Calgary Zoo Gives Hope To Endangered Canadian Species

Posted on July 22

Five endangered Canadian species - Vancouver Island marmots, burrowing owls, greater sage-grouse, whooping cranes and the northern leopard frog - are among many species that have a brighter future on the horizon thanks to the Calgary Zoo. 

“Protecting Canadian wildlife has never been more critical, and the consequences of inaction for some species could be extinction. Sometimes such action involves conservation translocations that involve breeding for release or the transfer of species between wild populations,” says Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Director of Conservation and Science at the Calgary Zoo. “Our conservation programs benefit vulnerable populations around the globe, and I’m also exceptionally proud of the contributions we’ve made to endangered Canadian species this year.”

“It’s thrilling to see the positive impact we’re making through our conservation breeding programs for endangered species in Canada,” says Jamie Dorgan, Director of Animal Care at the Calgary Zoo. “Our entire Calgary Zoo team is passionate about this work and dedicated to making these programs stronger and more successful each year.”

Vancouver Island marmots

The Calgary Zoo is one of three facilities that breed Vancouver Island marmots to increase wild populations, and an extraordinary 17 pups have been born at their Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre this year. The pups will remain with their parents, under the watchful eyes of the Calgary Zoo Animal Care team, until later this year. The pups will winter at the Tony Barrett Mt Washington Marmot Recovery Centre prior to being released in spring 2021.

  • To date, 131 pups born in the Calgary Zoo conservation breeding program have been released to the wild, including the recent release of female marmot “Sarabi” at Mount Washington on Vancouver Island.
  • The Calgary Zoo is collaborating with partners on an experiment that introduces supplemental feeding to improve body condition and potentially boost wild reproduction. Marmots that enter hibernation in good body condition are more likely to survive the winter and produce pups the following spring. Now in its third year of research, the Calgary Zoo research teams actively collect data on the steep rocky slopes of alpine environments to obtain marmot body weights and to investigate whether this could be used as a conservation tool to support the recovery of marmots in the wild.
  • Why they matter: Critically endangered Vancouver Island Marmots are uniquely Canadian and found nowhere else on the planet. They came close to being lost forever once before and may face future challenges such as impacts from climate change

Burrowing owls

This spring, 20 head-started burrowing owls were released in the prairies of southern Alberta as breeding pairs, all of which laid eggs! Head-starting is an innovative conservation technique where the youngest and least likely to survive owlets are collected from the wild and cared for over the winter at the Calgary Zoo to ensure a better chance of survival. The owls are then released the next spring as breeding pairs, with the hope they will contribute to the wild population.

  • To date, more than 100 owlets have fledged in the wild, from 52 head-started parents released by the Calgary Zoo, and more owlets will soon be fledging from this year’s 20 head-started parents. This spring, the field crew spotted a burrowing owl that had returned from migration with a very special story: the burrowing owl’s grandparents were owls that the Calgary Zoo released in 2018. This grand-owlet demonstrates the potential for positive impact of our head-starting program on the wild population through multiple generations.
  • Calgary Zoo researchers are currently providing supplemental food and monitoring the released owls using underground scopes, remote cameras, and satellite transmitters that will track the owls until their first migration this fall.
  • Why they matter: The endangered burrowing owl is an indicator species, which means they reflect the health of the Canadian grasslands they call home. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) last estimated, in 2017, that there were only 270 pairs of burrowing owls left in Canada.

Greater sage-grouse

The Calgary Zoo is leading Canada's only reintroduction breeding program for greater sage-grouse, an iconic prairie bird critically close to disappearing in Canada’s wilds. Now in its fourth year of successful breeding, the team is delighted to announce it’s on track to breed and release its targeted number of birds to help rebuild viable populations in the wild.

  • In order to monitor their movements, to-date 143 radio transmitters have been fitted to greater sage-grouse released to the wild.  
  • The breeding program involves a range of rearing techniques to preserve the unique genetics of the species, including hen-rearing, human-assisted rearing, and incubation processes. Success rates are monitored to determine and establish the most effective breeding practices to help ensure wild populations are re-established over time.
  • Why they matter: The endangered greater sage-grouse is an indicator of healthy and intact sagebrush habitats, which are used by numerous other prairie birds and mammals, such as pronghorn antelope. There are only five known leks (dancing grounds where mating for this species occurs) of the birds remaining active in Canada – two in Saskatchewan and three in Alberta. Conserving sage-grouse means you are also conserving a wealth of other species that share the same rare habitat.

Whooping cranes

Calgary Zoo is the only Canadian breeding partner in the whooping crane recovery effort, contributing whooping cranes for release into the wild since 1992. This year, one particularly genetically valuable pair made exceptional progress as a newly matched “couple”. The duo paired well and are fostering a chick with attentive care in their first season together. This bonding behaviour bodes well for future breeding initiatives.

  • Earlier this year, whooping crane Nebula completed its first successful return trip migration! Nebula hatched at the Calgary Zoo and was released to the wild in spring 2019.
  • Calgary Zoo teams conduct incubation research to identify ways to increase the number of eggs that hatch and ultimately release more whooping cranes into the wild over time.
  • Why they matter: Conserving this iconic endangered species protects other species that share its wetland habitat. Today, there are four wild populations and only one natural population that migrates between Canada and the United States: the Aransas Wood Buffalo population.

Northern leopard frog

This year marked the first successful on-site breeding and hatching of leopard frog tadpoles at the Calgary Zoo, thanks to the skills, dedication, and passion of the Animal Care, Veterinary and Research teams. In the wild, frog breeding is believed to be stimulated by conditions such as photoperiod and temperature. Natural overwintering conditions were closely mimicked in indoor habitats, and supplemental hormones helped further stimulate the frogs natural breeding cycles. Some of these tadpoles will be kept as part of the breeding program and some have been released into the wild as tadpoles or froglets.

  • As part of the British Columbia Northern Leopard Frog Recovery Team, the Calgary Zoo helped translocate over 14,400 northern leopard frog tadpoles to the reintroduction site in the Columbia Marshes.
  • The Calgary Zoo‘s northern leopard frog reintroduction breeding program is the third of its kind in Canada, with conservation research dating back to 2003.
  • Why they matter: The northern leopard frog is the most endangered amphibian in British Columbia. Frogs play vital roles in our ecosystems and are crucial members of aquatic and terrestrial food webs, and indicators of wetland health. When frog populations decline, other living things in the habitat are in jeopardy.

The Calgary Zoo partners with numerous individuals and organizations committed to the recovery of these incredible Canadian species, and thanks everyone involved in the success of these critical programs, including:

Vancouver Island marmots:

Burrowing owls:

Greater sage-grouse:

Whooping cranes:

Northern leopard frog:

For more information on these programs, click the links below: