It’s an exciting year ahead for nine of North America’s endangered species. From charming rodents to elusive insects, the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo’s conservation programs are building hope for biodiversity. Through conservation breeding and reintroductions, we aim to return species on the brink of extinction back into the wild.
Our conservation programs include the recovery of iconic Canadian species such as Vancouver Island marmots, burrowing owls, and the greater sage-grouse. Our team is thrilled to share some of our 2021 wins and plans to secure a flourishing future for all living things.
“With the current rate of species extinctions, we need to act now to protect Canada’s unique biodiversity,” said Dr. Clement Lanthier, President & CEO. “I’m so proud to see communities coming together across the country to support the recovery of these threatened species. We’ve seen thousands of volunteers supporting citizen science efforts, garnered support from Government, non-profit, and industry partners, and welcomed new wild friends through our conservation efforts this last year.”
New Marmots at the Wildlife Conservation Centre
The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo welcomed 13 Vancouver Island marmot pups at the Wildlife Conservation Centre (WCC) in the spring of 2021. This Critically Endangered species is uniquely Canadian and found nowhere else in the world. Marmots are an important umbrella species, which means that protecting them will in turn protect nearby species sharing the same habitat.
The pups will overwinter at the Tony Barrett Mt. Washington Marmot Recovery Centre until Spring 2022 when they will be released into their natural habitat on Vancouver Island.
In addition, 14 marmots born at the WCC in 2020 were released onto the slopes of Mt. Washington and the Nanaimo Lakes area as part of the 2021 cohort released by the Marmot Recovery Foundation (MRF).
What’s next? Together with the MRF, our researchers at Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo will continue to collect data on the effects of supplemental feeding to improve body condition and overwinter survival with the goal of boosting reproduction and increasing marmot survival in the wild. Once on the brink of being lost forever, wild populations still face the threat of increased predation by wolves, cougars, and golden eagles.
Partners & Funders: Marmot Recovery Foundation and Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Team
A Big Win for Whooping Cranes and Citizen Science
The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo is the only Canadian breeding partner in the whooping crane recovery effort and has been contributing cranes for release into the wild since 1992 through its Whooping Crane Recovery Program. Three whooping crane chicks hatched at the WCC last spring making 2021 another successful year for whooping crane conservation.
Through the Zooniverse Whooping Crane Campaign, a citizen science initiative, over 100 whooping crane nests were located using satellite imagery. Thanks to support from a community of volunteers over 59,000 image chips were classified. This campaign has shown that using crowdsourcing to detect whooping crane nests in satellite imagery may be a viable way to supplement aerial nest surveys for population monitoring.
Though the whooping cranes have seen an increase in their population, there are still less than 700 of these birds in the wild. Our breeding program is key for recovering the iconic whooping crane which is one of two of North America’s only crane species.
What’s next? We will continue with its breeding and reintroduction program to help improve the fate of these endangered birds. Using innovative data collection devices in the shape of whooping crane eggs, the team can continue to study what causes reproductive failure in whooping cranes. Being migratory birds that travel between Canada and the United States, the team will do all they can to ensure they are ready for this journey upon their release.
Partners & Funders: ConocoPhillips Canada, Louisiana Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Parks Canada, International Crane Foundation, and Zooniverse
A Swoop in the Right Direction for the Burrowing Owl
Last year we helped to give 20 burrowing owlets (10 breeding pairs), an encouraging push towards survival. Head-starting is an innovative conservation technique to help bolster the wild burrowing owl population. The youngest and least likely to survive owlets are safely collected from the wild and cared for over winter at the WCC. The young owls are then released back into the wild in the spring as breeding pairs with the hope they will contribute offspring to the wild population. Researchers will continue to monitor wild owls and nesting success for the recovery of this species.
Burrowing owls call the Canadian prairies home and are an important indicator species for grassland habitat. The presence or absence of burrowing owls acts as an indicator for the health of the grassland habitat and other species that live there.
What’s next? Burrowing owls are still facing numerous threats in the wild and the number of nests in Alberta is quite low. We hope to expand the head-starting program and is aiming to release 30 owlets (15 breeding pairs) in 2023.
Partners & Funders: Alberta Environment and Parks and Environment and Climate Change Canada
The Northern Leopard Frog Leaping Towards Recovery
With only one native population of northern leopard frogs left in B.C., our researchers are giving it all they’ve got to ensure a positive future for this endangered species. Multiple conservation approaches are being taken including population surveys, habitat assessments, maintaining a conservation breeding program, IVF treatments, head-starting, and reintroductions. Frogs play an important role in wetlands as they support other species by transferring nutrients between aquatic and terrestrial habitats.
The 2021 breeding program included another year of bringing in eggs from the wild to supplement the breeding population. 202 head-started tadpoles and 43 froglets were reintroduced to B.C.’s Columbia Marshes. Some of the tadpoles that hatched from wild egg masses were held back to become part of the breeding program to maximize genetic diversity. Researchers also developed a feasibility assessment for the recovery of leopard frogs in Idaho.
