Habitat Connectivity is a Critical Part of Wildlife Conservation

When Ian Tyson once sang about a pack of wolves longing for their former home, dreaming of the sound of another pack answering their calls, he imagined the leader of the pack lamenting, “I’m a long, long way from the Yellowhead, here in Yellowstone”. It’s possible that Ian Tyson’s wolf wasn’t actually thinking about the possibility of a connected route from Wyoming back to his former home in the wilderness of the British Columbia-Alberta border; however, thanks to a large conservation initiative, that kind of connected wilderness is precisely the goal. In fact, those wolves might have traveled from Yellowstone all the way to Yukon.

“We must build a coherent view of what the 21st century ought to look like, and at the heart of that must be wild nature.” – Harvey Locke, Y2Y founder

I’m a little late to the party on learning about this initiative, but while reading the January/February 2017 issue of Canadian Geographic, I came across an article on the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. The magnitude and incredible potential of the project immediately struck me as something truly amazing for wildlife on this continent. Although I was coming across the initiative for the first time, Y2Y has been working with over 300 partners since 1993 to create an “interconnected system of wild lands and waters stretching from Yellowstone to Yukon, harmonizing the needs of people with those of nature”. Since it began, Y2Y has made important advancements in securing core habitat for a suite of wildlife, which include the purchase of 200 000 hectares of private lands and 7 150 hectares of additional lands in British Columbia. In addition, Y2Y was involved in establishing two additional National Park reserves in the Northwest Territories and a 6.5 million hectare are of protected lands in British Columbia.

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The Y2Y corridor. Map Credit: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

Why is habitat connectivity so important for North American conservation?

We have some outstanding organizations and initiatives throughout North America dedicated to the conservation of species, habitats, wild and public lands, and the interests of various user groups. I’m a member of a number of them and I appreciate the work they do. Often, however, our conservation efforts are limited by arbitrary political divisions that have been imposed on this continent in the form of provincial, state, and national borders. In terms of conservation, these borders are arbitrary because they were not designed to follow ecological, geological, or hydrological features. They were not designed based on watersheds, mountain ranges, ecosystem types, climate zones, wildlife migratory pathways, or other natural landscape features. As we all know, however, water, wind, and wildlife are not constrained by political borders. As a result, environmental management of a landscape is often distributed between multiple jurisdictions, which often results in a lack of coordinated effort in decision-making.

One of the greatest environmental legacies of European colonization and settlement in North America has been dramatic land cover and habitat changes that accompanied the spread of agricultural and human development throughout the continent. Human developments such as roads, railways, transmission lines, dams, urban infrastructure, and agricultural fields have broken up once connected ecosystems into a patchwork of disconnected, fragmented habitats. According to WWF-Canada, 61 of 167 sub-watersheds across the country are highly or very highly fragmented.

Source: WWF-Canada

In addition to direct habitat conversion for human needs, climate change and other environmental changes have the potential to increase habitat fragmentation. For example, sea ice in the Canadian Arctic is an important habitat that provides a platform for the movement and dispersal of species such as fox, wolves, and caribou. Sea ice loss due to climate change may result in Arctic wildlife populations that find themselves living in increasingly fragmented habitats. Habitat fragmentation has become one of the most important conservation issues affecting North American wildlife.

In terms of the effects of habitat fragmentation on wildlife, when populations are confined to small and disconnected patches of habitat, they are more vulnerable to events that threaten their survival, such as natural disasters (referred to by ecologists as “stochastic events”). For instance, wildlife populations rely on genetic interchange, the process through which individuals of local populations travel to new areas and breed with individuals of other populations, to maintain resistance against diseases and pass on heritable strengths. Without the ability to travel and breed, the effect is that small, restricted populations of wildlife are increasingly vulnerable to local extinctions.

The flip side of habitat fragmentation is referred to as habitat connectivity: linkages between different sections of habitat cover. However, the importance of habitat connectivity goes beyond simply individual animals moving between, for example, a bedding and feeding area. Connectivity is important for both the structure (physical components of habitats) and function (the ability of an ecosystem to carry out the processes that keep it healthy) of ecosystems.

The United States National Forest Service, in its National Forest Management Act (2012), draws attention to the broad importance of connected habitats that contain linkages that facilitate the exchange of abiotic (or non-living) habitat components, such as water flow, sediments, and nutrients; the movements of wildlife, both within their home ranges and on larger scales that allow for genetic exchange between populations (a key biological factor in maintaining healthy and resilient populations); and longer distance range shifts that allow species to expand into new habitats and regions.

“Any comprehensive strategy for conserving biological diversity requires maintaining habitat across a variety of spatial scales and includes the maintenance of connectivity, landscape heterogeneity and structural complexity.” – Planning for Connectivity, 2015

Habitat connectivity has been identified by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as an important global conservation need. The CBD developed a collection of 20 global biodiversity targets to be addressed from 2011-2020 (known as the “Aichi Biodiversity Targets”). Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 positions the expansion of Protected Area networks as one of the cornerstones of conservation action to improve the status of global biodiversity and specifically identifies the need for “an increased focus on representativity, connectivity and management effectiveness” in biodiversity protection worldwide. Since their inception as a deliberate conservation strategy, Protected Areas have been the cornerstone of conservation in North America. As a recent example of the impacts of Protected Areas to conservation, a bison reintroduction program in Banff National Park (Alberta, Canada) has successfully led to the births of 10 bison calves, the first bison born in the park in 140 years.

