Walking the Line

When endangered species cross into Canada, U.S. wildlife protections don't follow them across the border

  • Gary Turbak
  • Oct 01, 2002
THE GRIZZLY moved steadily north, periodically resting and feeding in the Montana forest. Eventually, the bear reached the international boundary, for a moment standing with its head in Canada and its rear in the United States. It didn't know it, but its situation had just changed drastically. In Canada, the grizzly is legally hunted and its habitat is more readily compromised than in the Lower 48.

Unlike the United States, which safeguards species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), Canada has no such national law. U.S. conservationists see this as problematic for wide-ranging northern species such as grizzlies, caribou, wolves, lynx and others, which range on both sides of the border. "Most people don't realize it, but many U.S. endangered species are at risk when they cross into Canada," says John Kostyack, National Wildlife Federation (NWF) senior counsel.

Canada's imperiled species list--compiled by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent, government-appointed group of scientists, academics, wildlife managers and conservationists--currently includes 53 mammals and 52 birds (plus 275 other plants and animals). But it carries no legal weight. And while all the provinces have wildlife laws on the books, "protection is sporadic and limited," says Sandy Baumgartner, a spokesperson at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, one of the country's largest environmental organizations. "Historically, the laws apply only to fish and game species. Others may be theoretically protected, but the legislative teeth to enforce the laws may not exist."

BACK IN PACKS: Extirpated from the western United States in the 1930s, gray wolves began venturing back into this country from Canada in the late 1970s, after gaining protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Today, five packs of wolves have home ranges that overlap the border. The grizzly is another species that ranges between the two countries.



To keep species from falling through the gaps, environmentalists on both sides of the border are calling for Canada to enact a national species protection law. It's been tried before--three times since 1995, in fact. Each time the bill was dropped by the Canadian Parliament due to elections, which automatically cancel pending legislation.

As this issue goes to press, another form of the bill--the Species At Risk Act (SARA)--is before Parliament. Some Canadian conservationists criticize the bill for not going far enough, while others are backing it, in part because they are concerned that the opportunity won't come up again. "After so many failed attempts we certainly don't want this bill to die," says Baumgartner. Some last minute attempts have strengthened the bill, but habitat protection is still an issue. "After all," she says, "what good does it do to protect a species that has no place to go?"

Take the marbled murrelet, for example, a U.S. threatened species that the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) calls "the most mysterious bird on the Pacific coast of Canada." This quail-sized seabird--which swims with its bill pointed skyward--migrates up and down the Pacific coast from northern California to British Columbia.

Most of the year, murrelets make their living diving for small fish, with stubby wings working like flippers. But after mating in spring, these birds make an astounding journey. Flying as far as 50 miles inland, they build nests 60 to 80 feet off the ground in ancient fir or spruce trees--no small feat for birds with webbed feet. The female lays a single egg, and for the next month the pair takes turns keeping it warm. Each night, the "off-duty" bird returns from the sea to start its shift at the nest, and its mate heads for the coast to feed. So secretive are these birds about their nests that only once (in 1990) have observers in British Columbia seen one of the province's 45,000 or so marbled murrelets on its nest.

While predators such as falcons and owls kill some murrelets, and others die after becoming entangled in fishing nets or blundering into oil spills, the murrelets' single greatest threat is the logging of old-growth forests where they nest. COSEWIC lists them as threatened; SARA surely would include them as an at-risk species. But without a law that provides for the protection of their habitat, their future is uncertain. Two summers ago, for example, the government of British Columbia sold the logging rights to a marbled murrelet nesting area north of Vancouver--even subsidizing the sale.



FREEZE FRAME: Lynx are difficult animals to photograph in the wild. This one was captured on film by a remote-controlled camera in western Alberta, where the species' populations are healthy. In search of food, lynx sometimes venture into northern states, where they are considered a threatened species. "The lower 48 states' populations are highly dependent on lynx coming from Canada," says one U.S. biologist.

Another group of imperiled, part-time residents of British Columbia are members of a small herd of woodland caribou that lives part of the year in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington--the only caribou that range in the Lower 48. A subspecies closely related to its tundra-dwelling cousins, the caribou is a medium-sized member of the deer family. A large male might weigh as much as 600 pounds; a female is about half that size.

As their name suggests, woodland caribou live in mountain forests, where they dine on arboreal lichens, grass, forbs and huckleberry bushes. In early winter, the animals move to lower elevations to avoid deep snow. As the season progresses, however, they climb back up to ridges above 6,000 feet, where their oversized hooves trod the now-hardened, 6-to-12-foot-high snowpack to reach otherwise inaccessible lichens far up in the trees. Except for mountain goats, woodland caribou are the only large animals that tough out winter in the high country.

