North America has some of the most diverse and extensive habitats- from temperate grasslands, oceans, wetlands, and forests to tropical savannas. North America is home to over 457 species of mammals, 914 birds, 662 reptiles, more than 300 amphibians, and 4,000 known arachnids. Wooly mammoths, giant armadillos, and three species of camels were among more than 30 mammals that were hunted to extinction by North Americans approximately 13,000 years ago. Camels, horses, and tapirs originated on the continent but are now extinct due to a combination of the Ice Age and human arrival.
It is heartbreaking to see that these scenic biomes and their exotic animal species have been bearing the brunt of climate change, human activities, and its aftermath. With a steep rise in global temperatures, widespread deforestation, pollution, and land reclamation, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has listed approximately 1,092 species of animals as endangered or threatened in North America.
Here are some of the most endangered animals found in North America and all the details you need to know about them. Read ahead to get more information about the conservation measures being taken around the globe to protect these rare animals that play an essential role in our ecosystems.
1. Red Wolf
The red wolf (Canis rufus) is not only one of the most critically endangered species in North America but also the world’s most endangered wolf. These wolves that once freely roamed throughout the Eastern and South Central United States, living in coastal prairie and marsh habitats, are now restricted to captive breeding facilities around the U.S.
The massive reduction in their population was caused due to decades of negligent human activities including hunting, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and climate change. Loss of habitat, parasitic infections, and competition for food and other resources are some of the many reasons contributing to the dwindling number of these wolves.
In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated conservation efforts for these species where the remaining wild species of these wolves were captured and bred in breeding facilities like the Point Defiance Zoological Gardens in Tacoma and Bulls Island. The scientist then repopulated the refugee animals and now there are about 200 red wolves in the 45 breeding facilities. The wolves were then reintroduced into areas where their population had gone extinct. Only 15 to 17 red wolves roam their native habitats in eastern North Carolina as a nonessential experimental population.
These wolves are at risk of extinction also because the rise in sea levels could very well drown their low-lying coastal homes. Scientists are trying out various wetland restoration techniques. These include simple measures like planting soil-stabilizing trees to protect the species from high tides and strong water currents. This can give them sufficient time to move farther inland in case of a shift in the coastline.
2. Burrowing Owl
The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), also called the shoco, is one of the smallest owl species found throughout open landscapes of North and South America. These long-legged owl species inhabit grasslands, agricultural areas, deserts, or any other open dry area with low vegetation. Their population numbers have been severely impacted due to habitat destruction and degradation caused primarily by land development as well as automobile collisions.
These owls are nocturnal and make their nests in underground burrows. The burrows of these owls are usually dug by prairie dogs or ground squirrels. Their prey’s numbers have also dwindled due to pest control being actively implemented by the farmers. Another major threat is the use of pesticides, which are indirectly ingested by owls when they consume animal carcasses. With fewer than 1,000 pairs thought to exist in North America, the burrowing owl is one of the most endangered birds in Canada’s prairie grasslands.
Climate change has also played an unfortunate role in the dwindling number of burrowing owls. Heavy rainstorms flood the burrows of these owls in Canada, while droughts increase the chances of fires in the western United States. Furthermore, the increasing temperatures have dried out grasslands rendering them inhabitable for burrowing owls.
Burrowing Owls are federally protected under the Species At Risk Act and have been assigned the rank of “very rare” by the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre. Conservation efforts have included reengineering the habitat to make it suitable for burrowing owl colonization. This includes providing artificial burrows that mimic natural burrows along with adding California ground squirrels to the landscape, which dig burrows the owls can reuse. The extermination of dogs and squirrels in agricultural land is also actively discouraged.
3. California Condor
The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is one of the world’s rarest species to see in the wild. The magnificently spectacular but endangered California Condor is the largest bird in North America. It is known to have survived the mass extinctions of the last Ice Age, outliving many ancient species, and continued to thrive till the 20th century.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), this bird was officially added to the endangered species list in 1967. Their entire population was reduced to just 22 individuals by the 1980s. This dramatic population decline resulted from birds accidentally ingesting bullet fragments left in animal carcasses and consuming the pesticide DDT, which caused lead poisoning. This resulted in reduced eggshell thickness as habitat loss and power-line accidents took a deadly toll on their numbers. This hindered the species from repopulating.
In 1987, the last 9 of the wild condors were removed from the wild, and all the remaining condors left in the world were kept in breeding facilities at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. An intensive captive-breeding effort at southern California zoos helped these magnificent birds avoid extinction.
In 1992, they were reintroduced to the wild areas in California, where their population had gone extinct. Reintroductions followed in Arizona in 1996 and in Baja California, Mexico in 2003. About 150 birds have since been released into the wild and with their usual breeding cycles. There are now approximately 500 California condors in existence. The California condor is presently identified as critically endangered by the IUCN.
