Everyone knows that British Columbia is a spectacularly beautiful province, with its scenic ocean vistas, snow-capped mountains, and towering forests. This wealth of scenery supports the most biological diversity of any province in Canada. Some of our wildlife, present and past, is found nowhere else on Earth. As we move towards electing a new federal government, it is essential that candidates be evaluated on their willingness to value, protect, and restore B.C.’s unique and priceless wildlife. The holiday season is also a good opportunity to explore and enjoy our province’s natural wealth. Many discoveries and knowledge have been made in recent decades; there is still so much more to learn about this wonderful corner of the Earth.
Here is a small sample of B.C.’s unique and extraordinary wildlife and where to see them.
For eons, only local First Nations knew of the spirit bear, a rare white subspecies of the black bear living on B.C.’s rain-washed northern coast. It remained undescribed by scientists until the early 20th century. This unusual bear, also known as moskgm’ol, or Kermode bear, is B.C.’s official mammal, designated in 2006. Although it has white fur, the spirit bear is not an albino, but a genetic variation of the black bear. There are fears that grizzly bears may pose a competitive threat to the smaller spirit bear, which is an iconic inhabitant of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Overseas visitors often have bear-viewing on their bucket list, and many British Columbians would know how to find a black bear (try below the Whistler gondola early in the morning or Manning Provincial Park). Grizzlies can be a bit trickier to see on demand, although the little community of Stewart in northern B.C. can be a reliable location. Bear-viewing tour operators specialize in trips to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary on the Central Coast, a beautiful, remote location where hunting is forbidden. Spirit bears, however, are by nature very elusive, and anyone lucky enough to see one must feel very privileged. Improve your chances by going on a specialized naturalist tour in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Burgess Shale fossil beds
Nature has changed dramatically over the millennia and there is no more striking demonstration of this than the extraordinary diversity of marine life forms preserved in the Burgess Shale fossil beds, part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. These animals lived and died in the ocean in the Middle Cambrian geologic period, 508 million years ago, and their bodies are preserved in black shale rocks high in the mountains of Yoho National Park, near the town of Field, B.C. Discovered in 1909, the fossil deposits have been the source of geological study and commentary ever since, including Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life. They are especially unique in the incredible and uncommon preservation of soft parts, not often found in fossils. Today these remarkably well-preserved fossils are used in climatology studies, analyzing the effects of changing temperatures on our planet’s biodiversity. As recently as 2013, a whole new fossil collection was discovered in an outcrop in adjacent Kootenay National Park, B.C.
Access to the fossils is restricted to guided walks organized by Parks Canada and reservations are required for the trek through rugged mountain terrain to visit the fossil beds. Collection is forbidden. Many fossil specimens were taken to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and to the Royal Museum of Ontario in earlier days, for scientific study. Locally, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC also has Burgess Shale fossil specimens.
Fraser River salmon and sturgeon
Only superlatives can describe the fish of B.C.’s longest river, the Fraser. At the peak of salmon spawning runs, tributaries of the Fraser burst with fish. Sockeye salmon is B.C.’s most famous taste sensation but it is just one of five species of ocean-going salmon returning to the river and its tributaries to spawn on a cyclic basis. Last year, a dominant run of sockeye salmon coloured the spawning streams red, as the fish laid eggs, fertilized them, and died. The famous Adams River run is at its peak during the dominant run year every four years (the next one is due in 2018). This year will have fewer sockeye but should be a good one for pink salmon, which have a Fraser spawning run every two years in August to October. Other salmon to look for in coastal streams and Fraser tributaries are chum, chinook, and coho. Salmon can often be seen jumping in the river as they head upstream. Spawning sites are generally clean, clear, shallow waters with gravelly beds.
The great white sturgeon of the Fraser River are legendary: photos from the early 20th century show giants over four metres long. This ancient fish, whose ancestors first swam the oceans 290 million years ago, and whose roe are valued as caviar, still occur in the Fraser, despite all the environmental pressures of the last century. They are long-lived, slow-growing fish and are classified as endangered. Fishers sometimes succeed in hauling a sturgeon out of the Fraser, in a catch and release fishery, or as incidental bycatch. Sturgeon might be seen swimming in the river and there have even been several cases of fish found alive in muddy fields, days after floods have washed them there.
