Endangered Species of Canada Stories by the Edmonton Journal, December 1999

A Dwindling Legacy: Cover Story

Banff Snail

Burrowing Owl


Whooping Crane

Kangaroo Rat

Peary Caribou

Peregrine Falcon

Polar Bear

Woodland Caribou

Trumpeter Swan

Copyright: Edmonton Journal

Other Endangered Species Webpages

Alberta Special Places 2000

Endangered Species Webpage

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The Alberta Wilderness Association, Calgary, Alberta

Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society

World Wildlife Fund - Canada

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Green Links: If you live in the US, this links page will take you to organizations that make a difference.


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.

Endangered Species in Alberta - A Different Webpage:

Burrowing Owl

Blue Flag [a flower]

Bull Trout

Ferruginous Hawk

Northern Leopard Frog

Peregrine Falcon

Piping Plover

Swift Fox

Trumpeter Swan

White Pelican

Whooping Crane

Woodland Caribou


A Dwindling Legacy on the Brink

In a country so vast and pristine as Canada, many might find it hard to believe that hundreds of plants and animals are in serious danger of disappearing.

DENNIS HRYCIUK, Edmonton Journal Staff Writer, EDMONTON

In April 1991, biologist Wayne Harris was scouring the prairie in the pre dawn hours counting sage grouse on the "dancing grounds" of southern Saskatchewan, just as he had been doing for years as a consultant for the government.

Most of the time, he could hear the popping and burbling sound the male birds make before actually seeing one of them strutting about with its neck feathers raised, its wings and tail spread out and its head thrust back and forth in an attempt to attract a mate.

Only this time, there were precious few grouse to be seen or heard anywhere in the dancing grounds or leks.

Although it raised a warning flag at the time, Harris didn’t think much of it until the spring of 1994 when, working for the government once again, he organised a survey of sage grouse in that province.

"What we found was scary," he recalls. "A lot of the leks were abandoned. One lek that once had 80 males on it was down to 13. We’d seen dips in the populations before, but nothing like this. And it just continued.

"By 1997, we were left with only about 240 birds. That was down from 2,500 just a decade earlier. And then Alberta started to see similar declines. We didn’t know what the heck was going on."

Unable to determine what had caused the birds to disappear, a committee of scientists recommended adding the sage grouse to the list of endangered species in Canada.

Will the burrowing owl ever make a come back?

While the free fall of the population has since subsided, Harris has reservations about whether the prairie bird will ever make a come back.

"It’s a mystery as to what’s been causing this," says Harris. "It’s like the burrowing owl. It and a whole series of grasslands birds have been declining in a similar way this past decade or so and we don’t know what’s going on."

The Prairies are not the only region of the country losing wildlife.

At last count, there were 340 species of plants and wildlife in Canada, including 41 in Alberta, that are either vulnerable, threatened or endangered. Twenty seven of those are either extinct or extirpated (no longer found in this country). And those represent only the species that have been assessed thus far by a government appointed committee of scientists.

Taking into account the current backlog of assessments, and that about 80 species are considered each year, some 563 species are expected to be listed as "at risk" in Canada by 2004.

Some species have a limited range. Banff snails, for example, are found only in one small chain of connecting streams and hot pools in the mountain national park. Other species roam vast areas. Polar bears travel thousands of kilometres across the Arctic in search of food.

Twenty two other species, including the prairie grizzly, the greater prairie chicken and the great auk, went extinct decades ago.

Recognising that a number of other species were in imminent danger of dying out, Canada’s 13 governments agreed in October 1996 to the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk. The accord obliged, but did not legally require, them to provide protection and sufficient habitat for endangered wildlife.

Since then, close to 100 species have been added to the "at risk" list in Canada and, according to a coalition of national conservation groups, not a single government has lived up to its commitments.

Federal Environment Minister David Anderson promises to change that in February when he is expected to introduce the Endangered Species Act.

The bill is aimed at ensuring that once a species is declared at risk by a committee of bureaucrats, environmentalists and scientists, something will be done to stop further declines. That could mean restoring habitat or reducing — even stopping — hunting, fishing and industrial activity.

In extreme cases, the legislation would provide for heavy fines and jail terms for those who put an endangered species at risk or refuse to co-operate in efforts to rehabilitate the species.

