Species of Conservation Concern

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Polar Bear | Narwhal | Migratory Birds | Species of Conservation Concern | Traditional Harvesting

Species of Conservation Concern - Summer

Species of Conservation Concern - Winter

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Valued Component Features

Rationale for Selection

Regulators, First Nations, and other stakeholders are particularly concerned about Species at Risk. For the purposes of this report they are considered species:

  1. listed on Schedule 1 of SARA;
  2. assessed by COSEWIC as endangered, threatened, or special concern; and,
  3. categorized by the IUCN as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, or near threatened. Species of conservation concern often have additional ecological, cultural and/or economic importance. In the high Arctic Study area, species of conservation concern include polar bear, narwhal, walrus, Peary caribou, and ivory gull.

Key habitat


Walruses predominantly rely on sea ice and shallow water habitat; however, during the summer and fall months they tend to congregate and haul-out on land in a few predictable locations, typically situated on low, rocky shores. This seasonal terrestrial use should be considered during land-use planning.

Land and marine based conservation for this species should focus on areas where it is found to haul-out in large numbers.

Some walrus haul-out habitat is currently protected under land managed by the Government of Canada and includes:

  • Polar Bear Pass, National Wildlife Area
  • Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area, Coburg Island
  • Bylot Island Migratory Birds Sanctuary, Wallaston Islands
  • East Bay Bird Sanctuary, Southampton Island
  • Bowman Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Baffin Island
  • Northeast coast Bathurst Island, proposed National Park

These conservation areas provide little and only temporary protection for this species.

Peary Caribou

Peary caribou use poorly to moderately vegetated dry to moist habitats (Miller 1991). Ground and tree lichens are the primary winter food of caribou. After the snow melts, caribou switch to green vegetation; sedges, willow and other shrubs, and flowers. Caribou are vulnerable when they congregate for calving and rutting and therefore these areas are likely critical habitat (COSEWIC 2004d). In addition, uninterrupted foraging in these areas is important to the cyclical growth and increase in quality of physical condition and calf growth.

Ivory Gull

The Ivory Gull requires nesting sites that are free from predators and in close proximity to early season open water areas for foraging. These requirements greatly restrict the possible breeding locations of Ivory Gulls in the Canadian Arctic. For example, much of the western arctic and Ellesmere Island are unsuitable for nesting because during the breeding season (late May-early June), there is no ice-free ocean regularly available. In addition, vegetation and therefore arctic fox persists in these areas (COSEWIC 2006a).

Two predominant habitat types are consistently used for breeding locations. The first type is represented by the southeast of Ellesmere and Devon Islands provides sheer granite cliffs amidst glacial terrain. These sheer cliffs eliminate predation by arctic foxes and are too far inland and so high that avian predators are likely few (COSEWIC 2006a). The second type is the vast vegetation-free gravel limestone plateaus on the Brodeur Peninsula of Baffin Island, parts of Cornwallis Island, west of Devon Island, and northeast Somerset Island (COSEWIC 2006a). Because these plateaus lack vegetation, the arctic fox is absent from these areas. Their location far inland lowers the probability of predation by arctic fox or polar bear that are foraging along the coast (COSEWIC 2006a). Other parts of the Canadian Arctic offer similar nesting habitat, but appear unsuitable as they are over 100 km from polynyas, which provide critical foraging habitat for Ivory Gull during the early part of the breeding season {COSEWIC, 2006 #4628}.

Sustainability Factors


Atlantic walrus populations in Canada may be limited or threatened by environmental contamination, hunting, offshore oil and gas activities, shipping, commercial fisheries and climate change (Huntington in press). Their preferred shallow coastal habitat and restricted seasonal distribution make walruses relatively easy to hunt and vulnerable to environmental changes.

Analysis of walrus tissue detected contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium, nickel, cobalt, copper, strontium, Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT) and Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) prove that contaminants can accumulate in walrus tissue; however, the effects of environmental contamination are unknown (Wiig, et al. 2000).

Peary Caribou

Caribou are susceptible to and recover slowly from population declines because of their low rate of reproduction. The main factors leading to caribou declines are habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, as well as predation and disease. Wolves are considered the major predators of caribou. Some wolf packs will follow migrating herds of caribou year round. Other predators of caribou include grizzly and black bears, wolverines, lynx, and golden eagles (Miller 1982).