The challenge facing a global Protected Areas network is in creating an interconnected system of habitats across landscapes. Protected Areas are typically planned by distinct political and administrative jurisdictions and often opportunistically, rather than with a landscape level focus on creating large, continental networks. Habitat connectivity is a particular need for large animals, and especially large carnivores. In North America, flagship species for promoting habitat connectivity have often been grizzly bears and caribou, which both require large areas of habitat and intact corridors, and which have both experienced population declines as a result of degraded habitat quality.

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Source: CBC

A recent study of habitat connectivity and tigers in India illustrates the importance of Protected Areas in safeguarding and increasing habitat quality for a large carnivore species. India is considered the hotspot for global tiger conservation. Tigers currently occupy only 7% of their historic range in India, largely as a result of massive land conversion throughout the country in response to growing population, which has resulted in a significant reduction in forest cover throughout India. Only 5% of India is part of a Protected Area network, but perhaps more important than the actual percentage of area that is protected are the size of Protected Areas relative to the habitat requirements of tigers and the connectivity between these areas. In the case of tigers, the size of individual Protected Areas is often insufficient for their needs, meaning that connections between tiger habitats are critical for both species dispersal and population recovery, and these habitat connections need to be strengthened.

A 2015 study of the functionality of Protected Area networks in facilitating species dispersal specifically identified transboundary (across political borders) connectivity as an important aspect of biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, the study found that transboundary connectivity is in need of improvement, requiring better cooperation between governments. To bring this back to a North American context, the Y2Y Conservation Initiative is specifically addressing this kind of transboundary connectivity with a 3 500 km corridor of Protected Areas that spans multiple jurisdictions.

The moral of this story is that conservation on a national, continental, and global scale needs to be ecologically-based, focused on maintaining the structures and functions of ecosystems through connected habitats. If the Protected Area system is going to continue to be an important part of our conservation strategy, which it is, then it has to be based on the needs of wildlife populations and ecosystems and the realities of environmental pressures confronting conservation today. In Canada, we have committed to expanding both our terrestrial and marine Protected Area networks by 2020. It is commitments and work on the scale of the Y2Y initiative that could very well be the key to the future health of thousands of wildlife species in this country.

To be successful, I think that conservation needs to be a part of our everyday lives, realities, and landscapes. Conservation can’t only be that thing that occurs at a distance, removed from humans, behind the fancy gates of parks, or as some static ideal that we hear news clips about once in a while. To me, conservation is something that we should be surrounded by, not something we visit. We need to learn firsthand what it means for landscapes to be connected, both to other landscapes and to ourselves. Long-term, large-scale connectivity, then, is about more than only linkages between patches of ground. To me, the quest to create habitat linkages is also somewhat of a metaphor for the integrated nature of how I think we should connect and live with conservation.

The Best 17 Dollars I Spend Every Year

In my opinion, one of the most important and commendable steps in North American wildlife conservation came in 1916, many years before Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management (1933) or A Sand County Almanac (1949). It came at a time when North Americans were really beginning to take notice of the disappearance of wildlife on this continent, signalled by dwindling buffalo, beaver, and wild turkey populations, and the complete disappearance of the passenger pigeon in 1914. August 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty, signed between Canada and the United States to protect North American migratory bird populations from overharvesting and market hunting.

Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

Northern pintails (Anas acuta) are one of my favourite species of ducks. They’re elegant and sleek looking.

Verleius Geist, a Canadian biologist and strong proponent of what has come to be known as the North American Model of Wildlife Management, puts Canada’s entry into the Migratory Bird Treaty in the context of alternative approaches to wildlife management in other countries. As a British colony, says Geist (2001), Canada “could easily have adopted the mother country’s wildlife policies. Instead, Canada chose a path that paralleled that of the United States, allowing the best minds on both sides of the border to engage in constructive cooperative efforts”. I believe the Migratory Bird Treaty represents a great example of these efforts. At the root of Canada’s approach to cooperatively managing migratory birds is the notion that “Canadians are temporary custodians, not the owners, of their wildlife heritage”. This is a powerfully humble and thoughtful way to conceptualize our responsibility towards wildlife on this continent.

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Henry Henshaw, an American ornithologist who was involved in bringing attention to declining waterfowl populations in the early 1900s.

Typically, wildlife in North America is managed at the provincial (Canada) or state (U.S.) level, but migratory birds are managed federally. Once signed, each country was responsible for enacting legislation that would guide national efforts to implement the treaty. In Canada, we have the Migratory Birds Convention Act (MBCA), and south of the border the U.S. passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBCA in Canada includes the Migratory Birds Regulations, the Migratory Birds Sanctuary Regulations, and the Migratory Game Bird Hunting Regulations, which are each responsible for regulating a different aspect of migratory bird management.

Just to put the timeline in perspective here, the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed in the middle of World War I, at a time when political attention and federal revenue were certainly being pulled in other directions. Yet, conservationists and governments recognized the value in protecting wildlife populations and habitat and I think we need to applaud the governments of that time. Difficult decisions and worthwhile sacrifices have been made in the past to conserve wildlife and there really is no excuse for our generation to ignore our responsibilities on this front. Healthy wildlife and habitat in the future is worth the expense.

