New calf spotted with endangered southern resident killer whale pod

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After months of bad news, there finally may be a glimmer of hope for B.C.’s endangered southern resident killer whales.

On Friday, researchers confirmed that recent helicopter video filmed by the Seattle TV station King 5 News shows a new baby orca swimming with members of L pod.

The video, shot Thursday near Vachon Island in Washington state, shows the calf swimming next to the killer whale known as L77, who had previously been pregnant.

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the U.S.-based Center for Whale Research, confirmed that that this is the first sighting of the new calf. The young whale’s gender is unknown.

Watch helicopter video of the young calf swimming beside its mother

Helicopter footage from Washington State shows a new southern resident killer whale swimming beside L77 0:59

The southern residents have not had a successful pregnancy in three years.

The sighting follows ominous news about the West Coast’s southern resident killer whale population in recent weeks.

The population is at a 35-year low after three deaths in 2018, and earlier this month, scientists said they expect two more whales to die of starvation by summer.

The plight of the struggling population attracted attention from around the world this summer, when grieving mother J35 spent 17 days carrying her dead baby on her head as she travelled more than 1,600 kilometres.

Weeks later, another member of J pod, J50, was declared dead after a cross-border rescue effort to inject the calf with antibiotics and fight an apparent infection.

Scientists say the killer whales have been struggling to find enough food because of a decline in the Chinook salmon population.

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Lake Louise ski resort wants fine reduced from $2M to $200,000 for chopping down endangered trees

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An Alberta ski resort has appealed a Calgary judge’s $2.1-million fine for cutting down endangered trees, arguing the sentence is « grossly disproportional and demonstrably unfit. »

The Lake Louise Ski Resort in Banff National Park has asked a higher court to either stay the charges or reduce the penalty to $200,000.

One year ago, the resort pleaded guilty to charges under the Species at Risk Act and Canada National Parks Act for cutting down a stand of trees, including 38 endangered whitebark pine, along a ski run in 2013.

Last month, provincial court Judge Heather Lamoureux imposed the fine that works out to about $55,000 per tree. The maximum fine is $300,000 per tree.

In a notice of appeal filed Friday, the resort argues the trial judge « made palpable and overriding errors of fact and findings in absence of evidence and in interpreting mitigating and aggravating factors erroneously. »

In her decision, Lamoureux said the resort had risked « undermining the survival of the species in the decades to come. »

But the appeal argues there are 200 million whitebark pines in Canada and that Lamoureux erred in her assessment of the risk of harm to the species.

The resort had previously argued that cutting down 38 trees would have « zero impact » on the overall whitebark pine population in Canada.

Dan Markham, the resort’s director of brand and communications, said after the sentencing decision that the resort has taken steps — like educating staff and marking the 7,000 whitebark pines on resort land — to ensure the endangered trees remain protected.

Before the guilty plea, defence lawyer Alain Hepner had made an application to have the charges tossed out because, he argued, the case had taken too long to get to trial. Lamoureux rejected the application — and that decision is also under appeal. The resort wants the charges to be stayed. In the event the charges are not stayed, Hepner will argue for the fine to be reduced.

In this 2011 photo, whitebark pine have succumbed to mountain pine beetles through the Gros Ventre area east of Jackson Hole, Wyo. (The Associated Press)

In 2013, seven employees were doing cleanup work on Ptarmigan Ridge at the ski resort. They were trimming and removing trees, including the endangered pines, which was done without a permit.

Following DNA analysis, the trees were confirmed to be whitebark pines and the case was handed over to Parks Canada investigators. 

Prosecutor Erin Eacott had proposed the $2.1-million fine, arguing a « significant deterrent » was needed to protect the species.

Invasive disease, fire and climate change threaten the whitebark pine. 

The whitebark pine is found at high elevations in western North America and helps stabilize steep subalpine slopes.

The trees have been growing on the continent for 100,000 years and some are hundreds of years old.

The appeal will be heard in March by a Court of Queen’s Bench judge in Calgary. 

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Parasite spread by cats threatens Quebec’s endangered belugas, study shows

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Endangered beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River already facing plenty of adversity now have an unlikely foe to contend with — the common house cat.

A new study suggests the belugas are being increasingly infected with a parasite known as toxoplasma gondii, transmitted through the feces of cats.

Stéphane Lair, a professor of veterinary medicine at the Université de Montréal and one of the study’s authors, said of 34 beluga whale carcasses examined between 2009 and 2012, 44 per cent were found to be infected with the parasite.

« It doesn’t mean they died of this parasite. It means there was a presence either in their heart or their brain, » Lair said on Monday.

« We know that it’s a parasite that can kill belugas, so its presence can have an impact on their lives. »

Toxoplasmosis — the disease caused by the parasite — is increasingly prevalent in a wide range of marine mammals. It is spread by wild and domesticated cats, which contract it by eating rodents.

In marine mammals, it may cause neurological problems and behavioural change.

A beluga whale shows his tail near Tadoussac, Que. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

« Marine animals in North America have been in contact with this parasite for thousands of years, » Lair said. In 2014, the cat parasite was found in Arctic belugas, likely spread by wild cats such as lynx, bobcats and cougars.

« The big difference in the last few centuries is the introduction of domestic cats — a new definitive host for the parasite that probably has contributed to an increase in the amount of toxoplasma those mammals are exposed to, » the veterinarian said.

Another reason to keep cats indoors

Toxoplasmosis is associated with mortality in marine animals all over the world. Lair pointed to the example of the endangered monk seals of Hawaii, 11 of which have died from the disease since 2001.

In the past 30 years, seven St. Lawrence beluga deaths have been linked to the parasite. But there are other effects that need further study.

« In a lot of species, there’s a big question about the sub-lethal effect of that parasite — it means that it might not necessarily kill the animal … but when present, it can have a health impact that’s not always detectable, » Lair said.

At last count, about 900 belugas lived in the St. Lawrence estuary.

As for dealing with the problem, Lair said keeping domestic cats indoors prevents them from eating infected prey.

Also, ensuring cat feces are not flushed down the toilet would reduce parasite levels in the water.

« The parasite is quite resistant, it would survive all the different [sewage] treatments and end up in the estuary, » Lair said.

The research was published in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms last month.

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