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Species at risk are the canary in the mine for our relationship with the earth.

Be they butterflies, snails or the more visible grizzly bear and woodland caribou, their loss is a direct example of society’s failure to manage the environment in a sustainable, renewable way. AWA will continue working to ensure that the habitat of species-at-risk and other wildlife is secure through the establishment of designated protected areas. AWA will also continue to support efforts that improve species-at-risk legislation and to enforce existing legislation in the spirit with which these laws were created.

    • Introduction
    • Concerns
    • Archive
    • Other Areas

    Indigenous and local varieties of plant and animal life are vital components of a wilderness landscape. Some species are especially sensitive to human activity and are worthy of special management to prevent their extinction or extirpation.

    Legally, species-at-risk do not receive adequate protection in most cases throughout Alberta. Recently introduced federal legislation only protects species on federal lands, while provincial legislation only sets up optional recovery plans without legal obligations to protect habitat.

    The major gap between the current legal definition of protection and a scientific one is that the species and its individual “nest, den or shelter” are protected by law, but habitat – key to the survival of individual organisms and the long-term survival of a species – is not protected in most of Alberta’s landscapes.

    At least five species are missing from Alberta’s landscapes: the extinct Banff long-nosed dace (extinct in 1986); plains grizzly bear and plains wolf (extirpated pre-1900); black-footed ferret (extirpated 1974, no longer any wild populations in Canada); and greater prairie chicken (extirpated 1990).

    Many more species are on the brink of extinction: there are currently at least 41 Threatened or Endangered species in Alberta, 15 of which are listed by the province and 37 by the federal government.

    Status

    Indigenous and local varieties of plant and animal life are vital components of a wilderness landscape. Some species are especially sensitive to human activity and are worthy of special management to prevent their extinction or extirpation. Legally, species-at-risk do not receive adequate protection in most cases throughout Alberta. Recently introduced federal legislation only protects species on Federal lands, while provincial legislation only sets up recovery plans without legal obligations to alter industrial development practices.

    The major gap between the current legal definition of protection and a scientific one is that the species and its individual ‘nest, den or shelter’ are protected by law, but habitat- key to the survival of individual organisms and the long-term survival of a species- is not protected in most of Alberta’s landscapes. Until adequate legislation is in place, AWA will continue working to ensure that species-at-risk and other wildlife habitat is secure through the establishment of designated protected areas.

    Each species-at-risk faces specific threats that jeopardize its existence. Some species are naturally rare in the world, like the Banff springs snail, which occurs only in a few hot springs in a single watershed. Other species are more common in some places but rare in Alberta (e.g., burrowing owl). Still other species were once abundant, but through years of neglect, industrial activities or over-hunting, they have declined to rarity (e.g., woodland caribou) or have gone extinct (plains grizzly). All species-at-risk are currently rare, often declining in number and vulnerable to extinction from human activity.

    The common thread among species-at-risk conservation is that the probability of their extinction is directly related to habitat amount.

    • Habitat is the component of a landscape that a wildlife population needs to maintain its existence.
    • This may include specific conditions, such as certain pH and temperature conditions in a hot water pool, or broad swaths of land where human activity is kept to a minimum, as in the case of grizzly bear and woodland caribou. In any event, habitat extends far beyond an animal’s “residence” to include foraging, seasonal cover, and mating grounds, as well as the necessary landscape features that will allow an animal to move between these locations.

    Most species-at-risk legislation in Canadian provinces and SARA, the federal Species at Risk Act, do not adequately address habitat protection.

    • Rather, most regulations, at best, prohibit the destruction of an animal’s residence. Such regulations can help to protect limited aspects of a species’ life history from a very specific threat, but this will not help the species in the long run if other habitat requirements are not protected.
    • To use an analogy, imagine that bulldozers came into your neighbourhood and flattened every school, grocery store, church, gas station, hockey arena and office building, or worse, they bulldozed your cropfield and chicken coop, and took away your tractor. Your house is still standing, but your days are numbered because your ability to carry out your daily functions is destroyed. Your habitat is gone. This is the situation, for example, when housing developments skirt around burrowing owl nests, in order to “protect” them, only to see the animals disappear in subsequent years.

    While habitat loss is the main factor affecting species survival, other factors are also working against at-risk species. These other factors are known as the “extinction vortex” by conservation biologists and include environmental and demographic stochasticity.

    • Environmental stochasticity has to do with changes in climatic conditions that can occur at different scales: small (e.g., an early spring), medium (e.g., a three-year drought) and large (e.g., global warming).
      • When populations are large they can adapt to these changes, even if a large proportion of individuals die in the process.
      • When populations are smaller, adaptations to the environment are more costly to the species, and the population suffers greatly with the loss of each individual.
      • Human activity exacerbates this situation by impeding species’ responses to environmental changes: for instance, if a highway blocks the migration route of woodland caribou as they adapt to seasonal fluxes in food availability and weather patterns.
    • Demographic stochasticity addresses changes to mating and genetics at low population numbers.
      • As fewer individuals from a population are present, the chances of finding a suitable partner becomes harder and harder. In this case, the definition of a “suitable partner” changes as well; as some species are prone to in-breeding, the genetic quality of surviving offspring suffers.
      • We all know of pure-bred dogs with hip problems – an obvious consequence of years of in-breeding. When this situation occurs in nature, wildlife are less able to forage, evade predators, respond to the environment and attract mates.
    • Eventually, the effects of a small population size will bring into play one or more of the many factors of the extinction vortex. For the most part, the role of humans in this situation has been to make animals increasingly vulnerable to natural phenomena that increase the probability of species extinction.
    • Thus, we cannot limit the vision of endangered species protection to the prohibition of destroying a “residence”; rather, society must find ways to provide wildlife with the space needed to continue their existence in a dynamic environment.

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I love bears and the wildlands where they live. Bears have fascinated me, scared me ‘til my heart pounded, and inspired me… They have helped me to learn about the diversity of life on earth and how nature works.
- Dr. Steven Herrero
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