One of the animal kingdom’s most industrious mammals is the beaver. Growing to a length of 50 centimeters (20 inches) and tipping the scales at around 20 kilograms (44 pounds), it has a flat, rudder-like tail and webbed back feet that enable it to swim at speeds up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) per hour. The exploration of western Canada can be directly attributed to the beaver, whose pelt was in high demand in fashion-conscious Europe in the early 1800s. The beaver was never entirely wiped out, and today the animals can be found in almost any forested valley with flowing water. Beavers build their dam walls and lodges of twigs, branches, sticks of felled trees, and mud.
Several species of squirrel are common in western Canada. The golden-mantled ground squirrel, found in rocky outcrops of subalpine and alpine regions, has black stripes along its sides and looks like an oversized chipmunk. Most common is the Columbian ground squirrel, which lives in burrows, often in open grassland. It is recognizable by its reddish legs, face, and underside, and a flecked, grayish back. The bushy-tailed red squirrel, the bold chatterbox of the forest, leaves telltale shelled cones at the base of conifers. The lightly colored Richardson’s ground squirrel, which chirps and flicks its thin tail when it senses danger, is found across much of western Canada; on the prairie, it is often misidentified as a gopher. Another species, the nocturnal northern flying fox, glides through the montane forests of mountain valleys but is rarely seen.
High in the mountains, above the treeline, hoary marmots are often seen sunning themselves on boulders in rocky areas or meadows. They are stocky creatures, weighing around four kilograms (9 pounds). When danger approaches, these large rodents emit a shrill whistle to warn their colony. Marmots are only active for a few months each summer, spending up to nine months a year in hibernation.
This small, squat animal is easily recognized by its thick coat of quills. It eats roots and leaves but is also known as being destructive around wooden buildings and vehicle tires. Porcupines are common and widespread throughout all forested areas, but they’re hard to spy because they feed most often at night.
Widespread throughout western Canada, muskrats make their home in the waterways and wetlands of all low-lying valleys. They are agile swimmers, able to stay submerged for up to 12 minutes. They grow to a length of 35 centimeters (18 inches), but the best form of identification is the tail, which is black, flat, and scaly. Closely related to muskrats are voles, which are often mistaken for mice. They inhabit grassy areas of most valley floors.
Hares and Pikas
Varying hares are commonly referred to as snowshoe hares because their thickly-furred, wide-set hind feet mimic snowshoes. Unlike rabbits, which maintain a brown coat year-round, snowshoe hares turn white in winter, providing camouflage in the snowy climes they inhabit. The small, gray-colored pika, or rock rabbit, lives among the rubble and boulders of scree slopes above the treeline, a neighbor of the larger marmot.
Many of the world’s 70 weasel species can be found in the western regions of Canada, including the wolverine, largest of the weasels worldwide, weighing up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds). Known to natives as carcajou (evil one), the wolverine is extremely powerful, cunning, and cautious. This solitary creature inhabits forests of the subalpine and lower alpine regions, feeding on any available meat, from small rodents to the carcasses of larger mammals.
The fisher has the same habitat as the wolverine, but is much smaller, reaching just five kilograms (11 pounds) in weight and growing up to 60 centimeters (24 inches) in length. Smaller still is the marten. Three subspecies of the American badger inhabit western Canada. A larger member of the weasel family, this creature is uncommon, naturally secretive, and also nocturnal, so sightings are extremely rare.
River otters have round heads, short, thick necks, webbed feet, long facial whiskers, and grow longer than one meter. They are widespread but not common throughout the northern half of Alberta. Minks, at home in or out of water, are smaller than otters and feed on muskrats, mice, voles, and fish.
As well as being home to the largest member of the weasel family, Canada holds the smallest—the least weasel (the world’s smallest carnivore), which grows to a length of just 20 centimeters (8 inches) and weighs a maximum of 60 grams (2 ounces).
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition