Research for Endangered Species Reintroductions
The Center for Conservation Research at the Calgary Zoo focuses on conducting research to re-introduce endangered species back into the wild. I had the pleasure of speaking with Tian Everest, Conservation Research Program Coordinator for the Calgary Zoo, earlier this week about the work they do.
She is part of the recovery team for black footed ferrets (also see my blog article below). The team was established in 2004, when a group of Canadian and American prairie species experts decided it was feasible to try to reintroduce the ferrets in the Grasslands National Park. The first joint species (black footed ferret and black tailed prairie dog) recovery team in Canada was formed, led by Parks Canada who held jurisdiction on the land targeted for the reintroduction. The team included a range of stakeholders including some American experts who had experience reintroducing ferrets in the US.
Much of the research to date has focused on the black tailed prairie dogs because they form around 90% of the black footed ferrets diet. The research included prairie dog colony density and distribution, and the information was used to guide where the ferrets were released, Tian explained. Researchers continue to monitor the do prairie dogs and the black footed ferrets. The prairie dogs are a species of special concern in Canada, but it has been found in the US the reintroductions of black footed ferrets have not had negative impacts on the prairie dog population. However, the American and Canadian prairie dogs differ in such features as the Canadian ones hibernate but the American ones typically don’t. Saskatchewan winters are famous for being particularly cold!
Tian also works with a reintroduction team for burrowing owls in BC, with the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC. Burrowing owls are endangered across Canada and were extinct in BC. A recovery effort in the Kamloops area has been ongoing since the early 1990’s, but has faced some challenges. Burrowing owls don’t dig their own burrows – they rely on prairie dogs and other animals to dig burrows for them. But the natural burrowing animals have become extinct in that area as well. So artificially constructed burrows are being used, which are made by a group of dedicated volunteers who perform the back breaking work of building burrows. But no one had considered what type of burrow most appealed to the owls. So Tian studied the burrows and the land to gather information to support a successful reintroduction of burrowing owls into the area.
All the research that Tian and her Calgary Zoo colleagues do is to support their focus of applying science to solve problems. They do science based, academic quality research which then is used in working closely with stakeholders such as government agencies, industries, landowners and local communities so their work can have a positive impact for wildlife. “We’re very focused on transferring the science into action,” Tian told me.
The kind of action that results in being part of the team responsible for the most successful reintroduction of a nationally extirpated carnivore in the world. The Zoo has been working with a reintroduction program launched in the early ‘80’s. They recently had the pleasure of announcing that swift foxes have been downgraded from endangered to threatened. The swift foxes team’s success is based on good science including “over 10 years of census data on swift fox numbers and where they are in the landscape, and overlaying that with GIS habitat maps and running it through models so we can look at all the different layers in the landscape whether it’s soil type, moisture, road locations, structures, vegetation types” and other information, Tian informed me. They run that through population modeling computer programs that tell them “what elements in the landscape are really key to the swift fox at different stages of their life cycle. That information is now being used by the recovery team to assign critical habitat which then becomes a legal designation” that protects the land.
Most of the research the Calgary Zoo’s team does places the researchers out in the field. The Zoo has an offsite captive breeding facility at which they have breeding programs for whooping cranes and Vancouver Island marmots as well as other species. Even these captive breeding programs have the focus of being useful in the field. Their main goal is to reintroduce species back into the wilderness.
Tian and her colleagues are making a positive difference in our world. She feels fortunate to be doing so. They “work for many years on a species, […] attend so many meetings, things being hashed back and forth between all the different stakeholders, there are certainly so many highs and lows with that, but it’s such an amazing feeling when you actually get to open the crate and the ferret touches its feet on Canadian soil and goes down into its burrow,” Tian reflected.
Overall, the Calgary Zoo is an excellent example of the positive contributions to wildlife conservation that zoos can make. It’s also a great zoo, and anyone who enjoys animals will have fun visiting it when you’re in Calgary.