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Canada 150

Six Canadian animal icons that are in dire straits

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Saturday, July 1, 2017, 11:01 AM - Canada’s 150th birthday is good time to check in on some of our most iconic wildlife. And, sad to say, some of our most favourite species are not in good shape.

Here's a look at six that are being squeezed by climate change, human activity, or a combination of both.

Wolverines haven't been seen in Quebec in decades

Small, foul tempered, sharp-clawed, and capable of taking on prey several times its size.

All the above applies to the popular Marvel character Wolverine, and it’s no accident that the famous Canuck embodies the traits of the real-life wolverine.

The incredible hardiness of the wolverine, despite being only around a metre long, is legendary. Take a look at this classic clip of one such beastie chasing a bear up a tree, then harassing it on the ground (and take special care to note that one of these things is considerably larger than the other):

Unfortunately, its indomitability is no defense against the challenges of the modern world. Though the species is doing fine in most of north America, in eastern Canada, the population is in such rough shape that fewer than 50 individuals are believed to be in the wild. Nature Canada says that while there have occasionally been unconfirmed sightings, wolverines have officially not been seen in Labrador since the 1950s and Quebec since the 1970s.

What’s brought the proud and terrifying wolverine low? According to the Canadian government, overhunting for its pelt is one culprit, as is climate change (which affects the snow cover upon which they rely for their winter dens), development activity, and being regarded as a menace by property owners.

Barren-ground caribou are dwindling 

The teeming herds of barren-ground caribou that roam the Arctic tundra are increasingly less teeming.

The widely ranging mammals, cousin to the reindeer, migrate great distances to specific calving grounds each year, but wildlife monitors have been increasingly urgent about the severe threats they face.

As the climate continues to change, driven in large part by human activity far away from the Arctic, freezing rain events are becoming more common, coating the ground with thick ice and cutting off the caribou from the lichen and other plants that make up their main diet. 

Declining sea ice also makes some of their migratory routes unreliable, and WWF-Canada says increasingly industrial activity is also taking its toll on the caribou, who are very sensitive to changes in their environment.

It all adds up. WWF-Canada says all but two of the 14 barren-ground caribou herds have been declining, some by more than 90 per cent. Late last year, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada designated the caribou as a threatened species.

Polar Bears are losing the ice they depend on

If there’s a head honcho of the Arctic food chain, it’s the polar bear, and northern Canada is home to more than half of the world’s population.

But the tens of thousands of bears that call the Arctic home are globally considered a vulnerable species, and in Canada, it is considered a species of concern under the Species At Risk Act.

RELATED:  8,000 polar bears at risk by 2050

Being an apex predator with no natural foes hasn’t done much to protect polar bears from climate change, which is causing sea ice to retreat, robbing the bears of the access they need to hunt seals and other food sources. WWF-Canada says that means the bears will likely spend more time on land and less time on their traditional sea ice hunting grounds.

“Current knowledge shows that polar bears have some capacity to adjust to the warming Arctic, but the loss of sea ice habitat may be happening too rapidly to allow for adaptation and there are no substitutes on land for the fat rich seals on which the bears depend,” WWF-Canada says on its website.

That doesn’t mean the bears won’t try, which will mean conflict with human populations as the bears are attracted to communities, attracted by trash and other alternative food sources.

The Atlantic cod isn't getting better

The Atlantic cod is a long-standing icon of the East Coast, particularly Newfoundland, even now, 25 years after the Federal government imposed a commercial fishing moratorium.

It wasn’t hard to see why. Overfishing led to the collapse of the fishery to an extreme degree. Heritage Newfoundland said the spawning biomass of the fish -- the amount of fish that are mature enough to spawn -- declined by 93 per cent in only three decades. 

Still, the cost of saving the last of the dwindling stock was devastating. Heritage Newfoundland says some 30,000 people on land and at sea were out of work, some 11 per cent of the small province’s workforce. Seeking work elsewhere, the population declined by 10 per cent in the following years.

You’d think a decade and a half would be a good amount of time for such a crucial economic resource to recover somewhat, but although there are occasionally promising signs of a rebound, the Atlantic cod population in eastern Canadian waters was declared an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in 2016.

At the time, scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) told CBC the culprits for the new, more dire status were the half-a-million grey seals in the northwest Atlantic. The teeming, opportunistic predators were considered a major threat to the depleted cod population. 

It seems a return to the glory days of the cod fishery are still a long way off.

Two of Canada’s favourite whales are in bad shape

All three of the oceans that wash Canada’s shores are teeming with whales, but two of the many species that call our waters home are in rough shape.

We’ll start with the friendly-looking beluga whale. With its smooth, dolphin-like appearance and just a hint of a smile if you squint just right, it’s a favourite among whale watchers.

However, though the beluga’s status is hit-and-miss in Canadian waters as a whole, it is endangered in Quebec, specifically the St. Lawrence Estuary, eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay areas of the province. That’s due to a number of factors, such as habitat loss, limited food, excessive noise from shipping and whale watching, as well as climate change and environmental pollution.

Another widespread denizen in danger of disappearing from our sight is the killer whale, particularly symbolic of the West Coast.

Most of its populations in Canada are considered threatened under the Species At Risk Act, but the ones that are resident in the waters of British Columbia are considered endangered, with fewer than 80 individuals remaining in the wild according to the Species At Risk Act registry.

WATCH BELOW:  'Old Thom' the orca is back in the Bay of Fundy

SOURCES:   SARA Registry (Wolverine)  |  Nature Canada  | WWF-Canada  | DFO (Atlantic cod)  | Heritage Newfoundland | Heritage Newfoundland  | CBC News  | DFO (Killer whale) | SARA Registry (Beluga)

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