This year could prove to be an important, and fruitful one for the species preservation work going on at the Calgary Zoo.
The zoo, which re-branded its foundation to the Wilder Institute to reflect broader work being done geographically on conservation last year, is poised to increase Canadian biodiversity through increased efforts on nine species this year.
Some of the species currently being focused on by the zoo are Vancouver Island Marmots, Whooping Cranes, Burrowing Owls, Northern Leopard Frogs, and the Greater Sage-Grouse. The zoo is also involved in work on insects like the Half-Moon Hairstreak Butterfly, and rare Canadian plant species.
“With the current rate of species extinctions, we need to act now to protect Canada’s unique biodiversity,” said Dr. Clement Lanthier, president and CEO of the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo.
The World Wildlife Fund’s 2020 Living Planet Report found that Canadian species at risk populations had declined on average 59 per cent by 2016.
The zoo said they’re playing a pivotal role in ensuring continued biodiversity across Canada. Partly, said Colleen Baird, senior manager for animal care, because there just aren’t enough organizations with the expertise and institutional impact to do the work required.
“Who else is doing this? I don’t know that anybody is,” said Baird.
“The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo has resources, we have reputation behind us, we have departments that have knowledge, who are successful, we have support from governments. and come to the table with a lot of knowledge and a lot of reputation to be able to have a voice and have a say over how we can save Canadian wildlife,” she said.
And the zoo is certain that its efforts in 2022 will continue to improve the population numbers for some of these endangered and critically endangered species.
“I think what we do know is when we take on these projects, we know that success is drops in the bucket, but those drops make a difference,” she said.
The consequence of allowing species to go extinct has long-term impacts on the environment, on the diversity of animals and species in general. And even on the economy, such as the loss of tourism dollars, and through the increased spread of invasive species, making agriculture and forestry more difficult and expensive.
Greater Sage-Grouse captive breeding program returning birds to the wild
One of the species that highlights the difficulties in transitioning species recovery from captive breeding programs to thriving wild populations is the Greater Sage-Grouse.
The species, which is native to Southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and parts of the Western United States as far south as New Mexico, has seen diminishing habitat ranges. And while it was once present in British Columbia, the species is now extinct in that part of the nation.
The Government of Alberta has identified the bird as a species at risk and has classified it as endangered under the Wildlife Act. The Government of Canada passed an emergency order for the protection of the species in 2013.
At that time, the federal government noted that the species had faced a 98 per cent decline in its population, and less than 60 adult birds in all of Alberta.
Thanks to a captive breeding program at the zoo, 187 Greater Sage-Grouse birds have been released into the wilds of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Although Baird said that success is tempered by the continued difficulty for the birds to survive in the wild.
“It’s successful in the fact that we were able to establish a captive breeding program, and safeguard a flock that has genetic diversity that we can breed, and then put those individuals out into the wild,” she said.
“The success in the wild is… we’re still working on that part.”
The zoo was able to establish a small flock of the birds starting in 2015, from eggs collected from the wild.
Returning biodiversity a long, difficult process
Captive breeding programs are able to provide proper nutrition, protection from predation, and even medical care. Once the animals are returned to the wild, it’s up to them to find food, safety and shelter on their own.
Tracking how reintroduced animals are doing can be difficult for researchers. In the case of the Greater Sage-Grouse, this has a large part to do with the zoo continuing its ethos of animal welfare into the wild.
Wildlife biologists are able to use radio tracking collars on females of the species, but doing so for the males would injure them.
“This is such a unique species: These males have these big air sacs in their chest and they boom and until they attract the females, and we can’t put necklace transmitters on the male,” said Baird.
“We don’t put those on the males obviously, because their biology won’t allow for that, it would hurt them,” she said.
The conservation science team has been able to identify when some of the reintroduced birds have bred in the wild. The zoo noted that a female that was released in 2018 was able to successfully lay eggs.
Still, it’s hard for Baird to quantify the species survival due to the difficulty in tracking the birds.
Some of the identified challenges to successful long-term reintroduction of the Greater Sage-Grouse internationally include the climate-induced degradation of wildlands, ongoing industrial development, government indifference and sometimes outright hostility from political leaders, and predation.
And while most Calgarians would be thrilled to see a Great Horned Owl, that bird species is the top predator of the Greater Sage-Grouse.
“We do know that a lot of heart and passion goes into producing chicks and offspring, and then we know that they’re not all surviving out there,” she said.
How science informs conservation
Baird said that the conservation biology from the field is important to create successful captive breeding programs for all species.
“The great thing about the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo is that we have these two teams that collaborate to make this program successful,” she said.
“My skill sets and my knowledge comes from captive care and breeding, and then we have this whole team that does modeling and researches the science of predictability and risk and works with biologists.”
The zoo also collaborates with provincial biologists and researchers from other institutions.
For the Greater Sage-Grouse, this knowledge has come back in terms of helping to identify appropriate dietary transitions to match where they will be released.
“We look at what we feed them in captivity, we look and we do actually science within their feces, we analyze it, and we say, ‘how does this transition work? Are the microbes the same? Are we feeding them something that’s similar? Is it going to be hard for their guts to react?'”
For the Vancouver Island Marmot, the zoo has learned that they could switch up breeding pairs during hibernation.
“They wake up, they don’t mind who their new partner is, and they breed and produce,” said Baird.
The zoo welcomed 13 new marmot pups at their wildlife conservation centre in 2021, and are due to be released later this year on Vancouver Island during springtime.
Another long-term success for the Calgary Zoo has been its Whooping Crane program, which has been operating since 1992. Citizen-led science has had volunteers analyze tens of thousands of satellite images through the Zooniverse Whooping Crane Campaign, helping to track and identify nests for the birds.
“I think what we’ve learned is understanding that when we’re trying to save species in the wild, and we build these captive breeding and release programs, each species is different and unique to their challenges of why they’re not succeeding,” she said.
“In captivity, we have found ways to monopolize, or at least promote the maximum production that we can get over them so that we can put as many as we can out back on the landscape.”
International attention this year on the zoo
Joel Sartore, the creator of National Geographic’s Photo Ark, was recently in Calgary adding photos of some of the zoo’s species to that legacy project. He spent some time at the zoo’s wildlife conservation centre where he photographed the Greater Sage-Grouse, along with Northern Rockhopper penguins and Japanese serow.
“It was super exciting to have him be interested in the sage grouse in particular,” said Baird.
Baird and the zoo worked for two years to arrange for Sartore to make the visit to Calgary to photograph species at risk. These photographs will now join the presentations internationally of Sartore’s work through National Geographic Live.
“Getting the Sage-Grouse [photos] is epic for me personally because I’ve been with this program from the beginning, and to highlight all the efforts and the wonderful parts about this bird, and share that with, like everybody,” she said.
“National Geographic can reach so many people, and this is going to be such a wonderful moment for the Sage-Grouse to be in the spotlight and be like ‘Oh wow, there’s that bird, I’ve never heard of that bird, what’s the story?'”
“And then they can learn that the story is not a great story in some ways, but great in other ways because we’re a facility that can help get them back out there in numbers that we’re more comfortable with.”
Sartore’s Photo Ark photos will be released on the zoo’s social media channels throughout the month of February. And for more updates and information on the species being released into the wild in 2022, the Wilder Institute has set up a page to list those animals, insects, and plants.