Healthy ecosystems across the Prairies depend on different species to survive, and sometimes these creatures are largely unseen and unknown by the general public.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, known as COSEWIC, met last month to deliberate on the status of 16 wildlife species, including ones that can be found in western Manitoba, and some that often go unseen due to their nocturnal nature or because they live underground or hard-to-reach places.
The committee considered the status of the Great Plains toad, eastern red bat, hoary and silver-haired bat, California sword fern, eastern tiger salamander, northwestern pond turtle, Pacific gophersnake and timber rattlesnake.
Assessing secretive species underscores the importance of looking a little closer and learning what can help them and their ecosystems to survive, said Stephen Petersen, co-chair of the terrestrial mammals subcommittee of COSEWIC and director of conservation and research at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.
In his role, Petersen specifically focused on the trio of bats COSEWIC deliberated on. The eastern red bat, known in the scientific community as Lasiurus borealis, is a multi-coloured bat with small, rounded ears, a furry face and tail membrane. A common bat species in Canada, they can be found in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Though they migrate in winter, during the warmer months they can be found in deciduous, coniferous and mixed forests.
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They prefer to roost at the top of trees suspended from branches, where they’re often mistaken for dead leaves or pinecones. In the summer months, females find maternity roosts in trees or shrubs, where they stay until mating season. Eastern red bats feed on various flying insects, including moths, beetles and mayflies. In some parts of Canada, they feed on pest species, including gypsy moths and tent caterpillars.
The largest species of bat in Canada, hoary bats, have a light brown coat and yellow hair around their faces and chins, which distinguishes them from other species. Their ears are short and rounded with a well-defined black line bordering them.
In the fall, pairs of male and female bats migrate to the southern United States and the Caribbean, where they roost in crevasses between rocks or in squirrels’ nests. In Canada, hoary bats live in coniferous or deciduous forests and roost near the tops of trees, hunting in clearings near sources of water.
Silver-haired bats have black or dark brown coats with silver on the tops of individual hairs. Their ears are almost as long as they are wide, and the species has a slow flight, which differentiates it from other species. In the fall, they migrate to South Carolina, where they can be found in buildings or in forested regions near water with abundant sources of food. They roost near the tops of trees, under bark or in holes made by woodpeckers.
All three species of bats are losing habitat and food as their roosting trees have been logged and their insect prey reduced by pesticides. Collisions with wind turbines on the bats’ migratory flight south in the autumn pose a substantial threat; Petersen said it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of bats are killed this way every year.
“That’s really a challenge because we really need wind to be part of our energy supply to get us away from fossil fuels,” Petersen said.
Petersen recommends that wind turbines be turned off for very short periods at low wind speeds during the fall.
“This can reduce bat mortality by 50 to 80 per cent, while minimally compromising energy generation.”
All three bat species have declined dramatically in recent years, and the committee assessed each of them as endangered.
The Great Plains toad, categorized as a threatened species in Manitoba, is found in grasslands and dry, bushy areas from southern Manitoba and Canada in the homelands of the nêhiyawak, Anihšinapek, Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda, and the Métis/Michif Nation, all the way to Mexico. Barbara Frazer, Plains Cree knowledge holder and traditional knowledge subcommittee member with COSEWIC, said its Cree name reflects its behaviour.
“Cree is verb-based. This species is known as Opik watetew, or large frog, and it’s descriptive in how it spends most of its time underground, below the frost,” she said. “Its distinctive call announces the time of transition from winter into spring.”
The toad is currently threatened by climate change because it needs seasonal pools of water for breeding, and these are becoming increasingly rare on the Prairies because of drought. The committee assessed the species as “special concern.”
Several of the other assessed species are not just hard to see but have actually gone unseen for decades. Eastern tiger salamander, northwestern pond turtle, Pacific gophersnake and timber rattlesnake were all reassessed as extirpated in Canada, which means they no longer exist in the wild in Canada but exist elsewhere.
While conservation is a complicated subject, especially when it comes to animals that are rarely seen, such as the eastern red bat, the hoary bat, and the silver-haired bat and the Great Plains toad, education is key, said COSEWIC chair David Lee.
“The more Canadians know about our hidden gems, the better our chances of preserving them.”
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