What’s next? Researchers plan to develop a five-year reintroduction plan for B.C. northern leopard frogs, including looking at new reintroduction sites in the province.
Partners & Funders: B.C. Northern Leopard Frog Recovery Team, Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, National Resource Operations and Rural Development, Columbia Basin Trust, Columbia Valley Local Conservation Fund, and the Don and Eleanor Seaman Family Foundation
Cross-border Celebrations for the Fisher
It was a triumphant year for the fisher! 2021 marked the first known birth of wild fishers in the North Cascades of Washington State. The dam (mother), ‘Luna’ was one of 89 fishers from Canada released into the state as part of the collective recovery program. These forest-dwelling carnivores from the weasel family were extirpated, or locally extinct, in Washington in the mid-1900s.
Fishers have come a long way since then thanks to the combined efforts of the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo and our partners and 19 fishers were relocated last year. The teams are thrilled to see Luna thriving with her offspring in Washington State.
What’s next? Our teams plan to continue their studies on fisher physical and behavioural characteristics to see what is needed for a successful reintroduction into their historical habitat.
Partners & Funders: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Conservation Northwest, National Park Service, and MEG Energy
Planting the Seeds of Conservation
We are applying their expertise to support a conservation translocation initiative led by our partners that aims to protect Canadian plant species at risk in Ontario. This will be our first conservation program focused on plants.
Researchers have begun to survey sites, collect and sort seeds, and start propagation trials both in a greenhouse setting and in the wild. This research aims to grow the population of rare plant species in protected areas by using translocation as a recovery tool. The teams hope that this knowledge will also shine light on the life history of these unique Canadian plant species at risk.
Partners: University of Lethbridge, the University of Guelph, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Kayanase
The Greater Sage-Grouse Making the Prairies Home Again
In collaboration with our partners, we are leading Canada’s only reintroduction breeding program for the greater sage-grouse. This grassland bird species, which was once abundant across the prairies, has declined by approximately 90% in the last three decades. Today there are around 200 greater sage-grouse left in Canada. Our researchers are working to better understand what factors increase or decrease survival rates of the grouse after they have been released.
What’s next? Our teams will continue to release greater sage-grouse into the prairies of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan with two planned release periods in spring and fall.
Partners & Funders: Alberta Environment and Parks, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Joan Snyder for the Snyder-Wilson Family Greater Sage-Grouse Pavilion, Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Parks Canada
Learning More to Support the Underdogs of the Prairies
Working alongside our partners, we continued work in two areas of black-tailed prairie dog research: the development of a Habitat Assessment Tool and a genetic study. These playful rodents have a dynamic relationship with another grassland creature, the black-footed ferret. Black-footed ferrets rely on prairie dogs as a source of food and use their burrows for shelter. This means that learning more about black-tailed prairie dogs will support the recovery of both species which contributes towards the conservation of native prairie in Canada.
What’s next? Researchers hope to better understand the genetic diversity in the prairie dog colonies in Canada to help inform the management of the species, which are threatened by climate change and sylvatic plague, an invasive disease.
Partners: Parks Canada
Conservation is a Flutter with the Half-moon Hairstreak
The tiny half-moon hairstreak butterfly may not be big in the public eye, but it offers immense value to Alberta’s grassland ecosystem. In 2017, the Kenow wildfire burned more than 50% of their habitat, and along with other threats, led to the hairstreak being listed as Endangered in Canada. The hairstreak acts as a pollinator for beautiful wildflowers in Waterton Lakes National Park and is a key food source for other wildlife in the area.
What’s next? Our teams are working to learn more about this mysterious butterfly’s life history and current population status in southern Alberta. This will help them determine the best conservation actions to support the hairstreak’s recovery.
Partners & Funders: Parks Canada and Shell Foothills Legacy
Swift Foxes on the Rise
We are continuing its long term-monitoring efforts of swift foxes across the prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. As the population continues to grow, it may be easy to check the swift fox off as a conservation success story. However, their population is fragile and swift foxes still face the threat of reduced and low-quality habitat in the grasslands, so it is essential to keep monitoring the population.
What’s next? Researchers will continue their monitoring efforts to determine whether there is a need for future translocations of swift foxes.
Partners: Alberta Environment and Parks
The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo is showing Canadians that it is possible to bring endangered species back from the brink. Dr. Lanthier highlights the importance of connecting communities to protect biodiversity and create a bright future for these species at risk.
“Whooping cranes, Vancouver Island marmots and other species in Canada and around the world survive in the wild in part due to the work of the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo, but also with support from individuals and communities across the globe,” he said. “We’ve built our reputation as a global authority on wildlife conservation by protecting these species in our own backyard while also collaborating with local communities to foster economic solutions that benefit both animals and people.”
“Our work is made possible through the generous support of donors, partners, sponsors, and different levels of government. With such a passionate group of individuals driven to make biodiversity a priority, I am confident that there is hope in the future for these invaluable species.”
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