habitat restoration, and captive breeding and reintroductions, among others.
The species is still endangered, but the protection measures have helped -- with the marmot's population growing to approximately 200 individuals in 2019.
While global numbers of the Atlantic puffin continue to decline, there has been an increase in Canada since 1970. The population growth is the result of several factors, including a reduction in bycatch due to the closure of the northern cod and Atlantic salmon gillnet fisheries in 1992.
Atlantic puffin. Photo: Alex Makarov/Unsplash.
"Canada is playing a really important role in ensuring the persistence of the global population of birds," said Giles. "They're (still) vulnerable to threats in their range and in many parts of the world."
However, puffins, also known as sea parrots due to their distinct black-and-white feathers and colourful beaks, remain vulnerable to additional threats throughout their vast range including changes in the marine food chain.
Atlantic puffins prey upon forage fish, a key food source for predators, and aren’t faring well themselves. Puffins need lots of prey in order to breed successfully.
The trumpeter swan was once extinct locally in Canada, in the early 1930s, as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Conservationists and governments undertook swift and substantial work to boost the population, including land acquisition, management plans, law enforcement, public education and captive breeding, as well as reintroductions to the wild.
Trumpeter swan. Photo: Nathan Howes.
As well, development and implementation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan helped conserve and restore wetlands and other key habitats for waterfowl, including the trumpeter swan.
"It's a beautiful bird. It's the largest swan in the world. We see them here in Ontario," Giles. "They're another one that faced steep declines, in particular because of habitat loss. A lot nesting habitat was lost, even going back to the 1600s and 1700s."
Today, the trumpeter swan is flourishing in North America as a result of the efforts, with populations now totalling more than 70,000. It is no longer an at-risk species in Canada and globally.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the whooping crane population was reduced to just 14 individuals, mostly because of habitat loss and hunting.
In 1922, the Wood Buffalo National Park was established for the protection of wood bison, but the entire nesting grounds of the whooping crane were coincidentally included within the park’s boundary, spanning 4.2 million hectares in the Northwest Territories and Alberta.
Whooping crane. Photo: Ben Berg.
"It highlights the importance that parks and protected areas have for species at risk here in Canada," Giles said.
Since the protection of breeding and wintering habitat, the population has rebounded, especially since the late 1980s, to about 500 individuals. They are still considered an endangered species, however.
Peregrine falcon populations plummeted in the mid-20th century following the introduction of the pervasive pesticide known as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).
Peregrine falcon. Photo: Bridget Spencer/Macaulay Library.
Once an at-risk species, the peregrine falcon is making a comeback in Canada. This is in part due to the phasing out of DDT in 1990, but a captive breeding and reintroductions have played a larger role in the population rise. They’re no longer considered at risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
"They needed a lot of additional conservation actions to help them make their recovery. We've had a great success story with peregrine falcons. They've dramatically increased in abundance since," said Giles, noting they are no longer on the at-risk species list.
Prized for their blubber, commercial whaling drained humpback whale populations in the early 20th century. To counter over-harvesting while considering migratory behaviour and global distribution, the humpback whale became legally protected under two international conventions. Commercial harvesting of humpbacks was banned in 1955 in the North Atlantic and in 1966 in the North Pacific.
Humpback whale. Photo: Thomas Kelley/Unsplash.
While humpbacks are still contending with numerous threats, including vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and noise pollution, the introduction of legislation and international co-operation helped to save the species from the brink of extinction in the mid-20th century.
Thumbnail courtesy: Ryan Tidman (Vancouver Island marmot) and Alex Makarov/Unsplash (Atlantic puffin).