The bill comes nearly seven years after the idea was first suggested by a House of Commons standing committee, and 26 years after the United States passed similar legislation.

Scientists and environmentalists want to see the bill’s fine print before giving Anderson too much praise.

"Deciding whether a species is at risk is clearly the role of scientists. That’s a no brainer," says University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler, who has sat on a federal advisory committee on endangered species.

"But unless the legislation makes provisions for the protection of habitat and the science that is required to assess the status of wildlife, it won’t matter who makes the decisions. You’ve got to have adequate habitat for species to survive. It’s that simple."

Faced with the possibility of a jail term or fines of up to $50,000 — two key features of the 1996 version of the federal bill that was never introduced — oil industry leaders, foresters, ranchers, farmers and other critics have a much different take on Anderson’s efforts.

The Fraser Institute, a right wing think tank, believes there is no crisis at all and that the list of endangered species in Canada is inflated with animals which can be found in other parts of the world.

Fears that new law will foster a ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ mentality

Others warn if compensation and incentives are not used to get the co-operation of landowners and managers, then an "American style shoot, shovel, and shut up mentality" may eventually prevail and endangered wildlife will be quietly destroyed by landowners and managers to avoid legal problems.

"It’s causing a great deal of agitation," says Peggy Strankman, manager of environmental affairs for the 100,000 member Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. "This legislation has the potential to turn the lives of people upside down and cause a great deal of confrontation."

The causes for the declines of wildlife species in Canada are complex.

In the Arctic and sub Arctic regions of the country, climate change is being blamed for the demise of the Peary caribou and the decline in polar bear births in southern Hudson Bay and James Bay.

In the boreal forest from British Columbia to Newfoundland, logging, oil and gas, mining and other industrial developments are destroying, fragmenting and isolating habitat critical to forest dwelling species such as the barred and northern spotted owls and the woodland caribou.

Elsewhere, pesticides and herbicides are killing plant species like the milkweed, the Monarch caterpillar’s only source of food, while industrial pollution is threatening marine life like the beluga whale in the St. Lawrence waterway.

In some cases, the demise of a species comes as a result of seemingly innocent acts such as people introducing an exotic plant or animal into the environment.

The Banff longnose dace, a small minnow, was recently declared extinct. It failed to compete with the guppies, swordtails, sailfin mollies and other tropical fish that had been released in the warm marsh below the famous hot springs by tourists and national park officials.

In most other cases, the reasons for the declines are much more complex.

In the three decade long freefall of the burrowing owl, for example, habitat fragmentation, predators, roads, power lines and changing grasshopper cycles have been implicated.

No one, as yet, has been able to pin it down. Some scientists believe the decline of the burrowing owl is simply a delayed response to catastrophic ecosystem changes on the Prairies over the past 100 years.

"I think the burrowing owl is doomed," says scientist Joe Schmutz, who studied the bird in southern Alberta in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. "There’s nothing we can do short of restoring hundreds of thousands of hectares of land and waterways on the Prairies to change that. I think we have to prepare Canadians for the fact that this bird won’t be around for long and do what we can to learn from this."

The news, however, is not all bad.

Thanks to a re introduction program, the swift fox, last seen in Western Canada in 1938, is now faring reasonably well in small pockets of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.

A Canada/U.S. effort over the last three decades has helped raise the population of migrating whooping cranes from a low of 14 in the 1940s to the 183 that flew south to Texas this fall from nesting grounds along the Alberta Northwest Territories border in Wood Buffalo National Park.

Scientists say wildlife can be rescued from the brink — if there is enough funding and political will

And thanks in part to a captive breeding program and a ban on the pesticide DDT, the once endangered peregrine falcon is well on the road to recovery all across the country.

"There’s no question that we can do something about the decline of many species of plants, fish and wildlife," says Schindler.

"What’s been lacking is the political will, the funding and the legislation to ensure that there is sufficient habitat for recovery efforts for these species to exist."

Schindler is one of many who believes that neither the federal nor provincial governments have had their hearts in promoting a law that protects and promotes the rehabilitation of endangered species.

The record of the past suggests he is right.

