Edge of Extinction

10 Canadian species on the edge of extinction

May 20, 2022 | Edge of Extinction, Species

Daniel Kraus

Daniel Kraus

Director of National Conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

This post appeared in Canada’s National Observer

For many people, the phrase “endangered species” brings to mind images of exotic wildlife. Even if you live in Canada, these words likely conjure tigers living in India, the last northern white rhinos in Kenya, or koalas that survived the wildfires in Australia.

Knowing about wildlife and conservation issues from around the world is important if we are going to save endangered species. But it’s perhaps even more important for people living in Canada to know about the plants and animals we have right here in our own country that are also endangered. Because these are the species where our actions at home will determine if they slip over the brink of extinction.

Today we celebrate Endangered Species Day, which is a day to build awareness and action about endangered flora and fauna. It’s also an opportunity for everyone to learn more about the other species that live on our planet and the steps we can take to save them.

Canada has hundreds of endangered species at risk of disappearing from our country and from our planet. Officially, there are 685 listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. You will probably have heard of some of these, such as polar bears and whooping cranes. But the list also includes species such as the northern madtom (a fish) and the bashful bulrush (a plant) that will perhaps never be included on the celebrity list of endangered wildlife but are equally at risk of being lost. Sadly, the number of endangered species continues to grow each year.

Wildlife Conservation Society Canada is highlighting 10 species teetering at the edge of extinction. These plants and animals, found across Canada, are facing threats that include habitat loss, competition from invasive species and climate change. For most, our actions have not been enough to stop their decline. For others, we don’t even have a plan to halt their extinction.

That’s a problem because we know smart conservation action can save species. We have turned the tide for the plains bison and the eastern bluebird, for example. But we were too late when it came to the Labrador duck or the Dawson caribou. We desperately need emergency measures to pull species back from the brink, but we must also be proactive in keeping wildlife away from the edge of extinction at which point recovery becomes enormously challenging and risky (as we are finding with mountain caribou).

Many of the solutions to stop extinction and reverse the decline of wildlife are waiting for us to act. We all have a role. Some of these actions will be described on this new SHAPE of Nature website, where you can learn more about “edge of extinction” species.

Wildlife Conservation Society Canada’s Edge of Extinction 2022

North Atlantic right whale
Photo: Getty Images

North Atlantic right whale

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the planet’s most endangered large mammals, with fewer than 350 remaining. They feed and mate in Canadian waters during the spring and summer before migrating more than 1,500 kilometres to the coastal waters of the southeastern U.S. to have their calves. Because they move slowly and float after being killed, they were once considered the “right” whale to hunt and were almost exterminated by commercial whaling. Today, vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, ocean noise pollution and climate change all threaten this whale.

Atlantic whitefish

The Atlantic whitefish lives in Nova Scotia and nowhere else in the world. Historically, this unique whitefish species lived in the ocean and migrated into freshwater to spawn. These migration routes were cut off with the construction of dams in the 1800s and today, the last wild population is restricted to lakes in the Petite Rivière watershed. This population continues to be threatened by invasive species and disturbances in the watershed. Greater support for the ongoing efforts by Coastal Action, Dalhousie University and other groups is needed to save this fish from extinction.

Atlantic whitefish

Northern Riffleshell

This aptly named small, colourful freshwater mussel lives in the riffles of rivers and streams. It can only be found in a few watersheds in eastern North America, including in southern Ontario. Its range has decreased by over 95 per cent because of water pollution and sedimentation and it is now threatened by invasive zebra mussels. Historically, the northern riffleshell and other freshwater mussels were harvested in Ontario to make buttons. Ontario is one of the few places left where the species is still reproducing. Protecting the water quality of the streams and rivers where it lives is essential for its survival.

Powesheik Skipperling

This small butterfly is now only found in a handful of places in Manitoba, Michigan and Wisconsin. In Canada, it’s only seen in tallgrass prairie habitats. Today, less than one per cent of this habitat remains. Habitat fragmentation and invasive species continue to threaten its small population. Ongoing efforts to protect and manage its habitat by the Nature Conservancy Canada, Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation and other groups are helping the poweshiek skipperling and other endangered species that rely on tallgrass prairie. The Assiniboine Park Conservancy is leading a captive breeding program.

Rusty patched bumble bee

The global population of this bumble bee has rapidly declined over the last few decades. It was once fairly common in wooded areas, mixed farmlands and even urban areas of southern Ontario and southwestern Quebec, but now occurs in less than one per cent of its original range in Canada. This decline is likely the result of pesticides, transmission of disease from domestic honeybees, habitat loss and severe weather as a result of climate change. Reducing these threats and protecting and restoring habitat are essential for the survival of this species.

Caribou

central mountain and southern mountain populations

Mountain caribou live in older coniferous forests, alpine slopes and high-elevation areas in Western Canada. The central and southern populations found in Alberta and B.C. have been rapidly declining, and the number of herds has diminished to fewer than 25 individuals or has disappeared in the last two decades. This decline is a result of habitat loss, fragmentation and industrial roads and trails that lead to unsustainable levels of predation. While there has been some protection of high-elevation areas, this hasn’t been sufficient because of ongoing development in low-elevation areas. Preventing extirpation has necessitated intensive management, like penning and predator control.

Mountain caribou
Photo: Wildsight
Photo: Bruce Bennett

Klaza Draba

The entire global range of this small, bright yellow wildflower is restricted to the Dawson Range in Yukon. It is known from only two sites and grows on exposed rock in the alpine tundra. It was discovered only a decade ago and may have survived the last ice age in these mountains. While potentially threatened by mining, the main concern for its future survival is climate change. Klaza Draba, and other alpine species with small ranges, may not be able to shift their range in response to rapidly warming temperatures and other changes to the climate.

Black ash

Black ash is a tree that grows in wet areas from Newfoundland to Manitoba. Like all ash, it is being decimated by the introduced emerald ash borer that was first found in Canada in 2002. The emerald ash borer is continuing to spread, and it is estimated that more than 90 per cent of black ash will be killed. Black ash is a dominant species in many wetlands and floodplain ecosystems. It also has great cultural significance to many Indigenous Peoples and is used in making baskets. While black ash may persist as a species, the ecosystem and traditional use of this species are at great risk of disappearing.

Roland’s sea-blite

Roland’s sea-blite is an annual plant with thick, succulent leaves that turn pale red in autumn. It has only been found in salt marshes along the coast of the Magdalen Islands in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, New York and New Jersey. More than half of its salt marsh habitat in Canada has been lost. It is also threatened by invasive species and rising sea levels as a result of climate change. It is listed as endangered in New York but has no official conservation status in Canada. More research is needed to map the range of this species in Canada and assess its conservation needs.

Sunflower sea star

The sunflower sea star has 16 to 24 limbs and can reach one metre in diameter. It lives along the Pacific coast and is an important part of the kelp forest ecosystem. A disease called sea star wasting syndrome has caused the population to crash by more than 90 per cent in less than 10 years. Over five billion sunflower sea stars have died, causing it to disappear from the southern part of its range. The cause of the disease is unknown but may be linked to warming ocean temperatures. Scientists in the U.S. are developing methods to breed this species in captivity and protecting remnant populations in B.C. will be critical for its survival.

Sunflower sea star, Brian Gratwicke

Photo: Brian Gratwicke/Flickr

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