Wildlife in our back yard

Commentary by
Joe McWilliams

Growing up in the B.C. Peace Country, wildlife was all around, but some animals seemed a lot rarer than they are now. For example, skunks and porcupines were unheard of. Other people might have had a different experience, but I had to come to northern Alberta to find out this is all within the normal range of both those species.

They still can’t be that common (in rural southern Ontario, for example, porcupines are common and sightings are frequent. The same goes for skunks.)

I did all kinds of searching online recently and found nothing to suggest the whole northwest of Canada hasn’t always been home to both those animals. So where were they when I was a kid?

I’ve written before (probably in this space) about how much rarer even the deer was in the Peace Country in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was mule deer or nothing when I was growing up. They weren’t exactly uncommon, but occurred in nothing like the numbers that white-tailed deer now exist all over the north.

With the deer explosion, of course, has come a resurgence in wolves. Again, growing up in the B.C. Peace Country, the wolf was known to exist, but you almost never saw one. Now, it’s not uncommon to see packs of them out on the ice of Lesser Slave Lake in winter, for example. They’ve never had it so good, and it’s all thanks to the tremendous adaptability of the white-tailed deer.

Adaptability is the key factor. Given the apparently unstoppable encroachment of humans and their impact on the landscape, if you can’t adapt, you are in trouble. Sadly, the woodland caribou is one that can’t. It is in decline everywhere – even in the national parks, where you would think human impact can be much better controlled and limited.

But according to recent reports, wildlife managers in Jasper have pretty much decided if some big intervention isn’t mounted, the mountain version of the woodland caribou in the park is done for. And that’s without oil and forestry – the popular culprits in habitat-loss and species-decline narratives.

What they’ve got planned in Jasper is a breeding program. The idea is to build an enclosure, trap a certain number of (mainly female) caribou, put them in there, safe from predators, and get them producing baby caribous at a rate that can replenish the wild population. If it doesn’t work, said the biologist I heard on a radio program, the jig is up for the caribou in the mountain parks.

The jig may similarly be up for the caribou herds outside the parks, which have to contend with habitat degradation and a robust wolf population. This includes the small (and probably doomed) Slave Lake herd. It has the misfortune of being smack dab in the middle of an oilfield, right next to a town and with a busy highway running through the middle of its small range.

But back to the positive side of the story…. Wolves, cougars, deer, porcupines, skunks – they are all here and appear to be doing well. In some cases, a lot better than they were 50 years ago. And the beaver has probably never been in better shape. Otters frolic in the streams around here too. So that’s something….

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