This year, both the American and Canadian departments responsible for implementing migratory bird management had good reason to celebrate the 100 years of conservation efforts. To fund conservation activities, the Canadian federal government relies on revenue from the sale of Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation stamps (the Federal Duck Stamp in the U.S.). Beginning in 1985, with a painting of a pair of mallards by famous Canadian painter Robert Bateman, the Duck Stamp is a postage stamp that is affixed to a Migratory Game Bird Hunting Permit. The stamp costs $17 annually and has generated over $50 million in funding for more than 1,500 conservation projects throughout the country. Although it is purchased primarily by waterfowl hunters, anyone can buy a Duck Stamp and contribute to migratory bird conservation.

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Ducks Unlimited Canada reports that from the first migratory bird sanctuary established in Quebec in 1919 to protect seabird colonies, we now have 92 sanctuaries across the country. Today, migratory bird legislation protects over 400 species of waterfowl. As a result, duck populations throughout North America are healthy and stable with an estimated 48.4 million breeding ducks (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). In other words, the Migratory Bird Treaty worked. Representing the largest international wildlife agreement of the time, it brought waterfowl populations back from dangerously low numbers and made a powerful statement about North America’s commitment to wildlife.

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Estimated populations of duck species in North America (Link to original DU page).

Though we have reason to celebrate the millions of ducks, around 9,000 trumpeter swans, and plenty of Canada geese on this continent, the work is not over. As migratory species, a waterfowl species’ habitat is spread over the length of the continent. flywaymap Each year, waterfowl migrate between their summer breeding grounds and wintering grounds using four main migratory routes called flyways. Depending on its particular habitat and range, a species’ north-south migratory route may go anywhere from the Canadian High Arctic to the southern portion of Mexico and beyond. Along the way, waterfowl require healthy and productive wetland habitats for feeding, staging, breeding, and nesting. Unfortunately, we continue to lose wetland habitats every year on a continental scale due to expanding urban development, pollution, and agricultural expansion. We also continue to lose anywhere from 1.4 – 200 million ducks due to house cats, somewhere around half a billion as a result of collisions with buildings and vehicles, and thousands due to poisoning from pesticides and fertilizers, among other causes of waterfowl mortality.

Amidst contemporary conflicts over conservation status and endangered species listings, proposals to either liberalize or constrain hunting regulations, and widespread disagreement over climate policy, we have an example from 1916 that shows us how we can commit to wildlife conservation on a continental scale. I have a strong affection for waterfowl. I enjoy everything related to ducks and geese: I like watching them; hearing them; I find their biology and ecology fascinating; I enjoy the magic of sitting in a pre-dawn blind trying to call birds into a decoy spread; I have prepared many delicious meals of duck or goose meat; and there’s nothing quite like the honking of geese lighting up late afternoon autumn skies. I’m personally very thankful to the conservationists of the last century for laying the foundation that has ensured I am able to continue enjoying such an amazing group of species.

A Comment on Endangered Species

 

This post was sparked by a recent piece written by Steven Rinella, who discussed the terminology and legalities of endangered species in the United States. While the U.S. and Canadian contexts have many similarities, I thought it might be interesting to offer some information on the ecological and legal meanings of the various species at risk classifications in Canada. I’ve also encountered more than one comment that a particular hunted species is endangered, so there is at least some degree of misunderstanding about how the species at risk system works both in Canada and internationally and what these classifications mean.

Above the 49th parallel, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is responsible for assessing individual wildlife species and recommending species that should be protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). COSEWIC was established in 1977, as a national independent committee of experts, to identify, assess, and classify species at risk in Canada. In 2003, the Canadian government passed SARA to provide legal protections and determine recovery strategies for species at risk. COSEWIC now acts as an advisory board, submitting its assessments to Environment and Climate Change Canada for final decision about whether to list a species under SARA.

Under COSEWIC’s assessment process, there are seven status categories: not at risk (NAR), data deficient (DD), special concern (SC), threatened (T), endangered (E), extirpated (XT), and extinct (X).

Status_COSEWIC.svg

Some quick definitions: extinct means that the species no longer exists anywhere. This differs from extirpated, which refers to a species that still exists but has disappeared from a part of its range (such as wild turkeys in Ontario in the 19th century).  Endangered means that a species is facing extirpation or extinction. Threatened refers to a species that is not yet endangered but is likely to become endangered if no action is taken. Special concern means that a species may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of threats. So it’s important to remember that just because there are concerns about a species, this doesn’t mean it is endangered.

Internationally, the IUCN, established in 1964, is an inventory of species classified along similar criteria. The IUCN system includes 9 categories: not evaluated and data deficient; least concern and near threatened; vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered; extinct in the wild and extinct.

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COSEWIC assessments consider a combination of criteria, including a species’ population and habitat status, trends, and threats. As an example of how an assessment would recommend a particular status, a species would be considered endangered if the number of mature individuals shows a decline of 70% of more over 3 generations (or 10 years, whichever is longer). This decline can be a result of observed reduction in actual numbers, deterioration of habitat quality, a reduction in extent of area occupied by the species, exploitation/over harvesting, or factors such as diseases and pollutants. Species may also be considered endangered when they have small ranges, drastic fluctuations in population, or fragmented populations. COSEWIC assessments specifically exclude consideration of the socioeconomic costs or benefits to listing a species.

