Saskatchewan’s diverse species at risk

Lindsey Leko

We often concentrate on our most popular species of fish, wildlife and plant in these columns.  In Saskatchewan, there are 67 fish species, 414 bird species and 91 mammal species. I am not even touching amphibian, reptile or plant and fungi species.

Today, I am going to tell you about some of the most vulnerable species in Saskatchewan.

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Despite many programs focused on maintaining and enhancing wildlife populations, some species have been threatened with extinction and require special attention to help ensure their survival.

Why are different species endangered and how do they become endangered?

Well, there is no one specific answer. Each species is part of an ecosystem. Ecosystems consist of a variety of complex interactions that ultimately determine our wildlife populations. The integrity of ecosystems are sometimes threatened and altered by habitat loss, pollution, over-exploitation, disease, human/wildlife conflict and a few others.

Species at risk are defined and managed by separate categories.

Vulnerable: Species of special concern because of low or declining numbers, but not endangered or threatened, such as the wolverine.

Threatened: Species likely to become endangered if the factors leading to its endangerment are not reversed, such as the ferruginous hawk.

Endangered: Species threatened with imminent extirpation or extinction, such as the sage grouse.

Extirpated: Species no longer found in Saskatchewan, such as the greater prairie chicken.

Extinct: Species that no longer exist, such as the passenger pigeon.

In Saskatchewan, we have a variety of species that belong in one of the five categories above. I will lightly touch on some of these species found in Saskatchewan.

Greater sage grouse: The greater sage grouse is Saskatchewan’s largest upland bird. They are protected and there has not been a hunting season for sage grouse since the 1930s.

I have had the pleasure of watching these birds back in the early 90s as part of a field trip. Their mating display and plumage during this event are spectacular.

Of all species in Saskatchewan, the greater sage grouse is probably the most at risk. There is a very small population of these birds found in the very southwest part of the province bordering Montana and Alberta.

Recent estimates put the population at less than 100.

Loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation are the major factors accounting for their low numbers. This grouse species are low fliers and commonly run into barbed wire fences, and other obstacles that are difficult to see and that often result in the bird’s death. In addition, the mixed grassland habitat rich with sagebrush are becoming rare. Sagebrush provides a constant food source and cover for these birds.

Greater Prairie Chicken: I have heard many hunters claim that they are hunting prairie chickens. Much like the pickerel, the use of prairie chickens is slang for sharp-tail grouse.

To be truthful, the greater prairie chicken no longer exists in Saskatchewan and can only be found in the southern part of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

There used to be large numbers of greater prairie chicken in Saskatchewan, but they have not been seen in Canada for over 20 years.

The most significant factor to their demise was the loss of habitat caused by agriculture and urban growth. Hunting also was a major contributing factor with huge limits and a commercial market in other countries.

Big mouth buffalo fish: Bigmouth buffalo are a stout, deep-bodied fish, with large olive/bronze scales, and a yellow and white belly.

Bigmouth buffalo typically measure 25 to 50 cm in length and weigh between two and five kilograms, but can be in excess of 80 cm and 15 kg. They have large mouths and lack the fleshy lips common to other suckers.

Although often confused with non-native common carp, these fish can be readily distinguished from the common carp by the absence of whisker-like barbels surrounding the mouth. In Saskatchewan, bigmouth buffalo only occur in the Qu’Appelle river system.

Bigmouth buffalo prefer warm, turbid, highly eutrophic waters, and occupy warm shallow protected bays in the spring and summer. The construction of water management structures is thought to have had a major negative effect on their natural spawning areas.

Swift Fox: The swift fox is found in the southwest part of Saskatchewan. It is smaller than the red fox and is about the size of a house cat. It is brown in color with a black spot on each side of its snout and a black tip on the tail.

Swift fox like a sparsely vegetated short and mixed-grass prairie habitat where visibility and mobility are unimpeded. They are most active during evenings and night and can be seen sunning themselves near the den on sunny days.

One unusual fact is that the swift fox does not like wind and will not normally be out and about during windy days.  They are very fast and like to eat small rodents, birds and insects. Because of their small size, animals such as coyotes, large hawks and owls are natural predators to the swift fox, but the real threat is destruction of habitat and non-target poisoning by people.

Loggerhead Shrike: Also known as the “butcher bird,” this is a threatened species in Saskatchewan. This unique bird may look innocent enough, but it is truly a predator to many species. Even though this small bird does not have large strong talons like raptors, it still has the ability to hunt frogs, insects, mice, snakes, other small birds and voles.

Once it catches the prey, it then hovers and impales its prey on a barbed wire fence or hawthorn tree. This act stores food and may even be a mating display action aimed at attracting a mate. I only needed to produce chocolate and fresh fruit to attain the desires of my wife.

Biologists are unsure why this bird’s population and range are decreasing. However, habitat loss and degradation are likely the main reasons. Agricultural practices that result in loss of grasslands, shrubs, and natural sloughs, and pesticide contamination are detrimental activities on both the breeding and wintering grounds.

Also, as shrikes commonly hunt and nest in shelterbelts along roadsides, they are prone to collisions with vehicles.

These are only a few of my favorite species that are threatened in Saskatchewan. As usual, if you have any questions you want answered or any topics that you would like me to cover in a column, simply drop me a line and I will do my best.

As well, if you encounter a dead specimen of a rare species, there is a home for it.  The Royal Saskatchewan Museum collects specimens for research in order to record our province's natural history.  Your discovery can become part of the museum’s collection and a valuable resource for scientists around the world.

So, if you find any of the species identified, be it an animal, fish or bird, contact the curator at ray.poulin@gov.sk.ca or call 306-787-2801.

Until next time . . . remember that use of two rods is only allowed for ice fishing.

Editor’s note: Ministry of Environment conservation officer Lindsey Leko has spent more than 26 years as a conservation officer in Saskatchewan. For many years, Officer Leko contributed a column to local papers on a variety of issues related to hunting, fishing, and other resource-related issues. If you have questions, please contact lindsey.leko@gov.sk.ca.

 

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