As Canada faces an unprecedented wildfire season, Calgary’s Wilder Institute is looking for ways to preserve at-risk species which could become locally extinct if wildfires reach their habitat.
Local extinction, or extirpation, is when a species or population no longer exists within a certain geographical location, meaning at least one other population of the species still exists in other areas, as described in biology dictionary.
The institute focuses on wildlife conservation by reintroducing threatened species such as the greater sage grouse, the burrowing owl and the half-moon hairstreak butterfly into the wild.
During this fire season, they are focusing on two species, the whooping crane—a species of bird in Alberta—and the wood-poppy, a flower in Ontario.
Gráinne Michelle McCabe, chief conservation officer at the Wilder Institute, told CTVNews.ca on Thursday they are working with local partners, such as researchers at the University of Lethbridge, to bolster these endangered wild populations and protect them from the threats of fires.
“If particular species are lost, an ecosystem can be thrown out of balance,” she said.
McCabe said the whooping cranes migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.
A wildfire in the bird’s small habitat in Alberta could “devastate and decimate … their fragile population,” leading to local extinction, said McCabe.
Similarly to its impact on humans, wildfires have devastating effects on wildlife—from health effects to communication and migration patterns.
For birds in particular, smoke has a long-term impact on their lungs, affecting their communication, their ability to find mates and hold territory. Additionally, wildfires can make it difficult for the birds to find an appropriate nesting ground if their current habitat is destroyed.
Another worrisome species is the wood-poppy, an endangered flower, only found in three small parts of southern Ontario and in parts of the U.S.
“Should any of these three populations face a forest fire, we could lose a substantial portion of the plants from Canada, which would be devastating,” McCabe said.
Although wildfires are needed for nature to regulate itself, McCabe noted because fires are happening more frequently and more intensely in recent years, ecosystems are not getting enough time to recover.
“If they can’t recover, those habitats could no longer be suitable for the animal species that used to find food, or water, or mates or nesting habitat there. This could have serious implications for species in the longer-term,” she added in an email to CTVNews.ca on Friday.
As of Friday afternoon, there were 421 active wildfires across the country, and 217 were considered out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC)’s website.
McCabe said anyone concerned about the fires’ impact on wildlife can look into supporting local organizations doing work to restore and preserve habitats and species.