First proposed by a House of Commons committee in 1992, endangered species legislation was included in the federal Liberal party’s famous Red Book of election promises in 1993. But former environment minister Sergio Marchi’s version of the bill two years later never got through Parliament.

Then at a federal provincial meeting of wildlife ministers last September, the politicians decided behind closed doors to strip the voting powers of six scientists on the
Committee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Three national conservation groups on the committee were also to lose their seats.

The committee was set up by the federal government and the provinces in 1977 as a means of determining which wildlife species in Canada were threatened with extinction.

Only when the scientists vowed to resign en masse from the process — which relied, for the most part, on their volunteerism and goodwill — did the federal government back down.

Anderson has been talking tough on endangered species since he took on the portfolio this summer, reminding everyone he has the support of Prime Minister Jean Chretien in getting the job done this time around. He denies his efforts have anything to do with the fact a coalition of American conservation groups recently called on President Bill Clinton to issue trade sanctions against Canada for failing to protect species shared by both countries.

Anderson has vowed to go ahead with the legislation even if he does not have the full support of the provinces, which appears to be the case in Alberta. He has also indicated that criminal law sanctions would be used to ensure that endangered species are properly protected, but only as a last resort.

"Cattlemen are an enormously constructive group of people," he said. "We think that 99 per cent of them are going to be entirely responsible in terms of protecting habitat for endangered species."

U.S. Legislation sets a bad example, critics say

"There will, however, be the odd one who isn’t and if that person is located on a wildlife migratory corridor, the results could be disastrous. That individual could undo the work of 99 colleagues who are trying hard. So there is no question that under such circumstances we will be using the criminal law."

Ranchers and oilmen frequently point to the United States Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, as a reason Canada should not follow suit.

Imperial Oil lawyer Peter Millar claims the "potential (difficulties) for all natural resources sectors and the ranching industry are tremendous."

At a meeting of forest industry suppliers this past week, Millar noted the American law has caused so much trouble for landowners that one can go to the Yellow Pages and find consultants willing to manage endangered species on your property. "Well you know what those people do? They’ve got a gun, and they go to your land and shoot everything."

Millar warned a farmer could potentially go to jail for running over a burrowing owl that he never knew was on his property. Destroying pollen and seeds could also be a punishable offence, he said.

He also suggested an endangered species act would be one more legal tool for environmentalists to use to stall development projects.

Alberta Environment Minister Gary Mar says he’s alarmed that Criminal Code sanctions might be a feature of the new legislation. Whether such penalties are used as a last resort or not, Mar thinks it sends the wrong signals to ranchers and landowners.

"The mere suggestion by Minister Anderson that criminal law jurisdiction of the federal government will be employed in order to protect habitat and species puts all of that goodwill and co-operation required of the landowners at risk. I think he’s well intentioned and I have a great deal of respect for him, but on this particular point I think he’s stepping off in the wrong direction."

Fiona Schmiegelow, a University of Alberta scientist who sits on Premier Ralph Klein’s scientific advisory committee on endangered species, says the American bill has received a bad rap for being hard on business and landowners.

"If you actually look at the statistics from 1991 to 1996, 18,000 reviews of development projects took place. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in only 23 times with recommendations that the projects couldn’t go ahead without jeopardizing endangered species.

"Those are the ones you hear about unfortunately. It’s a very alarmist reaction that is really not based on the facts.

 White haired, weathered and quickly approaching his 78th birthday, Elmer Kure is the kind of straight shooting, individualistic Albertan who still hunts for food, won’t ever forgive Ottawa for the national energy program, despises the GST and spits bullets when the subject of gun control comes up.

On a cool sunny day in late October, Kure is strolling along a leafless aspen meadow on the banks of the upper Red Deer River, pointing out the clear deep pools that he, his son and grandson have fly fished over the years.

Distracted for a moment by a huge flock of Canada geese flying overhead across a trademark Alberta blue sky, the big, barrel chested farmer turns his gaze to tracks in the sand.

"Looks like a cow moose and her calf were through here this morning," he says as he adjusts the Report a Poacher" baseball hat on his head.

"Lots of deer and the odd elk can be found here as well. We used to get the occasional wolf and mountain lion passing through, but not anymore. The Dickson reservoir upstream kind of put an end to their wanderings down from the mountains years ago."