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Atlantic salmon. Photo: Tom Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation

Part of the intent (and benefit) of having separate bodies responsible for assessing a species and its actual listing under species at risk legislation is to maintain a separation between the science (COSEWIC) and politics (SARA) of endangered species. In other words, science makes recommendations for a species’ status, but the decision to list a species is made by elected officials who are accountable to a voting public.

The problem with this system is also the separation of science and politics.

The multistep process between submission of a COSEWIC report to the Minister (of Environment and Climate Change Canada) and a final decision on whether or not to list a species under SARA includes a 90 day window during which the Minister publishes “Response Statements” indicating how he/she intends to respond to the COSEWIC assessment, followed by a review by the Governor in Council (GIC), who (on the advice of the Minister) will make a final decision to either list the species, not list the species, or send the assessment back to COSEWIC to request more information. The decision about whether to list a species is therefore a political decision that does take into account the socioeconomic costs of the decision. Only after a species is listed under SARA is it afforded legal protections. At this point, the species’ critical habitat must be identified and management plans and recovery strategies must be designed.

A note about how the Canadian system compares to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States. A 2013 study published in the journal Bioscience compared the Canadian and American systems and recommended that they could each benefit from adopting some of the strengths of the other. In particular, this study suggested that the American system could benefit from an overarching national scientific body responsible for all species assessments. On the other hand, the ESA has stricter timelines, and listing decisions in the U.S. are not permitted to consider socioeconomic costs.

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Allegheny mountain dusky salamander. Photo: Phil Myers/Ontario Nature

I personally agree that socioeconomic factors should be kept out of decisions on whether to afford legal protections to species at risk. These decisions should also not be determined by the priorities of the political party of the day. Perhaps I am taking an overly narrow or romanticized position here, but if a species is in any way at risk of extirpation or extinction, we should be doing everything in our power to protect the species and its habitat.

In fact, there is some basis for my disdain of political involvement in species at risk legislation. Multiple studies have found that harvested species and northern species are less likely to be listed under SARA. For example, a 2007 report profiled 8 northern and marine species that were not listed despite COSEWIC recommendations. For instance, beginning in 1991, multiple COSEWIC assessments have recommended that polar bears be listed as special concern, but they were only listed under SARA in 2011. This particular species example is somewhat of a political storm that is not the topic of this post, but it does illustrate the complications that politics introduce into this issue (though I will say that part of the decision not to list a number of northern species is due to the need to consult with wildlife co-management organizations that protect Inuit rights to wildlife, an issue I strongly support).

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Beluga whale. Photo: Greg Hume

Regardless of my personal opinion, the real meat and potatoes question is whether or not species at risk legislation works. Does it do what it is supposed to do – lead to recovery of endangered species and protection of habitat? In the U.S., there is a notable example of species at risk legislation working in the case of grizzly bears. On our side of the border, a 2014 study examined cases of species that have been assessed more than once by COSEWIC, indicating that at least some time had passed for recovery strategies to work. This study found that out of 369 species that fit this criteria, 47% of species initially classified as special concern deteriorated in status (later being classified as threatened or worse). Only 20 species out of 369 received a “not at risk assessment” after initially being assessed as one of the at risk categories (special concern, threatened, etc.). The number of species that deteriorated in status outnumbered those that recovered by approximately 2 to 1. In addition, there is a general gap in identifying species’ critical habitat, meaning that fully effective implementation of recovery plans is impossible.

So the problem is that our species at risk legislation is not working well enough. Might it be doing everything it can? Perhaps. Am I satisfied with the results when even 1 species shows a deterioration in status? No.

What all of this points to is the urgent need to protect habitat. We can do everything we want to try to protect individual species, but without healthy habitat, it won’t be enough. We also need to follow the precautionary principle in every case of a species at risk to ensure we minimize the chances we take with its future survival. We need to make habitat and species protection a management priority in Canada (and of course beyond). This means that species at risk legislation needs to be timely in developing recovery strategies and strict in their implementation. Further, COSEWIC assessments, and therefore SARA listings, only consider the Canadian range of a species, even though its full range and ecological role may extend across borders. I would argue that we need to be taking action at the scale of a species’ historic range and ecology, not merely on a national scale limited by political borders. This will take internationally coordinated effort, and it’s worth the work.

Having said all this, I should also note that I’m not demonizing the system. I’ve said it before, but I have an immense pride in the North American model of wildlife conservation. There have been tremendous successes in the record of species that have come precipitously close to extinction and been recovered. But pride should not preclude critical reflection and a drive to improve. We also need to be accurate in our conversations. The next time someone comments about how hunters kill endangered species, take the opportunity to explain that this is not true. Though there is room for improvement in their management, there is no hunting season for any endangered species. Remember also that many of the biggest successes in actions on endangered species have been thanks to hunter dollars and efforts.