The availability of wintertime forage is the main limiting factor for Peary caribou. Deep snow, ground-fast ice, and wind-packed snow can make food difficult to reach; thus snow and ice conditions have a direct influence on mortality, nutrition and productivity (Gunn 1998; Toews, et al. 2007). The uncertainty of climate trends for the western High Arctic population is a current cause for concern. Both summer and winter inter-island movements need to be identified and documented. Hunting is considered a potential limiting factor. Wolf predation and disturbances by humans may also be contributing to the population declines. In the Arctic, the limiting factors are compounded: a series of disturbances, insufficient forage supply, or increased hunting following a severe winter could have drastic effects on the populations of Peary caribou.

Ivory Gull

Several threats to the Ivory Gull population have been recognized. Mercury concentrations in Ivory Gulls on Seymour Island have increased steadily since 1976, to the point that five of six eggs tested in 2004 met or exceeded the threshold believed to impair reproductive success (COSEWIC 2006b). Illegal shooting of adults in Greenland has accounted for the vast majority (81%) of band recoveries (Stenhouse, et al. 2004). Research is inconclusive regarding the sensitivity of Ivory Gulls to disturbance while breeding. While some accounts reported a high sensitivity to disturbance by air and ground traffic near breeding colonies, numerous other reports suggest Ivory Gulls may be more tolerant of disturbance than other seabirds (COSEWIC 2006a). Further research is required to determine the Ivory Gull's sensitivity to anthropogenic factors.

Ivory Gulls typically produce a clutch size of two eggs compared with the more typical 3-egg clutch seen in most other gulls, suggesting a relatively low productivity rate (COSEWIC 2006a). Additionally some colonies have shown intermittent breeding and failed to produce young in some years. Predation and human disturbance may also influence productivity at the breeding colonies (COSEWIC 2006a).

Ivory Gulls are at particular risk of mortality due to hunting. While Canadian Inuit are permitted to harvest some gulls, most of the hunting is occurring in Greenland during spring and fall migration (COSEWIC 2006a).

Susceptibility to Oil and Gas Activities


Disturbances (i.e., noise, vessel or human activity) may induce haul-out clearing and stampedes. This effect may cause mortality, increased expended energy (especially in calves), communication masking, change in thermoregulation and increased stress (Born, et al. 1995 in COSEWIC 2006a). Prolonged or repeated disturbances may cause walruses to abandon their haul-outs (Mansfield and St. Aubin 1991; Richardson, et al. 1995).

At present levels of industrial activity, potential threats to walruses are low. It is possible that commercial fisheries may compete for resources, potentially damaging seabed and causing temporary disturbances to habitats (COSEWIC 2006b). Ship noise and oil and gas exploration could displace walruses from their haul-outs and interfere with their communication (Stewart 2002).

Peary Caribou

Disturbances such as the movement of low level aircraft and ground vehicles and construction of ground installations may hamper movement to better feeding grounds. Increasing human disturbance in the high Arctic, through ice breaking activities and increased shipping traffic will have an impact on the Peary caribou populations.

Ivory Gull

Industrial activities are a threat to the nesting areas of Ivory Gulls on the Brodeur Peninsula, Baffin Island. Diamond exploration and associated activities have been taking place since 2002 and their effects on nesting Ivory Gulls are undocumented (COSEWIC 2006a). Most breeding colonies are remote and undisturbed, but on the Brodeur Peninsula of Baffin Island there has recently been a considerable increase in diamond mine exploration, coincident with a significant decline in colony occupation {COSEWIC, 2006 #4628}. In addition to the physical and sensory disturbance associated with human activities, they may attract previously scarce or absent mammalian and avian predators that will also prey on other local sources of food including gull colonies {COSEWIC, 2006 #4628}.

All seabirds, in particular gulls, are considered to be highly vulnerable to oil pollution. The Ivory Gull may be particularly susceptible to an oil spill since it is a more pelagic species than most other seabirds. Oiled Ivory Gulls have not been documented, but since they are often far offshore they would not be expected to be able to reach land or be recovered and so are considered at high risk from oil pollution (COSEWIC 2006a).

