|Endangered Species of Canada Stories by the Edmonton Journal, December 1999
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A GUIDE TO WILDLIFE AT RISK
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Species, a federal advisory group, has created a list of 340 animals and plants that are in some jeopardy. Here are the categories the committee uses:
Extinct The species no longer exists in Canada
Extirpated A species no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but can be found elsewhere.
Endangered A species that faces imminent extirpation or extinction.
Threatened A species likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed.
Vulnerable A species of special concern because of characteristics that make it particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events.
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Blue Flag [a flower]
Rare Banff snail [Physella johnsoni] an ecological barometer for hot springs
by ED STRUZIK, Journal Staff Writer, The Edmonton Journal, November 27, 1999
When 10 people scaled a three metre high fence to take a nocturnal skinny dip at Banff Cave and Basin hot springs last February, they were unaware that a beady eyed, slimy tentacled creature with a left coiling cone of armour was about to make life a nightmare for them.
Not that the creature in this case presented any real physical danger. Physella johnsoni is every bit the lethargic, slow moving snail which spends most of its life attached to a stick, rock, or the side of one of the concrete encased hot pools feeding on algae and other microscopic organisms.
But it is also the most endangered species in Canadas most famous mountain park, and the first mollusc to be placed on Canadas Endangered Species list.
That, in part, is why RCMP officers and park wardens quickly descended on the scene when the intrusion alarms were triggered that February, and why a short time later Judge John Reilly slapped the young revellers with fines ranging from $100 to $1,000. Reilly made it clear that the peril the intruders presented to the snails was the reason for the stiff penalty.
That the trial was an unusual one goes without saying. In an effort to get the conviction, the Crown brought in scientist Dwayne Lepitzki as an expert witness. The Cold Lake native, who was on contract with Parks Canada studying the snails, testified that just 10 days before the intruders entered the pool he counted 6,580 molluscs. After the nocturnal dip, he could only find 5,984.
"It wasnt a huge drop, but I believe the intrusion did have an impact," he said while reconstructing the chain of events at the scene of the crime.
"I think the judge did the right thing in sending such a strong message. Jumping in and out of the water causes severe havoc to the snails habitat. With the fluctuating water levels, some of the snails got stranded on the walls of the pool. Others may have been victims of the changing chemistry that the people introduced to the water."
Although some people have made light of the fact that so much attention was paid to such an innocuous creature, there are others who have proposed changing Banffs symbol from bighorn sheep to the snail.
Hands in the water
Lepitzki does not disguise his position on the matter. Even today, the sight of a park visitor dipping their hands into one of the hot pools makes him grimace at the possibility they may be introducing some harmful toxin or bacteria into the water.
"Think of the bug dope that most park visitors put on themselves. Maybe, it doesnt amount to much when its one or two people. But we get hundreds coming through here each day, and unfortunately, most of them cant resist the temptation to put their hands in the water to see what it feels like."
That Banffs snails are unique, there is no question. They are found nowhere else in the world, and their closest cousin is a snail found only at the Liard hot springs in northern British Columbia.
Whether they, like other small, seemingly innocuous creatures, merit as much attention as say the grizzly bear or the woodland caribou is one question that Lepitzki is often asked. And its one for which he has an answer.
"I dont have any doubt that they are as important as the grizzly. Just as grizzly bears are used to measure the ecological integrity of large areas of wilderness extending, for example, from Yellowstone to the Yukon, snails can be used to measure the health of smaller, perhaps more unique environments like these hot springs."
The hot springs, in this case, are extremely harsh environments with very little oxygen, unique forms of bacteria and algae, and large amounts of dissolved minerals which would kill other life forms.
Yet, somehow, this snail found a way to adapt. Just how is a question that intrigues Lepitzki, and other scientists.
Although the Banff snail was first described in 1926, it was another 70 years before the first study of the creature was launched. An expert in parasitology, Lepitzki was first called upon by Parks Canada to see if there was a connection between the sores that some hot spring bathers were suffering from in the mid 1990s and the snails or other creatures in the water.
The hot pools were subsequently closed to bathers, not because the molluscs posed any danger, but because the bathers posed a danger to the snails.
In 1997, the government appointed Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada classified the snail as "threatened," which means that if limiting factors are not reversed, it could become endangered and face extinction.
Since then, one study has led to another, and the lives of Lepitzki and the snails have been inextricably intertwined.
"I think I could spend the rest of my life studying these snails," says Lepitzki.
"There is just so much to learn about these creatures."
Lepitzki still isnt certain where the snails came from, what regulates their survival or even what they eat.
"What we do know is that they are unique, and that they are vulnerable."
There are less than 15,000 of them in the world, and they once occurred in only nine of Banffs hot springs. But theyve already disappeared from four.
Lepitzki discovered first had how vulnerable they were earlier this year when the plumber who regulates water flows out of the hot springs went on sick leave.
With the water levels dipping to dangerously low levels at one point, Lepitzki saw the population of the snails fall from the 3,288 that he counted in December 1998, to just four in early May.
"The numbers are starting to come back now that the water levels have been restored. But it just shows you how the slightest changes in the environment can affect the well being of the snail."
What the future holds for Banffs snails is uncertain. But the fact that it and a number of other species are having trouble surviving in a national park suggests that Parks Canada hasnt been a particularly valiant guardian.
Three fish are already in peril. The westslope cutthroat trout has been greatly reduced by introduced species. So has the bull trout. The Banff longnose dace, which is endemic to the Cave and Basin hot spring drainage, is now believed to be extinct.
Spotted frogs, long toed salamanders and wanderings garter snakes are either rare or uncommon and with restricted distribution.
"More than 60 per cent of all the species that have disappeared in the world over the past three centuries were molluscs," says Lepitzki.
"If we lose the Banff snail, well have lost an opportunity to learn how life can adapt to different environments," says Lepitzki. "Well have also lost a chance to ensure or restore the ecological integrity of a unique part of our national park."