I Support the Seal Hunt: An Ecological and Social Basis for Reconsidering Perceptions

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

I’m writing this from Kugaaruk, a community of about 800 people in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot Region. Kugaaruk is on the southeast side of Pelly Bay, which at its north end opens up into the Gulf of Boothia, in the Canadian Arctic. The community itself is right at the mouth of the wide Kugaaruk River and is surrounded by an amazing topography of rocky hills and islands. Right now, the ice in the bay is flat and smooth, but during years with strong North winds during freeze-up, it can be full of chunky ice that is blown in from the Gulf of Boothia. The community faces west out to the water, so the sunsets here are incredible as the sun goes down over distant hills across the bay. It’s a community with a strong hunting culture, the most important being caribou, ringed and bearded seals, polar bears, musk ox, narwhal, and Arctic char.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The project works with local hunters to examine numerous aspects of ringed and bearded seal and polar bear ecology. When a hunter kills a seal, he or she records certain morphometric data (body measurements, weight) and collects physical samples of the seal, such as blubber (for body condition and feeding analysis), the lower jaw (for age analysis), reproductive organs (to examine reproductive rates and success), and the kidney and liver (for contaminants analysis). I’ve also spent time interviewing hunters about all aspects of seal and bear ecology in the region, including their life history, behavior, and population dynamics.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

 

One of the questions I’ve received from community members a couple times is if we, as researchers, support the seal hunt. On a couple occasions, there has been concern that wildlife researchers are producing information that will contribute to anti-seal hunting agendas. Seal hunting has received a lot of controversial media and activist attention over the years, leading to a perception among the general public that the seal hunt is somehow inherently unsustainable or wrong. The fact is that these representations of the seal hunt are simply wrong – both ecologically and socially.

The research I’m working on has been primarily focused on ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Modern seals, known as pinnipeds, emerged as a distinct evolutionary group about 50 million years ago. Today, there are three broad groups of seals that are recognized: Odobenidae, Otariidae, and Phocidae. The Phocidae, of which ringed seals are a member, split from other seal lineages about 33 million years ago.

Kit M. Kovacs : Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Ringed seals weigh 50-70 kg, are about 1-1.5 m in length, and are truly an Arctic species, meaning they rely on sea ice for essential habitat. Seals remain in the Arctic all year, digging breathing holes up through the ice with their sharp claws (I was feeling them the other day, and you could easily slice your finger open on one of these things). They excavate dens beneath the snow on the ice where they give birth to one pup each spring. They are one of the top predators in their habitats and are the main prey for polar bears. As the Arctic’s most abundant seal, they are therefore an important species to monitor, providing information about general environmental changes and ecosystem health.

Ringed seal worldwide range. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Ringed seals have a circumpolar distribution, found in all regions of the Arctic. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Due to their abundance and wide distribution, precise estimates of ringed seal populations are extremely hard to achieve; however, there are a lot of them and their populations are considered stable and abundant. Reductions in sea ice habitat due to climate warming pose the greatest long-term threat to ringed and other seals by shortening the time that this critical habitat is available to them for breeding and basking (when they haul out on the ice for the annual moult).

At least until recently, much of the media representation surrounding seal hunting has been dominated by organizations like PETA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Paul McCartney (I also have to clarify once in a while that I’m not related to him).

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation about the seal hunt. I'm not sure if seals have tear ducts.

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation and emotional reactions about the seal hunt.

Images of whitecoat seals – as newborn seals are called – being killed while laying on the ice, surrounded by anthropomorphizing terminology such as “slaughter”, “baby”, and “helpless” present the seal hunt as defined by cruel methods and unethical targeting of particular individuals.  The use of this type of terminology is a common tactic among antihunting campaigns, and has been used in other well known circumstances. Unfortunately, these now iconic images are never published with a disclaimer updating the viewer of changes to seal hunting laws, the deep cultural importance of the seal hunt, or information about seal ecology to educate the viewer on the sustainability of seal hunting.

I’ll clarify here that my focus is on Inuit hunting rather than the large industrial hunts many people associate with images of seal hunting. Unfortunately, groups with political agendas and the media often fall into one of two traps: they either conflate Inuit seal hunting with the southern-based east coast commercial hunt and present the issue as some kind of monolithic and homogenous seal hunt; or, they create somewhat of a false dichotomy between an idealized “subsistence hunt” and a demonized “commercial seal slaughter”. In reality, Inuit seal hunting is at once a subsistence and a commercial hunt and efforts to present the Inuit hunt as purely distinct from the commercial market for seal fur has been at the very least an oversimplification and at most a deliberate political agenda. I’m also cautious to not paint all in the “anti-sealing” camp with the same brush, as not all animal welfare organizations (as distinct from animal rights organizations) condemn all forms of seal hunting.

I mentioned the cultural importance of the seal hunt. My priority in these discussions is always centered around wildlife conservation. However, one of the things I enjoy most about my work is that it’s located at the intersection of human sociocultural systems and wildlife ecology, so I’d be leaving out an important aspect of this discussion if I didn’t mention the right of Inuit communities to hunt seals. On one hand, it’s not my place to try to represent the place of seal hunting in Inuit culture. By the same token, it’s not anyone else’s place – as southern, non-Inuit governments, media, and organizations – to judge this practice. My time in the North has given me the opportunity to hear about the importance of seals in Inuit culture and food systems. Seal hunting has been an important part of culture for thousands of years, and seals are one of the most important country/wild game foods in the North. Traditional harvest activities are also a legal right for Inuit, established and protected by land claims and the wildlife management frameworks governing Northern wildlife. In addition, seal hunting is an important part of local economy in the Arctic, generating an estimated $40 million annually. This is a large part of the discussion and one I want to respect and address, and I’m proud that as a country, we have finally recognized these rights.

