Conservation group uses spooky season to push back on creepy portrayals of endangered animals

A national land conservation group is looking to tackle negative stereotypes around misunderstood wildlife species that often get a bad rap during the spooky season by educating people about their effect on the local ecosystem.

“Around this time of year, the movies, costumes and lawn decorations feature visuals ranging from the cute and cuddly to genuinely creepy, peppered with portrayals of often feared animals,” said Andrew Holland, National Media Relations Director for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). “Although legends of owls, bats, vampires, wolves and coyotes and werewolves make for great stories, over time these haunting images have contributed to negative and fearful stereotypes of these animals.”

These misconceptions can complicate the effort to gather support for the protection and survival of those species, many of whom are species at risk, said Holland.

The NCC is inviting everyone to learn more about the myths associated with these unique creatures, in hopes that with some education people will switch from fearing these animals to being concerned for their survival and support private land conservation efforts.

Holland said one example of such animals are little brown bat populations.

“A deadly fungus has been moving its way westward across North America, and Canada. It’s already decimated 90 per cent of little brown bat populations in eastern Canada. To fight back, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has been tracking bats in Saskatchewan by recording their echolocation calls and fitting specimens with radio-transmitters, which help us understand what sorts of habitats these creatures need in order to live healthily.”

In Saskatchewan, NCC has documented nine species of bats on 22 different properties, including the endangered little brown bat and northern long-eared myotis. The organization has also documented five species of owls on 34 different properties across the province, including the endangered burrowing owl and threatened short-eared owl. Black widow spiders have also been observed on the Zen-ridge property in southwest Saskatchewan. All three of these species play key roles in the ecosystems they are found in, as well as benefiting humans by controlling other species typically considered pests.

“It’s sad that many of these species are misunderstood. Instead of fearing these animals, we should be scared for them because many of the species we are talking about are at risk or endangered,” said Sarah Ludlow, Saskatchewan conservation science coordinator. “Their populations have seen huge declines. And the problem is, if people are afraid of something, they may not really understand why we need to protect it or even worse, be hostile to these creatures that are just trying to survive.”

Ludlow said many of the species have been negatively depicted at a time when they are of national and global conservation concern.

“People are sometimes afraid of things that we don’t get to interact with. A lot of these species, such as owls and bats, are nocturnal. They come out at night, so we don’t get a real good look at them and don’t have a chance to interact and really understand them,” she said.

The NCC is not only protecting habitat for some of these species but are also busting myths and educating people, so they understand these species as well. The group says bats are a good place to start.

“We have vampires to thank for our fear of bats. One of the big myths is that bats will suck your blood. None of the 18 species of bats that we have in Canada drink blood. They are all insectivores, meaning they eat insects, including some that many people don’t want buzzing around, like mosquitoes,” said Ludlow. “So, if you don’t like mosquitoes, you should really like bats.”

Ludlow said a few other common myths about bats that people get wrong are:

She said bats are great for the world’s ecosystems, and we have them to thank for tequila.

“Bats are the primary pollinators of agave plants, which is what tequila is made from. These bats occur in the southern USA and Mexico and feed on nectar from the agave flowers, doing this pollinates the plants. No bats means no tequila.”

Some species of owl, such as burrowing owl and short-eared owl, are also struggling. Like other nocturnal creatures, Ludlow says owls sometimes get an unfair reputation.

“They look spooky because they have big round eyes. Their call is very haunting, and they are silent when they fly, which is kind of eerie and adds that overall mystique. However, owls do a lot of very good things for our ecosystems,” she said. “They are fantastic at keeping rodent populations in check and are a key part of the forests. Unfortunately, we are seeing many of our owl species decline.”

According to Ludlow, a myriad of issues can arise if these species are not protected.

“Health ecosystems are like a jigsaw puzzle and every species is like one piece of that puzzle, so if you start losing species, the ecosystem becomes unbalanced and you don’t have the complete picture anymore,” said Ludlow. “Losing species that are pest control specialists, like bats or owls, means that those pest populations can increase unchecked, which can have negative economic and social repercussions.”

In Saskatchewan, 100 species are listed as either endangered, threatened, or of special concern (at risk) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

One of the best ways to help with conservation efforts is starting at home, said Ludlow.

“One of the main causes for the population decline of many species is habitat loss; protecting existing natural areas is the best way to help species at risk. By protecting habitats, you’re also protecting all the things that live in or use that habitat, which makes it effective and efficient in terms of conservation resources,” she said. “It is hard to save a species if there is nowhere for it to live. Supporting organizations like the NCC is one way that you can help protect natural habitats in Saskatchewan.”

Ludlow said another thing people can do to restore natural habitat in areas where it has been lost include planting native species in your yard or garden to create small pockets of microhabitats.

Across the country there are 804 at risk animal and plant species that are in danger of disappearing. The Nature Conservancy of Canada currently protects and stewards habitats for 236 species at risk.

Bailey Sutherland, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Albert Daily Herald