How the Wilder Institute is working to save endangered species in Canada’s wilderness habitats

Alberta has innovative, compassionate programs in place to revive the crescent-shaped butterfly and owl populations.

Unlike humans, animals have no concept of provincial or national boundaries.

Conservationists around the world, including those at the Wilder Institute, have a deep commitment to tending to the needs of species at risk across borders and beyond.

Case in point: the nesting owl and the half-moon butterfly. Both species have prairie populations within Canada, and both are at risk.

Field work each summer aims to help their numbers recover by learning more about these species and what can be done to improve their survival rates.

The only owl known to live in nests rather than in trees or crevices, the last 40 years have seen a dramatic decline in owls. Owls are endangered in Canada, and the federal government estimated in 2015 that there were only 270 breeding owls left in the country.

Land-use changes and a changing climate are thought to be two major contributing factors, but more work needs to be done to understand these threats and develop solutions.

The goal is to bring these numbers back to north of 3,000 pairs over the next three decades, and gradually increase these numbers in subsequent years.

“We used to have thousands of these individuals in the Canadian wilderness, and now we’re in the hundreds, and we know we have to act,” says Natasha Lloyd, senior conservation manager at the Wilder Institute.

The Wilder Institute, in partnership with federal and state governments and local landowners, is leading a “ground-up” concept to help restore these populations. The practice involves bringing smaller chicks into human care during the winter months, when survival is particularly low. They are protected from the dangers they would encounter in the wild and released the following spring when they have a chance to contribute to the Canadian population.

“We hope that this head-starting technique, along with other conservation measures, can help replace the needle so that the decline is halted and populations become more stable,” says Lloyd. “And then, eventually, we need to move the needle toward a trend where their numbers are increasing again.”

Half moon hairstyle butterfly nectars on yellow buckwheat. Photo: Jill Hockaday

The only population of the half-moon hair butterfly in Alberta is found at Blakiston Fan in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Invasive species and natural disturbances such as fire and flooding are threats to this endangered insect’s ability to recover.

But there is hope.

Along with Parks Canada, the Wilder Institute conducts vital field research, along with genomic and genetic testing, to better understand the needs and future of butterflies.

Understanding the genetic relationship between populations in Alberta, BC and the US will allow decisions to be made about whether future conservation breeding and translocations are needed to ensure the recovery of this species.

Since 2019, these efforts have produced dramatic results: from less than 100 butterflies observed in 2019 to nearly 700 observed in 2021. This species is an important part of the ecosystem. They are closely related to ants, where the larvae produce a sugary substance that the ants eat, and which the ants help protect the larvae from predators.

wild explorers
Half moon hairstyle butterfly field researchers. Wilder Institute photo

“They seem to be coming back from previous declines, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods at all,” Lloyd said. “Insect populations fluctuate up and down quite regularly. So given the threats and the already small population, there’s a risk that something could happen again that could wipe them all out. But by working with the tools we have, such as conservation translocations, we can do something about species rather than watching their populations spiral toward extinction.

Among the many projects the Wilder Institute is currently working on are efforts to save the burrowing owl and the half-moon haircut. Wilder’s wildlife conservation work is based on collaborative partnerships with governments, industries and other conservation organizations. As a wildlife conservation charity, the Wilder Institute’s work is made possible by the generous support of donors and sponsors.

To support the Wilder Institute’s innovative conservation programs, visit wilderinstitute.org/take-action.

Leave a Comment