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Meet the 8 endangered species that call northwest B.C. home

Northwest B.C. is frequently featured in travel magazines, touted as a place to  visit before you die, in large part to see its abundant and varied  wildlife. The region also faces increasing commercial and industrial  development and natural resource extraction, which threatens species  already struggling to survive. 

The region  is home to a dozen animals designated as endangered by the Committee on  the Status of Endangered Species in Canada, an independent group of  wildlife experts and scientists. The committee reports to Environment  and Climate Change Canada, which decides if animals should be added to  the official registry under the federal Species At Risk Act. Eight of  those 12 animals have been officially designated under the act to date.  Many more could end up on the list if the province continues to give the  green light to projects that have the potential to impact their  habitats.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2020,  global populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians  have declined an average of 68 per cent between 1970 and 2016. This  rapid loss of wildlife is often referred to as the sixth mass extinction event and the culprit, unlike the previous five, is us. 

As human populations continue to grow and expand, critical habitat for animals is  wiped out or fragmented, isolating populations into smaller and smaller  groups. It’s getting busier in our oceans, as we import and export more  products, and our seemingly insatiable consumption of natural resources  means our forests, mountains and rivers are increasingly under threat.  Industrial development sends greenhouse gas emissions into the  atmosphere and contributes to climate change, which is wreaking havoc on  animal species around the world.

“Having  good biodiversity and good diversity within populations can help  alleviate change,” Pippa Shepherd, a species conservation and management  ecosystem scientist with Parks Canada and a member of the committee,  said in an interview. “You want diversity within a species and the  diversity that exists among species, obviously, to be able to respond to  what is put in front of them.” 

Chris Johnson, also a member of the committee and a professor of ecosystem  science at the University of Northern British Columbia, said a lot of  good conservation work has been done in the province, but getting the  wheels in motion to protect a species can take years. 

“For me, a  big priority is to see species at risk legislation in B.C.,” he said in  an interview. “The federal act only applies to species that are found  across Canada and to be honest if a species was really abundant in  another province and was at risk in B.C., it probably wouldn’t be  assessed simply because nationally it’s doing okay.”

Meet the  eight officially endangered animals — and one familiar species in dire  straits — relying on what remains of northwest B.C. landscapes for their  survival.

The black swift is a small bird that nests in caves and on rocky coastal cliffs,  often setting up shop behind waterfalls to avoid predation. According to  its description on the federal species at risk registry, the black  swift could be profoundly impacted by climate change as decreases in the  annual snowpack and glacial melt cause those sheltered sites to dry up  and become exposed.

The bird  is fast and acrobatic and feeds while flying. The swift’s diet consists  of flying insects such as wasps, flies and beetles, as well as spiders  that catch rides on air currents. Conservative estimates suggest 10 per cent of insect populations worldwide are at risk of extinction, and this decline threatens the bird’s survival.  

This shellfish was once an important food source for First Nations along  B.C.’s coast, and the iridescent shells were used in ceremonial regalia.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the abalone commercial fishery nearly wiped out  the species, which has continued to decline despite a complete closure  of the fishery in the 1990s. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada,  less than one per cent of abalone spawn survive to adulthood and because  adults gather to breed, they are highly susceptible to poaching. Like  other filter-feeding shellfish, they are also extremely sensitive to  environmental changes and pollutants.  

In an  effort to save the species, several First Nations in the region have  been working to educate the public, prevent poaching and rebuild  populations.

As the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale is an iconic species. It  was hunted to near extinction in the first half of the 20th century, and  the population was fragmented into three subpopulations — Antarctic,  Atlantic and Pacific. The Pacific population that travels along B.C.’s  north coast and into Alaska waters has fewer than 250 individuals. 

Ship collisions are among the greatest threats to the species.  As international trade continues to grow, more high-speed container  ships are traversing the Pacific Ocean. Many ship strikes likely go  unreported, or even unnoticed, and because blue whales typically sink  when they die, it’s hard to gather accurate data. The International  Whaling Commission is developing a database of known ship strikes to identify “hot spots” where whales congregate near shipping routes so ships can avoid them. 

Like all whale species, the blue whale is at risk of entanglement in marine debris, such as abandoned or lost fishing gear. But scientists think blue whales can usually break free from most entanglements because of their size.

The blue  whale feeds on krill by gulping vast amounts of water containing the  tiny creatures and then pushing the water out through its baleen,  leaving the food behind. This process also leaves behind microplastics.  While the effects of ingesting microplastics are still not fully understood, potential impacts could include lower  reproductive rates, decreased immune system function and increased  vulnerability to diseases.  

The little brown myotis is the most common and abundant bat species in Canada.  Known to roost in buildings and forage near human habitation, the bat is  familiar to most people in northwest B.C. Its cousin, the northern  myotis, or northern long-eared bat, prefers old-growth forests for its  habitat and hibernates in caves, mines and tunnels. 

Northwest  B.C. populations of these bats may represent a last stand of sorts, as  both species succumb to white nose syndrome, a fungal disease from an  invasive pathogen that is spreading rapidly across North America. At  least seven provinces and 35 states have reported outbreaks, including B.C.’s neighbour to the south, Washington.  This is a big deal because eastern colonies have already lost 94 per  cent of their population to the disease, which attacks the bats in  hibernation.