As I said, my priority is wildlife conservation and sustainable management, and I think this aspect of the conversation provides just as compelling an argument in support of seal hunting as supporting the harvesting rights of Inuit communities. I’m not as familiar with the southern commercial seal hunt, so there may be valid arguments about unsustainable or unethical methods that may have been used at one point; however, the efforts of the commercial fishing industry to cull seals as a protective measure to prevent seal predation on populations of commercially valuable fish species notwithstanding, the laws that regulate seal hunting are designed just like any other hunting law, with the purpose of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the species. Unfortunately, these realities and facts of the status of the species and the regulation of the hunt are obscured by political agendas.

One of the primary political tools of anti-seal hunting campaigns has been images of whitecoat seals being killed. When seals are born, their newborn fur is white. In harp seals in particular, this fur is almost snow white. In ringed seals, it may be white or yellowish in colour.

Harp seal nursing a pup. It's important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Harp seal nursing a pup. It’s important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Eventually, this fur is exchanged for an adult coat that is more effective at thermoregulation as seals go in and out of the cold water. For animal rights organizations (as distinct from animal welfare organizations), you can see how it would be easy to equate the pure white seals with other anthropomorphic understandings of purity, presenting them as somehow more “innocent”. This type of visual representation brings a good amount of social and political currency in the world of antihunting propaganda.

From a purely ethical perspective, the question really becomes, what difference does the colour of an animal’s fur make in determining whether hunting it should be legal or morally defensible? If our priority is ensuring responsibly regulated hunts that minimize the suffering of the animal, the colour of its fur really has no bearing. Anti-seal hunting organizations point to the fact that whitecoats are at a stage in their lives where they are still nursing and sometimes actually unable to enter the water, creating the idea of the seals as “helpless”.

From an ecological perspective, there is nothing inherently unsustainable about hunting young seals. This just happens to be one relatively short stage in a seal’s life history, so we need to ask ourselves, do we want wildlife management decisions to be determined by our own anthropomorphized ideas about how predation works in nature? This also happens to be a time when the seals are most vulnerable to predation by polar bears, and I doubt anyone would suggest we persecute polar bears. Biologically speaking, species have generally developed reproductive cycles that compensate for these types of mortality and prevent the species from going extinct.

The fact is that the discussion about seal hunting has been decontextualized and exploited by organizations with a political axe to grind. Regardless of your personal opinion on this matter, hunting whitecoats has been illegal in the United States since 1972, and in Canada since 1987. So there’s really no reason for this overly specific aspect of seal hunting to continue to dominate the discussion.

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Perhaps someone might ask about the notorious “seal clubbing” phenomena? In Canada, all marine mammal harvests are governed by the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) of 1993. As with all hunting regulations, the MMR specifies the types of implements that are permitted in seal hunting. First off, most seals are killed with a rifle or a harpoon. The most common rifle calibers that I’ve heard of being used are .22 Magnum in the summers when they’re hunted from boats or high power rifles (e.g. .270 or .303) when they’re shot through breathing holes from the ice after being harpooned. It is legal to use clubs or hakapiks to kill seals less than 1 year old, and research has found that clubs and hakapiks are effective methods to kill seals that cause “rapid, if not immediate, death”. Just to be sure, the MMR also state that anyone using a club or hakapik must “immediately palpate” the skull to ensure the seal has been killed quickly. Some people may not like the mental image of this, but that doesn’t change the facts. Similar to misrepresentations of whitecoat hunting, so too are perceptions of hunting methods shaped and obscured by visually shocking images presented in media. In both cases, we must take care to understand the ecology and biology of seals in order to make informed decisions.

So if seal hunting is an important part of culture, on the one hand, and a carefully regulated, ecologically sustainable practice, on the other, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we view and talk about seal hunting. In fact, there are organizations and movements that have taken this on and are doing a wonderful job, and I encourage you to look into and support them. For instance, after Ellen DeGeneres spoke out against seal hunting with a celebrity selfie, social media lit up with a #Sealfie campaign, where people took selfies wearing seal products.

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

What I find particularly fascinating and insightful about this campaign was that the images were focused on putting a respectful and proud human face on the issue, while emphasizing the varied uses for seal products. Other organizations, such as Inuit Tapitiit Kanatami and the National Inuit Youth Council, have promoted social media campaigns centered around slogans like #HuntSealEatSealWearSeal and t-shirts that say “Seal Is The New Black”. Our national political leaders also promote the use of seal product clothing. These campaigns take a respectfully prideful approach to the idea of being unapologetic with hunting, while also not entrenching themselves in the “us vs. them” attitude that all too often defines hunting advocacy campaigns.

In another particularly telling example, the very organization that DeGeneres intended to promote with her anti-seal hunting campaign actually spoke out against a broad sweep condemnation of seal hunting. The Humane Society, the organization that received the $1.5 million that DeGeneres raised, issued a statement clarifying that they make a clear distinction between the Inuit and commercial seal hunts, and do not oppose the “socially accepted Inuit subsistence hunt”. Even the International Fund for Animal Welfare distinguishes between local and commercial hunts, stating that, “So long as it is conducted on a sustainable basis, and that reasonable precautions are taken to minimize unnecessary suffering, IFAW does not oppose the killing of seals for food, clothing and other products for local use by indigenous peoples. Nor do we oppose the sale and local distribution of seal products from subsistence hunts within indigenous communities”. So the issue isn’t as cut and dry as some organizations and individuals would have us believe.