Sensitivity Ranking

Sensitivity ranking for species of conservation concern is based on the presence or absence of populations, colonies or important seasonal habitat of any species identified as sensitive by COSEWIC, SARA, or IUCN. Sensitivity ratings are presented in Figure 4-11 (winter) and Figure 4-12 (summer).

High Sensitivity (5)

A rating of high sensitivity indicates that these areas are identified as 'Critical Habitat Areas' as legally defined under the Species at Risk Act and represent critically important habitats to the survival of at least one of the species included in this VEC. No such areas have been identified in the study area.

A rating of high sensitivity also represents areas that overlap with the range of any species classified as 'critically endangered' by the IUCN.

Moderate/High Sensitivity (4)

A rating of moderate/high sensitivity represents areas that overlap with the range of any species identified as endangered under SARA, COSEWIC or IUCN.

Moderate Sensitivity (3)

A rating of moderate sensitivity represents areas that overlap with the range of any species identified as 'Threatened' under SARA or COSEWIC or 'Vulnerable' under IUCN.

Low/Moderate Sensitivity (2)

A rating of low/moderate sensitivity represents areas that overlap with the range of any species Identified as 'Special Concern' under SARA or COSEWIC or 'Near Threatened' under IUCN.

Low Sensitivity (1)

A rating of low sensitivity represents areas that overlap with the range of any species Identified as 'data deficient' under SARA, COSEWIC or IUCN or 'least concern' under IUCN.


Species specific mitigation strategies are summarized in sections 4.1.4 (polar bear), 4.2.4 (narwhal) and 4.3.4 (ivory gull). Additional mitigation required for walrus include vessel speed restrictions, noise restrictions, and minimum aircraft altitude restrictions around known haul-out sites. Any development within the range of the Peary caribou will need to be mitigated to avoid sensitive life stages and noise disturbance from aircraft, land vehicles, and construction activities. As specific seasonal habitat use of Peary caribou in the arctic islands is poorly understood, additional studies would be required to address these knowledge gaps.

As with most species in the Arctic, knowledge on sensitive, and biologically important habitat, is at a very coarse level (commensurate with few studies). Implementation of dedicated surveys for these animals prior to potential contact with industry will assist proponents and government to more confidently plan and approve project implementation.

Potential Effects of Climate Change


It is possible that direct effects of climatic warming or cooling on walruses are likely limited and not necessarily negative (Moore and Huntington 2008). Born, et al. (2003) hypothesized that a decrease in the extent and duration of Arctic sea ice in response to warming might increase food availability for walruses by increasing bivalve production and improving access to feeding areas in shallow inshore waters {COSEWIC, 2006 #3666}. Others have suggested that walrus populations will decline in recruitment and body condition as a result of climate change because they rely on sea ice as a platform for hunting, breeding, and resting (Moore and Huntington 2008). Laidre, et al. (2008) demonstrated that walrus fitness was positively correlated to sea ice. As well, North American Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) (2006) noted that hunting pressure on walruses will likely increase as the amount and duration of ice cover in the Arctic declines (COSEWIC 2006b). Predation by killer whales and polar bears may also increase in the absence of ice as walrus are forced to use terrestrial sites (COSEWIC 2006b).

The indirect effects of climate change may pose a greater threat to walruses than the change itself. In the event of warming, human populations in the north might increase and expand into previously unpopulated areas; in the event of cooling, walruses may be forced southward closer to existing communities (COSEWIC 2006b).

Peary Caribou

For Peary caribou, climate change will potentially result in deeper snow, faster spring melt, warmer summers, and freezing rain. High annual variability of all these factors may have an impact on the ability of caribou to thrive in its environment.

Ivory Gull

Climate change may also have an impact on Ivory Gull depending on how it affects the distribution of open water early in the breeding season {COSEWIC, 2006 #4628}. Because the Ivory Gull is associated with pack ice year-round an increase in the extent or thickness of ice cover would reduce their foraging capabilities and have potential effects on reproductive productivity. Alternatively, a decrease in ice cover or thickness may increase available habitat for foraging and have a positive effect on reproductive productivity in the breeding season (COSEWIC 2006a).


See references used for Species of Concervation Concern information.