|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]
The Edmonton Journal
November 27, 1999.
Edging back from brink of extinction
Journal Staff Writer
ELK ISLAND NATIONAL PARK
National park warden Rob Kay was understandably anxious to show off the family of trumpeter swans that inhabited a remote part of Elk Island National Park this summer.
Last year, the parents were the first to successfully raise a family of cygnets in the park ;in more than a century. This year, they not only returned with one of their cygnets, the produced seven more young/
Kaye kept the news secret until the end of August when the most serious threats to cygnet survival had passed.
But then one of the young birds went missing the day he decided to show off the family. Then three more disappeared over the course of the next two weeks.
"We dont know what happened to them," said Kaye. "Youd think that by this time theyd be too big for an eagle. And I cant see that a coyote, which is capable of killing a cygnet, could have got as many as four in that time."
For the next few weeks, Kaye crossed his fingers, hoping that whatever it was that was killing the birds wouldnt strike again. Only when the family took flight in early November did he allow himself to breathe easier.
"Losing four chicks from a family of this size is about normal," he said. "So in spite of some tense weeks there, they did just fine."
Although the trumpeter is one of few birds in Canada that has come back from the brink of extinction, it inhabits only a fraction of the territory it occupied more than a century ago.
Thanks to continental wide efforts, the species recovered sufficiently to be taken off the endangered list in Canada in 1996. It is still blue listed in Alberta, however, which means that it is considered to be a t risk.
With an average weight of 12 kilograms and a wingspan of 2.3 metres, the trumpeter is the continents largest bird. Few sounds in the natural world are as hauntingly beautiful as the sonorous, French horn like call that it makes to communicate.
Once very common
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, trumpeters were common from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. But their feathers, quills, down and skins which were used for everything from the manufacture of pens to powder puffs and bedding quickly became a hot commodity in Europe. In 1806, the Hudsons Bay Company exported just 396 trumpeter skins. By 1818, the number had risen to 2,463. In 1928, one report tells of a sale of 5,072 skins in April, and then later 347,298 goose, swan and eagle quills and wings being sold in one day in London.
Ironically, John James Audubon, the ornithologist/artist whose name became synonymous with 20th century conservation values, treasured trumpeter quills because they were "so hard, and yet so elastic, that the best steel pen of the present day might have blushed, if it could, to be compared to them."
It didnt take long to push the bird to the brink of extinction. In 1932, the population in the United States was estimated to include just 69 birds. Six years later, Canada could only account for 100 swans. All of them were breeding in the Grande Prairie region. At the time, no one knew there was another population in Alaska.
"I dont think people realise just how close to extinction trumpeter swans were at one point," says Gerry Beyersbergen of the Canadian Wildlife Service. "Although they are no longer considered to be at risk, I think it would be wrong to be complacent about their future. They could just as easily fall back at some point."
The strategy now is to get the great white birds to recolonize their traditional range. The plight of the trumpeter swans at Elk Island illustrates just how difficult a task that is.
Since 1987, Parks Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Friends of Elk Island National Park have captured and released 130 swans from the Grande Prairie area. Of those, only 25 returned to the park the following year.
This year, there were only eight adult swans at Elk Island. The others died during migration, were killed by predators, died as a result of transplant efforts, or have gone to other locations.
As the warden assigned to the trumpeter recovery program, Kaye has experienced more than his share of ups and downs.
In 1995, he was there when a pair of produced five cygnets. Within a month of hatching, however, not a trace could be found of the cygnets or the female.
Kaye was encouraged to see the male return in 1996 with a new partner. But they didnt produce any young that year. And when they returned in the spring of 1997, the female went missing. The male and his third mate finally produced two cygnets this year.
The cruelty of nature
But both were born the night of a violent thunderstorm that brought in cold, rainy weather.
"They were both dead the next day," said Kaye. "When you consider that we have another male here that has gone through the same series of misfortunes, you realise just how difficult this whole process is (but) it is pretty much what youd expect elsewhere. It takes a long time to reintroduce these birds to their former range. After 12 years, were still in a position where one bad year could put us back to square one."
Beyersbergen has been co-ordinating the recovery program in the prairie region since 1994. Earlier this summer, he conducted his annual aerial survey of the Grande Prairie area population and found 277 birds with 136 young.
"Had we had a better summer, we would have seen a lot more," he said.
"It was a cool, wet year. But I think a majority are going to make it south all right."
One thing going against the trumpeter this far north is the length of time it takes to hatch an egg and nurture a cygnet along until it can fly. Its not uncommon to see cygnets taking their first flight just before the first big snowfall.
"If winter comes early, it doesnt give the cygnets a lot of time and experience to prepare for the fall migration, which is long and hazardous," says Beyersbergen.
"Thats why in some ways, its amazing that we have birds all the way up to the Nahanni region in the Northwest Territories."
That said, Beyersbergen is optimistic about the future thanks in part to the fact the bird is recolonizing some areas of Western Canada on its own.
"Alberta now has four to five pairs in the Pincher Creek/Cardstone area, another 10 to 12 in the Edson/Whitecourt region, three pair at Lac La Biche and reports of another pair at Drayton Valley. Were seeing similar positive developments in Saskatchewan, and the swans that have been reintroduced to Southern Ontario have really been growing in recent years. Its really gratifying to see this species making such a strong comeback."
The other big challenge now is to find new wintering habitat for the expanding population of birds.
The Greater Yellowstone area of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has pretty much reached it carrying capacity for wintering birds.
Getting the swans to overwinter elsewhere is a problem," says Beyersbergen. "In some ways, its liking teaching an old dog new tricks. Some of our Elk Island birds did hook up with tundra swans flying south and overwintered in Oregon and California. But where they ended up, we do not know."