Now, it may appear straightforward to make an intellectual distinction between the commercial and subsistence hunts, but the reality is that it’s difficult to generate policy that just as carefully distinguishes between these hunts. The reason for this is that sustaining a worldwide market for furs depends to at least some degree on the availability of commercially produced furs. In 2009, the European Union (EU) banned the trade and import of all seal products to oppose what was perceived as unsustainable commercial sealing. Then in 2015, the EU granted an exemption to Indigenous seal harvests, recognizing that these hunts are different from the commercial hunts the ban was meant to target, and are in fact an essential part of the local economy in the North. However, even with the 2015 exemption, the EU ban had repercussions for the economic livelihoods of Inuit hunters by reducing the overall availability of, and therefore market for, seal furs. The 2009 ban led to a roughly tenfold reduction in fur prices, from around $100 per seal skin prior to the ban, to roughly $10 after the ban.

I understand that it’s hard to think about a commercial seal hunt without reminiscences of the turn of the century market hunting and trapping legacies that contributed to such widespread decline of wildlife populations in North America. I’ll admit, I still have a knee jerk reaction to commercial hunting; however, it’s important to remember that the wildlife population collapses in the early 20th century occurred long before the modern system of regulated hunting and wildlife management we have today. Since this system was instituted, beginning in the 1930s, hunting has not put a single wildlife population on the endangered species list (in fact, it’s contributed to bringing a number of species back from regional extirpation and even the brink of extinction). So we need to remember that current seal hunting practices are regulated by the same long-term, science-based wildlife management policies that govern any other hunting practice.

It seems like it’s getting redundant for me to say this, but these are complex issues; these are populations of wild animals who don’t conform to our own sociocultural prejudices. We’re dealing with ecological systems that have had long-standing relationships with human sociocultural systems. As always, our perceptions and responses to these issues need to embrace the same level of complexity. We need to engage in the conversations, admit when we don’t know the facts, and spend more time listening than talking. Seals are wonderful carnivores with beautiful, warm fur and nutritious, delicious meat. In the end, I support the seal hunt, and I encourage you to support it too. I’d also be interested in other people’s thoughts on this particular topic – whichever way you think about it.

Genetically Pure Bison in North America

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Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the history of bison (Bison bison) in North America. More specifically, people have probably heard about the almost complete eradication of the species from the continent due to a complete lack of management.

Perhaps fewer people are familiar with the bison as a success story, the one that is ongoing and will hopefully have a happier ending.

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Copyright: This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K5680-1 .

The bison is colloquially known in North America as buffalo. Many people will know them as the animal that was shot by the thousands for its hide by European settlers, and as an important part of Indigenous cultures in North America. There is no genetic difference between what people refer to as buffalo and the scientific classification of the species as bison.

To make a long story short, North America had an estimated historical bison population of perhaps more than 30 million, ranging across the continent, east to west, north to south. By the closing of the 19th century, the bison population had been reduced to about 1,000 individuals and its range had been greatly restricted due to human population and agricultural expansion.

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Current estimated range of the bison in North America. Source: http://www.defenders.org

Thanks to the dedication and efforts of hunting and conservation organizations to reintroduce the bison to parts of its historical range and ensure its continued protection, we now once again have a stable, though still greatly reduced, population of about 500,000 individuals in North America. In fact, I’m proud to know that Canada initiated regulated hunting for bison as early as 1894, and established Buffalo National Park in 1909 to protect a population of bison. While this is great, the bison’s current range is still historically restricted and they live in fairly isolated pockets, many of which are privately owned (only about 4% of bison are considered wild).

A large, symbolic, nostalgic, and fascinating animal, scientific studies and careful ongoing management of bison is important for the health and continued recovery of the species on a continental scale. Some interesting new research out of Utah State University, led by Dr. Dustin Ranglack, has identified a herd of bison that are “genetically pure”.

The grazing lands of free ranging bison often overlap those of domestic cattle. In addition to some deliberate attempts to cross breed wild bison and domestic cattle, these interactions have created a situation where most bison in North America have at least a degree of what is referred to as genetic introgression from domestic cattle. However, the Henry Mountains in Utah are apparently home to a herd that is genetically pure bison. The herd is also free from brucellosis, an infectious disease that is a concern in domestic livestock. This is an exciting discovery for the future of bison conservation, because according to Dr. Ranglack, this herd could represent “a really important source for potential reintroduction projects that are trying to restore bison to a large portion of their native range.”

Ongoing wildlife research is critical for informed and effective management. This is an exciting piece of research that is an integral part of the successful model of wildlife management we have in North America. It’s important not just for species like bison, but for all North American wildlife and habitat, that we continue to advocate for dedicated funding for wildlife research and conservation efforts. If we want to continue to enjoy truly wild life on this continent, whether for viewing or hunting purposes, we need to see the bigger picture.

Luckily, the Canadian and American governments caught a glimpse of that bigger picture just in time when it came to the bison…but it was almost too late. We need to ensure we look ahead, are open minded, thoughtful, and learn from our past – both the mistakes and the successes. I’m proud of the management model we have on this continent, and I support the individuals and organizations responsible for making the decisions that ensure I can continue interacting with wildlife.