4. Black-Footed Ferret
Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) are one of the most endangered but elusive mammals in North America and are the only ferret species native to the continent. They were listed as endangered in 1967 and have been declared extinct several times in the recent past, including the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1980, researchers located a population of about 130 ferrets near Meeteetse that unfortunately suffered from a disease. The eighteen remaining ferrets were taken into captivity between 1985 and 1987 for captive breeding. The majority of the shortgrass prairie habitat that the ferrets depend on has been converted to agricultural land. Since the black-footed ferrets rely on prairie dogs for food, they inhabit prairie dog colonies that have been adversely affected due to pest control and disease.
Intensive repopulation efforts for these ferrets are ongoing. These mammals have been reintroduced to their habitats across 29 sites in 8 states in Canada and Mexico. Since 1987, more than 2,300 young ferrets have been released back into the wild. Rigorous efforts like captive breeding, reintroductions, habitat protection, and cloning by numerous organizations have given black-footed ferrets a second chance for survival.
5. Vancouver Island Marmot
The Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) is a critically endangered animal that only inhabits the high open alpine mountains of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. They are the most endangered endemic mammal in Canada and one of the rarest mammals in the world, teetering on the brink of extinction.
The main reasons for the steep decrease in their population are climate change and deforestation. Clear-cutting of the forests where these mammals resided made them more vulnerable to predation by birds, wolves, and cougars. The influence of increased global temperatures resulted in the steady loss of open alpine landscapes that impacted their survival rates and reproductive patterns. Their numbers dwindled from a high of several hundred in the mid-1980s to a minuscule 35 in 2003.
The conservation authorities acted promptly to capture the wild animals and introduce them to captive breeding facilities to increase their numbers. The success of this program at the Toronto Zoo, Vancouver Zoo, and other facilities within the country led to an increase in the wild marmot population from about 250 to 300. The Vancouver Island Marmot is protected federally under the Species At Risk Act. In the worst-case scenario because of climate change, up to 97% of the suitable marmot habitat on Vancouver Island may disappear by 2080.
6. Pygmy Raccoon
The smallest species of raccoon is the Cozumel or pygmy raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus). These raccoons can only be found on the small Mexican island of Cozumel, situated off the Yucatan Peninsula’s eastern coast. The raccoon primarily inhabits the mangrove forests and sandy wetlands near the coastline of the islands. They measure up to 58–82 cm in total (including their almost 26 cm-long tail) and weigh only about 3–4 kg.
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Pygmy Raccoon is listed as critically endangered, with reports of only about 250–300 individuals left on the planet. The prominent reason for the raccoons becoming endangered is their small and limited geographic range. Although this species faces multiple threats to its existence, most of them are endangered because of human activities, especially tourism developments.
Increased developments of roads, golf courses, resorts, and hotels have impacted the freshwater required by the island’s animals, resulting in a decrease in the populations of pygmy raccoons. These endangered raccoons are also at risk of major storms like hurricanes that can easily wipe out as much as 60 percent of the raccoon population in one blow. Conservation efforts on Cozumel Island have majorly targeted preserving raccoon habitats by restricting the developmental activities on the island.
7. Giant Sea Bass
Since 1996, the giant sea bass has been listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with an estimated population of around 500 remaining today. These massive fish can reach lengths of seven feet, weigh 500 pounds or more and live up to 70 years at least. The black sea bass is the largest bony fish that inhabits California and Mexico’s near-shore waters, lives near kelp beds, and occupies relatively shallow waters in the tidal zones. They feed on smaller fish like anchovies, sardines, crabs, spiny lobsters, and even small sharks.
Since they are such a large species and a deadly predator itself, the only real threat to the fish is the Great white sharks. Commercial and sports fisheries are the main reason for the rapidly depleting numbers of this species over decades. After the switch from hand lines to gill nets in 1870, the fishermen quickly drove down the numbers of these fish from around a million pounds of giant sea bass caught in a year to less than 40,000 pounds of this fish caught in 1980.
Since 1982, all forms of harvesting of this fish species have been banned and restricted by the California Department of Fish and Game. The general belief is that the population of the giant sea bass is recovering steadily but there is not enough proof to support this claim.
8. O’ahu Tree Snails
The Oahu Tree Snails belong to Achatinella, a tropical genus of colorful land snails endemic to the island of Oʻahu in Hawaii. All 41 species of these snails can now be found only on high ridges of the two extinct volcanoes on the island. According to researchers, only 19 of 41 documented species of this snail still exist and all surviving species are listed federally as Endangered.
The steep decline in the population of these snails was caused majorly because of disturbances in their natural ecosystem. This included collection by humans for extracting their shells, as well as the intentional or unintentional introduction of non-native plants and animals like the carnivorous snail Euglandina rosea and several species of rodents, which feed on the O’ahu Tree snails.
This, compounded with predation pressures, loss of habitat, low growth rate, and low fertility rate has led to a rapid decline in their populations. The Hawaiian Islands, where the remaining snail population resides, is also known as the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.”