by Edward Cheskey

Although only 21 to 23 nesting pairs of eastern loggerhead shrikes were found in Ontario in 2007, this diminutive predator, which may soon become locally extinct, now perches in the centre of a storm of controversy.

As a highly endangered species, the eastern loggerhead shrike has received much attention over the past decade aimed at bolstering the bird’s population to sustainable levels. Since the 1970s, Ontario’s loggerhead shrikes have declined dramatically. The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) struck a recovery team, and a captive-breeding program was established in the late 1990s to augment the wild population. At the same time, efforts were made to protect key breeding habitats, often through stewardship agreements with private landowners who have shrikes on their property. Researchers also monitored the bird to better understand its ecology and the causes of its decline.

The recovery team set up breeding and wintering facilities and more than 300 birds were released into the wild, 200 of them in the last two years. Only six of the birds have been seen again on their breeding grounds, but four of those were spotted this year, indicating that the reintroduction efforts were successful and generating considerable enthusiasm among the recovery team.

That enthusiasm, however, has dimmed due to the very real possibility that CWS may no longer be able to support the captive-breeding program because of budget cuts. Critics of the program argue that captive breeding is an unproven and resource-intensive solution to the bird’s dwindling population numbers. But for people involved in the program, the prospect of losing federal government support through CWS would be a major blow. “It’s scary,” says Elaine Williams, executive director of Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC), who was informed recently that Environment Canada would not be able to fulfill funding plans for the WPC shrike recovery program. If the situation does not change, the recovery program will not survive beyond next spring. “As of March 2008, everything is a big question mark.”

The story does not end here. The Ontario Landowners Association (OLA) is opposed to the updated Endangered Species Act and destroyed potential habitat by bulldozing hawthorn trees in a number of different places in eastern Ontario, including some habitat on the Carden Plain, one of two core areas for loggerhead shrikes in Ontario. OLA’s actions damage shrike habitat and further complicate efforts to prevent the extirpation of the species.