Not long ago, Kure and his son Collin signed an agreement with the province’s Fish and Wildlife Department that would see half of this 40 hectares of land untouched. It’s a small program not specifically aimed at endangered species that is now run by the Alberta Conservation Association, a non government agency that funds wildlife research and habitat protection projects.

What the Kures get in return is a break on property taxes and the satisfaction that they’re saving a part of the West that is quickly disappearing.

Kure, in fact, believes there is a need for a bill. But he’s convinced the only way it will work is if the federal government offers compensation and incentives to those who willingly set aside productive land to protect wildlife.

Anderson, however, is not entirely sold on the idea of compensation.

"I am cautious because no one should be paid for not crashing red lights," he said. "You want to be in a situation where, if you do crash red lights, there is a penalty.

"On the other hand, there may well be circumstances, very unusual circumstances, where very severe financial hardship results from the protection of critical habitat. Under those unusual circumstances, I can certainly understand compensation being made available."

Anderson clearly cannot do it all by himself. If he is to get anything near the $50 million a year or the federal endowment of $400 million to $500 million that the World Wildlife Fund of Canada suggests is needed to recover species at risk, he needs the support of his cabinet colleagues and the provinces.

Well under 10 per cent of the habitat in Canada is under federal control and most of the rest is controlled by private landowners, leaseholders and the provincial and territorial governments.

Alberta is one of a number of provinces that have demonstrated little support for endangered species, critics say.

While the province did commit itself to the Recovery of Nationally Endangered Wildlife, (RENEW) program, only five of the eleven recovery efforts targeted in the province, are operational. Last year, the province committed just $50,000 and less than three full time jobs for the recovery of nationally endangered species.

The premier’s scientific advisory council on endangered species acknowledges it does not have the financial resources or the scientific information to adequately assess the status of species in the province.

"The situation in the province is desperate," says Peter Lee, Alberta director of the World Wildlife Fund. "If the province is still intent on pushing forward with a Natural Heritage Act which allows for industrial development in provincial parks and wildlands, it will be at odds with all that the federal endangered species legislation is designed to do. It will confuse the public, and cause all kind of legislative uncertainty."

Scientists believe that adequate funding is essential if a national endangered species program is to be effective.

Last year, only $6 million was allocated for research into endangered land mammals across Canada. The United States, on the other hand, set aside about $250 million.

"The money that the United States is spending this year alone on the East Coast right whale, a species they share with Canada, is more than all we spend on all our terrestrial (land based) endangered species," says Peter Ewins of the World Wildlife Fund.

"Once you let a species slip into the endangered category, it is very difficult — economically, socially and biologically — to bring a species back. Anderson, I think recognises this. But he has to convince his colleagues in cabinet to make the financial commitment. And he has got to get the provinces to co-operate. That’s where the endangered species legislation is going to win or lose."

Ewins is well aware of the volatile nature of western Canadian attitudes to the proposed endangered species legislation. He also sees the need for incentives, but doubts they will be spelled out in detail in Anderson’s upcoming bill.

"I think what you’ll see is provision for some discretionary power for the minister to provide compensation or incentives in certain cases. The government, I don’t think, wants to commit to something that could cost it a great deal of money over the long term. In order to do the job, we have to have adequate finances and support."

 Jay Slemp grew up on a farm in the Castor area and now chairs the Special Areas that governs the Hanna region.

If there’s a hotbed of species at risk in Canada, it’s in his part of the world. The burrowing owl, the ferruginous hawk, Ord’s kangaroo rat, peregrine falcon, northern leopard frog, sage grouse, swift fox, prairie rattlesnake and several other birds and animals are found in these parts.

The region is also the best hope for the plains bison, which live only in gated areas south of Wood Buffalo National Park, and for the reintroduction of species no longer found in Canada such as the Blackfooted ferret.

While some Hanna area ranchers and farmers won’t stand for any scientist coming on to their land, the reception for the most part has been positive.

The situation could easily change if Anderson comes up with unpopular legislation, Slemp warns.

"People down here have a saying that they’ll walk a mile alongside of you, but they won’t be pushed an inch. In many ways, this act is seen as a push. You can’t use a big stick. You have to rely on co-operation. That’s the only way this thing will work down here."