University of Calgary researchers marking and photographing the first new capture of an Ord's kangaroo rat in 2013.

University of Calgary researchers marking and photographing the first new capture of an Ord’s kangaroo rat in 2013.

Research and recovery activities on the endangered Ord’s kangaroo rat in Canada are now underway again for 2013 in Alberta, with support by Wildlife Preservation Canada. Similar to last year, the University of Calgary research team led by Dr. Darren Bender will be conducting more trials to determine if kangaroo rats can be relocated from productive habitats in Canada to areas of quality habitat where the species previously existed, but is now currently absent or under-populated. Unfortunately for species like the Ord’s kangaroo rat, losses to the population occur each year, particularly over the winter period when up to 90% of animals can be lost to due to starvation or predation, meaning that unoccupied or under-populated habitat is common. It is hoped that by developing effective protocols for moving healthy animals to quality, unoccupied habitats, we can develop a management tool that will maximize the distribution of the species in Canada and ensure its future persistence.

Unfortunately this spring, the research team received a big blow — the Alberta population that was the focus of this study has suffered heavily from over-winter mortality, and the kangaroo rat population size is currently believed to be at its lowest in more than a decade. A number of productive habitat sites that have been monitored continuously since 1995 and known to support rats each year are either now locally extirpated (no more animals to be found there) or are occupied by a very small number of individuals. In fact, a recent visit to the largest and most productive patch of habitat for kangaroo rats in Alberta in 2012 was visited by the research team in days ago, only to reveal that the number of kangaroo rats has dropped from up to 100 residents in 2012 to less than five this spring. A number of other sites also appear to no longer be occupied by  kangaroo rats  this spring.

While this news is disturbing and generates substantial concern regarding the future persistence of this species, which is already on the brink of extinction in Canada, a small measure of good news also comes from the UofC research team. Two critical sites in the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area appear to be healthy and strong, and a large number of kangaroo rats in very healthy condition were recaptured there last week. Also, one previously inaccessible site in 2011/2012 was surveyed again this spring, and kangaroo rat numbers appear to be exceptionally high for this part of the year. So perhaps there will be a large enough ‘core’ population to re-establish themselves in Alberta and offset continued population decline for the species, particularly if researchers can effectively move some rats from productive areas to unoccupied habitats where the rats will have the best chance of future growth and survival. Expect future updates from the research team once more information becomes available.