The survival of these iconic fish species depends on many factors including the correct range of water temperature and levels, the maintenance and restoration of spawning habitats, and the absence of non-native species competitors, including Atlantic salmon in fish farms. All these factors require political priorities and action on the environment. According to the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Fraser River Panel, on July 30 the river water discharge at Hope was approximately 34 percent lower than average, and the temperature was 1 C higher than average at Qualark Creek.
Vancouver Island marmot
The Vancouver Island marmot is endemic to B.C., and found only on the island. It is genetically similar to the hoary marmot of the mainland but its appearance, behaviour, and culture are quite distinct. This cute, cat-sized member of the squirrel family is now exceedingly rare in the wild. Its population started to decline in the mid-1970s, due to logging of the forests around its mountain peak home and a subsequent invasion of predators. A captive breeding and reintroduction program has been in place for several decades, aiming to rebuild the population. Marmots are now gradually released from this program into suitable alpine habitats on Vancouver Island, notably Mount Washington and Strathcona Provincial Park.
The chance of seeing a Vancouver Island marmot in the wild is rather low, given their rarity and restricted range. Hiking the high country on eastern Vancouver Island provides the best opportunity to spot one of these chocolate brown furry little creatures. However, there are two other species of marmots in B.C. that are much easier to spot: the hoary marmot, or “whistler”, that lives on mountain tops, and the yellow-bellied marmot, which occurs in grassland and mountain areas in central B.C. At Manning Provincial Park, both of these two marmots can be seen, as well as much smaller, but rather similar, ground squirrels and chipmunks.
Fraser Delta migratory bird flocks
The mouth of the British Columbia’s Fraser River is recognized globally as one of a mere handful of major stopovers for shorebirds travelling the Pacific Flyway, an international migratory route between nesting grounds in the Arctic and wintering areas in Central and South America. Every summer, several million adult and juvenile shorebirds fly south and stop to rest and “refuel”, feeding on the mud and sand flats of Roberts Bank and Boundary Bay in the Fraser delta. Each group of birds may only stay a few days before flying onwards, but wave after wave arrive, with numbers building steadily between July and the end of September. The largest flocks are those of western sandpipers, just 17 centimetres long and weighing less than a granola bar. The females fly south first, averaging 200 kilometres per day, followed by the males, and last of all come the juvenile birds, this year’s hatchlings, following an 11,000-kilometre-long route by instinct. Shorebird habitats and survival of the Flyway are put at risk in the Fraser Delta by port developments and other industrial activities, and proper amelioration of such impacts is essential.
It is possible to watch the shorebird migration in summer and fall from dyke trails along the Lower Mainland coast. Check tide tables in advance and plan to be at the shore an hour or two before high tide as the birds fly closer in to feed. Areas near the 104th Street entrance to the Boundary Bay dyke, and the east end of the Brunswick Point dyke are usually good spots in season. B.C. Nature club members organize birdwatching walks and nature hikes throughout the year.
Glass sponge reefs
Unique glass sponge reefs, thought to be globally extinct millennia ago, have been discovered in B.C. coastal waters within the last 30 years. Hexactinellid glass sponge reefs were common in the world’s oceans during the Jurassic era, 200 million years ago, but it was long thought that only individual glass sponges had survived to the modern era. Then in the late 1980s, geophysical surveys of the northern waters of B.C.’s continental shelf revealed extensive glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait. Smaller reefs were later discovered in the Strait of Georgia, including near Howe Sound and off the southern Gulf Islands. Reef-building sponges are animals that survive in cold waters with low levels of sedimentation and high amounts of silica. They can be damaged by trawling, shrimp and crab pots so conservation no-go zones are in place in the Georgia Strait and hopefully will soon be enacted for Hecate Strait, thanks to a campaign by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which advocates for marine protected areas along the B.C. coast.
As glass sponge reefs are below the reach of traditional scuba divers, most of us will never have a chance to view these unusual species in the wild. However, other more common species, such as the brightly-coloured purple and red encrusting sponges, can be found in deep water tide pools on the rocky west coast, such as at Tofino and Ucluelet, or on dives in Sechelt Inlet and Howe Sound.
Whether we see these natural sights for ourselves or just know they are out there, their presence ensures the ecological integrity of our beautiful blue planet is sustained long into the future. Let’s tell politicians to do their part in protecting nature.