Losing an  animal that can eat over 1,000 insects an hour — including mosquitoes —  would not only transform the ecological landscape but also the  socioeconomic landscape. A U.S. study on the economic importance of bats as natural pest control in agricultural settings estimated losses of at  least US$3.7 billion — and that doesn’t include downstream costs as  crops are sprayed with more pesticides and humans ingest those  chemicals.

Basking sharks are the second-largest fish species in the world. Slow-moving  filter-feeders, they can reach up to 12 metres long and 5,200 kilograms,  which is just shy of the average weight of an African elephant.

Historically,  the sharks would gather in groups of up to 1,000 off B.C.’s west coast.  Once considered a nuisance by Pacific fishers plying their trade in  those same waters, basking sharks were the target of eradication efforts  by the federal government from the 1940s to 1960s. According to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada recovery plan for the species, only 37 basking sharks were spotted in B.C. waters between 1996 and 2018.

The  biggest threats facing these creatures are entanglements with marine  debris and collisions with ships. Unlike blue whales, basking sharks,  big as they are, don’t have the girth to free themselves from fishing  gear.

The  species is slow to reproduce — females can take up to 20 years to reach  maturity — which means the sharks need help now to avoid extinction. To  that end, collaborations between government authorities, environmental  organizations and scientists are underway. Janine Malikian, a  communications adviser with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told The  Narwhal in an email that B.C. residents can help. 

“The  public can play an important role in helping the population recover by  reporting any possible sightings of basking sharks and providing  photographs to verify sightings.” 

The North Pacific right whale is one of three distinct right whale subspecies. Its  population is in the hundreds and some subpopulations may be under 50  animals. While some of these subpopulations may still travel through  northwest B.C. waters, the last whale seen here was in 1970. There have  been a handful of unconfirmed sightings since, but this population is on  the brink of extinction. 

North  Pacific right whales were once abundant along the west coast of North  America, in the waters around Hawaii, off the coast of Japan and in the  Arctic waters of Alaska and eastern Russia. Starting in the mid-1800s,  right whales were hunted to near extinction. Despite a 1937 ban on the  commercial harvest of right whales by the International Convention for  the Regulation of Whaling, illegal whaling of the species continued  until the 1960s.

In 2004,  researchers identified a group of 23 animals — including two calves — in  the Bering Sea. No right whale vocalizations were heard during acoustic  surveys conducted in the late 2000s off B.C.’s coast.

Sei whales are the third-largest whale species and, according to the International  Whaling Commission, the least understood. Like many cetacean species,  sei whales were hunted to near extinction during the heyday of  commercial whaling in the Pacific in the 1950s and 1960s. There are  fewer than 250 individuals that frequent Canadian waters. While there is  an international ban on commercial whaling of the species, Japanese  whalers still kill up to 134 sei whales every year under Japan’s  scientific whaling program.

The Canadian government, in its conservation studies of the species, noted the danger of increasing shipping traffic from Kitimat as LNG projects are completed. Based on historical data, the report said the shipping  routes from Kitimat likely cross critical sei whale habitat and  highlighted spills and ship strikes as the main threats to the species’  survival.

Sockeye salmon are not officially endangered, but some populations have already  gone extinct and some subpopulations are under consideration for  designation on the federal registry. Many sockeye returns throughout  B.C. have been declining for at least 70 years. 

SkeenaWild  science director and PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University Michael  Price said in an interview the call for salmon conservation has been  ongoing for a century. “Alarms have been sounded decade after decade for  100 years.”

In  northwest B.C., endangered populations include the Bowron,  Takla-Trembleur and Quesnel. Both the Bowron and Takla have seen steady  declines for years, but the annual catch of the fish has remained high.  Marine and freshwater habitats are continually under pressure from ports  and marine export terminals, mines and forestry. The Quesnel population  faces all those threats as well, but has the added potential threat of  pollutants from the Mount Polley tailings dam failure. 

Price said  he’s often asked if he thinks sockeye will become extinct. “At a  species level, no, I think they will persist. They’ve persisted for more  than a million years, and look what they’ve gone through.”

But he  said the implications of losing a spawning population are complex. He  noted that direct consumers of the fish like bears and wolves rely on  salmon returns in multiple areas for sustenance. One population in a  creek or river might provide a food source for two weeks and once that’s  gone, those animals will put higher pressure on other tributaries. But  it’s the loss of biodiversity in the ecosystem that has far-reaching  effects.

“Salmon  put on the bulk of their weight in the ocean and they’re bringing those  nutrients back to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as those consumers  bring them into the forest and provide nutrients for even the smallest  of critters like insects, which fuel the annual  migrations of songbirds,” he said. “So they’re entirely connected to  the ecosystem. The loss of any of these individual spawning populations  will be a diminishment of its biological community.”

Price  added that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has done a good job of protecting  the species in recent years, but commercial fishing of salmon continues  and the best solution might be a dramatic shift in the way we view the  fish. “I think there’s an argument to be made that, like we ended  whaling in British Columbia, maybe it’s time we took a step back and  stopped exploiting species such as salmon for economic gain, keeping those fish for the watersheds that they’re returning to and providing food for local individuals and local ecosystems.”

Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Narwhal

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