Prior to 1900, woodland caribou occupied parts of most northern-tier states, plus a huge swath of territory across wooded Canada. Their numbers have since declined throughout Canada, and one by one the U.S. populations have blinked out, leaving only the Selkirk herd. When surveys in the 1980s put this population at 25 or 30 animals, U.S. authorities listed the woodland caribou as endangered and began to augment the herd with transplants from Canada. Although 103 Canadian caribou have thus far been added, the herd still numbers only about 30 animals. Because of the species' poor survival rate, authorities recently pulled the plug on the relocation program. Now, the Selkirk caribou are considered the most critically endangered mammals in the United States. "We are slowly and surely getting in a precarious position," says Jon Almack, a biologist with Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The reasons are many. Relatively unwary, woodland caribou make easy targets for poachers or hunters who may mistake them for deer or elk. And cows don't breed until they are three years old and then usually produce only one calf a year. But the major problem is loss of habitat, primarily from timber harvesting. Logging has also opened up the forest for deer, boosting their numbers in many areas. More deer mean more predators.

Because the Selkirk herd is federally protected in the United States, its welfare is commonly considered in land decisions. In Canada, however, authorities have done little to protect caribou habitat near the border. In 2000, a natural gas pipeline was pushed through the herd's range just a few miles north of the boundary, where logging regularly takes place. "We're losing habitat right and left on the British Columbia side of the border," says Almack.

Other "transboundary" species at risk because of habitat loss are as varied as wolverines, bull trout, spotted owls, piping plovers and lynx, the reclusive cats that eke out a living by hunting snowshoe hares. In central and northern Canada, lynx populations are healthy. Along the Canadian-U.S. border and possibly into Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, only small populations exist--perhaps fewer than 700 cats total. As a result, they are listed as threatened under the ESA.

Lynx are primarily denizens of the northern woods, where hares abound and deep snow makes travel difficult for competing predators. Their oversized feet act like snowshoes, keeping them atop the drifts while other carnivores sink. But at the southern edge of their range, less snow reduces the cats' advantage, and the relatively mild-mannered felines must compete with more aggressive predators such as bobcats and coyotes. Consequently, the lynx's stronghold lies well north of the border, where its population fluctuates in synchrony with hare numbers, which ebb about every ten years. When forced to strike out in search of food, a lynx's journey can cover hundreds of miles and extend south of the border. "The lower 48 states' populations are highly dependent on lynx coming from Canada," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) biologist Lori Nordstrom.

Because its population is stable in Canada, the lynx almost certainly will not be granted protection under SARA. "Right now, that lack of protection is not a problem," says Nordstrom. "But if lynx numbers were ever severely reduced in Canada, populations of the cats in the Lower 48 would suffer." In the meantime, any of the cats that wander from the United States into Canada are fair game for trappers.

Of all the transboundary creatures, the grizzly is the species that most concerns U.S. conservationists. "Grizzlies cross the U.S.-Canadian border a lot and as far as we know, no one ever checks their papers," says FWS wildlife biologist Wayne Kasworm. At least half of the 25 grizzlies radio-collared by biologists in one part of northern Montana have spent time in Canada--including one itinerant bruin that repeatedly ventured 20 to 25 miles on each side of the border, denning every year in the nation he happened to occupy when winter hit.

Fewer than 1,000 of the huge bears (down from an estimated high of 100,000) are thought to exist in the lower 48 states, with four of five remaining populations straddling the Canadian border. Two of these populations, in Montana and Idaho, have so few bears that one biologist has called them "the walking dead."

Although grizzlies can be fierce predators, the bulk of their diet consists of roots, berries, insects and carrion. An adult grizzly can put away 30 pounds of food a day in the summer, and during the autumn pre-hibernation feeding frenzy that amount may triple. "This prodigious food requirement, along with the fact that these bears generally avoid one another lest a fight occur, requires them to maintain large home ranges that often span hundreds of square miles--and the border," says Sterling Miller, a bear expert and NWF biologist.

In the United States, federal law protects grizzlies. But when they enter Canada, where grizzlies are not considered at risk, they can be hunted in most jurisdictions--or pursued illegally. In 1996, for example, Montana grizzly number 355 dropped off the radar screen soon after receiving a radio collar. Flying over southern Canada the following spring, Kasworm picked up the bear's signal and followed it to where the collar lay hidden in the brush. The device had been cut off with a knife, and the ground lay splattered with blood. The exact fate of grizzly 355 is unknown--what is known is that no one removes a collar from a live grizzly.

Authorities in British Columbia seem particularly uncertain about how to handle the grizzly hunting question. In February 2001, officials in the province issued what was to be a three-year moratorium on killing the bears. But with the ink barely dry on that edict, a newly elected provincial government lifted the ban that July.

Even so, hunting is certainly not the biggest threat to grizzlies. "Habitat degradation is even more insidious," says Kasworm. On both sides of the border, roads--often built in connection with logging, mining or energy exploration--fragment habitat. One southern Alberta study found more than four miles of road per square mile of habitat, a ratio thought to be several times higher than what grizzlies can tolerate.


