Wildlife Wednesday: avian flu kills polar bear for the first time ever

Plus: beavers and AI team up to fight wildfire, swamp rodents invade Ontario, sharks in peril, and Great Bear hunting rights bought by conservation group

A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Susanne Miller/USFWS [CC BY 2.0 DEED])
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Avian flu — responsible for the death of millions of poultry birds in Canada alone — has killed a polar bear for the first time on record.

The polar bear was part of the already threatened Alaska population, and was found dead in the North Slope region sometime in the fall of 2023. The cause of death was confirmed as avian fly on Dec. 6 by the Alaska’s Division of Environmental health.

While this was the first polar bear avian flu case, there have been reports of other animals infected by the virus in Alaska, including red foxes, a black bear and a brown bear. The polar bear likely contracted the flu after eating a dead bird, according to Alaska state veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach.

Considered threatened as a species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and as “special concern” by the Committee on the status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, polar bears have lost access to much of the sea ice they rely on for hunting seals due to climate change.

According to Douglas Clark, associate environmental professor at the University of Saskatchewan, it’s “absolutely typical” for polar bears to eat birds, both alive and dead, and reliance on this food source “appears to be increasing.”

EEAGER beaver

Using artificial intelligence and satellites, researchers are plotting where to introduce beavers in order to increase wildfire and drought resistance. (Photo: GlacierNPS/Flickr [Public Domain])
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In the fight against natural disasters —like wildfire, floods and drought — beavers, artificial intelligence and satellites seem like an unlikely team of heroes. But when a group of Google employees reached out to a Minnesota scientist with the idea to teach computers to spot beaver habitats from space, it didn’t seem so crazy.

“If we could teach students or researchers to do it, I felt like we could teach a computer to do it,” University of Minnesota researcher Emily Fairfax told CBC’s As It Happens. “And if anybody knows how to do that, it’s going to be Google.”

Now, Fairfax and her team of engineers, scientists and conservationists are using the Earth Engine Automated Geospatial Elements Recognition (EEAGER) to map beaver infrastructure across California. Beavers are ecosystem engineers that build dams, ponds and wetlands that store millions of litres of water. These areas collect water on the surface and underground, meaning plants have access to water during periods of drought and are too wet to burn during wildfires.

EEAGER identifies what is and isn’t a beaver dam using artificial intelligence, giving conservationists direction on how effective beaver introductions are as well as where to introduce them further.

Similar work is being done in Canada, as part of a human (rather than AI) powered project called Beavers from Space.


Sharks in peril

Despite efforts being made to reduce declining shark populations, species mortality is continuing to increase. (Photo: Alexandre Boucey/Unsplash)
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For hundreds of millions of years, sharks have been roaming our oceans as apex predators, maintaining the sea’s equilibrium and contributing to the health of underwater ecosystems. However, each year, around 100 million sharks are killed worldwide (about 190 every minute) through fishing, bycatch and other human-caused actions. Although measures have been put in place to reduce shark mortality, a new global study published in the journal Science has found that despite conservation efforts made to reduce shark catch and finning, shark fishing mortality is still rising.

Led by researchers at Dalhousie University, the team of scientists examined shark catches from 2012 to 2019, as well as conducted in-depth interviews with shark fishery experts to find out if conservation measures have been successful. Overall, the dataset recorded an estimated 1.1 billion sharks caught by fisheries, with shark fishing mortality increasing from 76 million to 80 million sharks per year despite the protective legislation that had been put in place.

The study concluded that shark fishing continues to pose a significant threat to shark populations but that solutions such as new policies and regulations are successful when properly applied.

Rat pack rendezvous

The nutria, a South American animal somewhere between a muskrat and a beaver, is now on Ontario’s invasive species list. (Photo: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED])
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It’s described as bigger than a muskrat and smaller than a beaver — and perhaps uglier than either. The nutria (whose charming nicknames include swamp beaver and river rat) is native to South America but has recently been added to Ontario’s invasive species list.

Interestingly, though they have not yet been spotted in Ontario, the burly beasts have been a menace in many U.S. states ever since being let loose in the 1940s by American fur farmers when demand for nutria fur (who knew?!) crashed. The rodents, which love to dig and burrow, have wreaked havoc since going rogue, damaging everything from flood-control levees to dams and road beds to ditches. They also like to chow down on a wide variety of crops.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, just as the beaver carries a parasite responsible for “beaver fever,” the nutria hosts a nematode known to cause a rash called “nutria itch.” 

Adding it to the province’s Invasive Species Act means it is now illegal in Ontario to import, possess, deposit, transport, release, propagate, buy, sell, lease or trade a nutria. 

Rainforest rights

Buying up hunting rights, says the group, seeks to ensure healthy populations of animals, particularly carnivores seen as “trophy animals” like grizzly bears, black bears, cougars and wolves. (Photo: Brodie Guy/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED]
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A conservation group has bought out hunting rights in the Great Bear Rainforest in order to protect the sensitive ecosystem’s wildlife. And it’s no small amount: the hunting tenure of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation now covers about a quarter of the Great Bear Rainforest, or 18,000 square kilometers. The group spent more than two years raising the $1.92m it needed to buy the rights from hunters, making them now the single largest hunting tenure holder in the province. Buying up hunting rights, says the group, seeks to ensure healthy populations of animals, particularly carnivores seen as “trophy animals” like grizzly bears, black bears, cougars and wolves. In its place, Raincoast hopes to encourage ecotousim where people come to see and learn about the wildlife that live in the Great Bear Rainforest, rather than kill them.


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