 

Castor canadensis: Keystone Species, Canadian National Symbol, and Awesome

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is one of North America’s most fascinating, beautiful, and industrious species (and super tasty). Many of my posts relate directly to hunting, but the goal is to discuss a range of issues and topics relevant to conservation. This one is an endorsement for giving the beaver our full respect and appreciation as an integral component of the ecosystems we cherish and as an honourable national animal for Canada. Seriously, I think the beaver is one of the most incredible animals in North America.

The North American beaver

The North American beaver

Currently, there are only two species of beaver in the world, the North American beaver that most of us are familiar with, and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). However, during the Pleistocene, there was a genus of giant beavers (Castoroides) that lived in North America, from Florida to the Yukon. Giant beavers were not actually related to modern beavers, but shared a close physical resemblance, with larger, sharper front teeth. They were much larger than modern beavers, measuring upwards of six feet long and weighing over 200 pounds. The giant beaver went extinct sometime during the megafaunal collapse at the end of the Pleistocene, the period from roughly 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago, which marked the end of the last ice age.

Skeleton of a giant beaver

Skeleton of a giant beaver

One thing I hear a lot from landowners and outdoors people is that beavers are nuisances, flooding or drying up land without regard for how inconvenient this may be for humans. My first, admittedly callous reaction, is that’s what beavers do, and they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than you’ve been feeling personally affronted by it. On a more engaging level, I also suggest to those people that it’s not exactly without regard for human needs. In fact, the resulting ecological changes from beaver activity provide important services that benefit humans.

Beavers are considered a keystone species for their roles in altering and creating habitat. What this means is that if we remove beavers from an ecosystem, it changes the entire structure and function of that ecosystem. Numerous other species lose habitat, food and water sources, and with those changes there is a reduction in local biodiversity. Beaver activity creates critical habitat for fish, birds, turtles, frogs, ducks, and some of these are in turn important food sources for many other species, including otters, foxes, and birds of prey. The ecological interactions that are created by beavers are literally too numerous to fully describe here.

Beaver lodge

Beaver lodge

In addition, the wetland habitats created from beaver flooding provide ecosystem services that are crucial to maintaining healthy environments and provide direct benefits to humans. Wetlands filter and purify water, refill aquifers, mitigate erosion, prevent droughts, and control floods (seems counterintuitive perhaps since beavers flood land, but this actually provides a form of flood control for other areas). Wetlands are one of the world’s most critical and productive habitats, and they are being destroyed at alarming rates.

But the beaver hasn’t always enjoyed the gratitude and platitudes it deserves. In 2011, Canadian Senator Nicole Eaton offered her opinion that Canada should trade in a “19th-century has-been for a 21st-century hero”, suggesting that the beaver is not worthy of being Canada’s national animal. Instead, Senator Eaton proposed the polar bear replace the beaver. It’s not that I don’t have tremendous respect for the polar bear (in fact, my graduate work is focused on Arctic marine species, including polar bears). What troubles me is Ms. Eaton’s clear lack of knowledge about beaver ecology and biology, yet her belief that she is suitably positioned to make such strong statements about the value of the beaver and whether it possesses the qualities with which Canadians should be proud to be associated (she literally reduced the animal to a “dentally defective rat”).

In addition to the deliberate work to create and continuously maintain critical habitat, scientists have discovered some unintended benefits of beaver activity. Beaver ponds (the area of land flooded by the creation of dams) may be the answer to our nitrogen problems.

The massive expansion of agriculture in North America over the last century created a demand for increased productivity and yields. Nitrogen is a key nutrient for plant growth and agricultural processes eventually lead to nitrogen depletion in soils. In 1888, two scientists discovered that leguminous plants remove nitrogen from the air and add it to soils, a process known as nitrogen fixation. In 1909, two German chemists created a process through which nitrogen could be artificially produced for addition to soils, eventually leading to the invention of soil fertilizers.

Although fertilizers lead to substantially increased crop yield, the addition of massive amounts of nitrogen to soils has created problems for marine ecosystems. Rain water washes fertilizers containing nitrogen from agricultural fields into nearby streams and rivers. When nitrogen eventually flows into estuaries it stimulates algal blooms. The decomposition that results from increased algal growth eventually de-oxygenates marine ecosystems (a state known as hypoxia) and creates massive dead zones. One of the more famous dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico.

Don’t worry. Beavers are here to save the day. Researchers from the University of Rhode Island have discovered that the ecology of beaver ponds makes them quite effective at removing nitrogen. In a paper published this past September, Julia G. Lazar and co-authors explain that bacteria found in the organic material and soil of beaver ponds  transform nitrate into nitrogen gas which then bubbles to the surface and mixes with the air. In their experiments, the researchers found that beaver ponds were able to remove up to 45% of the nitrogen from the system.

I hope that discoveries like this encourage more appreciation for the important ecological functions of beavers. We already knew that the habitat created by beavers performs valuable ecosystem services benefitting humans, but now we can add a service that benefits environmental health many miles downstream of beaver habitat. Beavers are complex animals, quietly and diligently going about their work. People may not think they are the most charismatic species, but I think they possess all the qualities that we should value and measure ourselves against.