LAST STAND: A male woodland caribou in Alberta, Canada, chases off a yearling that had moved too close while grazing. The species is in decline on both sides of the border. The Selkirk herd, which is made up of about 30 endangered caribou, spends part of the year in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and Washington, and the rest of the time in British Columbia. They are the only woodland caribou that still range in the lower 48 states.

More adaptable are gray wolves that, like grizzlies, routinely traverse the border. Abundant in Canada, wolves are considered endangered or threatened south of the border. Persecution from governments and livestock interests had virtually eliminated wolves from the Lower 48 (with the exception of the Great Lakes region) by the 1930s. But after gaining protection under the ESA, a few wanderers began crossing from Can-ada into Montana in 1979. One such group--dubbed the Magic Pack--denned in Glacier National Park in 1986, producing the first wolf pups born in the western United States in about 50 years. "Now it's not uncommon for a Canadian wolf to cross the border, find a bride, then return to Canada and vice versa," says Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for FWS. One wolf traveled several hundred miles from Banff National Park in Alberta to Idaho, hung around a few months, then went back.

Most border-dwelling packs den in Canada and enter the United States to hunt, traveling as far as 20 miles a day--within a home range that can span 300 miles--searching for moose, deer or other animals large enough to feed everyone. Five packs have home ranges that straddle the border, which means the same wolves protected under the ESA south of the border are considered fur bearers, game animals or worse in Canada. "Wolves that cross the border from Montana and Idaho can be shot as vermin," says Stephen Legault, executive director of Wildcanada.net, a grass-roots environmental organization.

Several dozen American-reared wolves have been killed after crossing the border, and FWS researchers confirm that legal kills in Canada are a leading cause of death for wolves radio-collared in the United States. Between 1987 and 1998, Canadians took a dozen collared American wolves, three times the number that died of natural causes.

Still, Canada and the United States do have a long history of cooperating to help wolves. The wolves released in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the mid-1990s came from Canada and were key to the U.S. recovery program. Also important is the ongoing genetic link between the two wolf groups. "We've tried to make the U.S. Northern Rockies population an extension of the Canadian mass of wolves to keep Montana, Idaho and Wyoming wolves healthy and free of genetic inbreeding," says Bangs.

Canada has also taken significant steps on its own to protect and recover the peregrine falcon, trumpeter swan and other imperiled species. Perhaps most notable is the country's resurrection of the prairie-dwelling swift fox. As the smallest wild canine in North America--weighing about half as much as a house cat--the swift fox historically claimed the short-grass prairie from southern Canada to Texas, preying on mice, voles, birds, ground squirrels and prairie dogs. But decades of habitat loss, coyote predation, trapping and poisoning (mostly as accidental victims of anti-wolf and coyote campaigns) greatly reduced populations of the animals on both sides of the border. The swift fox disappeared entirely from Canada in the 1930s, and in the United States, this diminutive carnivore became a candidate for the threatened species list in 1995.

To save the species, Canadian authorities began an aggressive captive-breeding program in 1983 and eventually more than 900 swift foxes were released into their traditional southern Alberta and Saskatchewan hunting grounds. Before long, people reported seeing swift foxes across the border in Montana, an area where the animals had disappeared decades ago. "To everyone's surprise, Canadian foxes were traveling up to 30 miles, effectively changing their ‘citizenship,'" says Brian Giddings, furbearer coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The thriving Montana population today contains about 225 foxes, and last year U.S. authorities decided the swift fox was no longer a threatened species candidate. Canada's restoration also achieved great success, with about 700 swift foxes living where once there were none. Still, survival of the swift fox is not guaranteed. Without a national law to protect its habitat, the fox's continued existence depends on provincial governments and the largesse of private landowners--all of which may have other priorities.

For the swift fox, the grizzly and other at-risk wildlife species that hold a sort of "dual citizenship," a lot depends upon what Canada does now to ensure their future. The United States enacted its federal endangered species legislation nearly 30 years ago. While far from perfect, the law prevented the extinction of many of the species listed under its protection. Some, such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, have even recovered. A national law in Canada could produce similar successes, while also providing safe passage for those creatures that cross over to the neighbor's turf. After all, Canada may share a border with the United States, but in the end, the countries are connected even more by their rich wildlife legacies.

Montana journalist Gary Turbak wrote about the U.S. Farm Bill's conservation programs in the October/November 2001 issue.

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Gray wolf recovery has been a National Wildlife Federation priority for more than two decades. Believing that with success comes responsibility, NWF currently is pushing for sound management plans in states that may soon assume stewardship for gray wolf populations removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. In conjunction with an affiliate, the Colorado Wildlife Federation, NWF also recently released an education brochure exploring the principles, problems and prospects of expanding wolf recovery into that state. In the Northeast, NWF is helping to lay the groundwork for wolf recovery in suitable habitats in that region. NWF's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center is leading efforts to improve wolf management plans in the western Great Lakes, where federal recovery goals have been met. To learn more, see www.nwf.org/wolves.

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