The members of the mammalian order Carnivora are distinguished by having shearing teeth (the last upper premolar bites past the first lower molar), a reduced clavicle, fused carpal bones in the wrist and, in all families except the hyenas, a baculum or penis bone. The approximately 230 species are found on all continents except for Antarctica. They range from strict meat-eaters (the cats), through omnivores which feed on whatever is available (bears, raccoons, wolverines), to herbivores (panda). Carnivores hunt and communicate mainly by scent produced by skin glands, such as enlarged anal glands. They are important in the environment as predators of herbivores such as insects, rodents, and ungulates. Many of the species are shy, so their numbers are difficult to assess. The order contains a number of species which, because of their size, power and intelligence, figure in human myth, ritual and art throughout the world. The coyote is a trickster figure in many North American Aboriginal stories, and wolves and bears often symbolize the wild.
Saskatchewan now has twenty native species of carnivores, in five families (see Table CAR-1). Two species have been exterminated in the province since settlement: the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) and the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Many other species of carnivore, especially larger forms such as the wolf, have been reduced as they have been hunted for furs, sport and protection of domestic animals. As a result, many of these species are absent from the more heavily settled prairies and parklands but remain in the boreal forest. They are now protected, and their trapping and killing controlled by wildlife legislation. They can develop and spread rabies.
The canid family has five representatives. The coyote is a medium-sized (13 kg) predator of small rodents, ground birds, and other prey in the prairies and parklands. Like the smaller red fox, it is tolerant of human settlement and has been able to maintain healthy populations throughout most of the province. Wolves are pack predators on deer species in the north. The two remaining smaller species are more limited in their distribution, and rarer: the arctic fox is found in the subtundra of the northeast; and the swift fox, limited to the dry short-grass prairie, was extirpated but has been released back into the area by conservation programs.
The American black bear is the only bear now in the province. It is found in the boreal and aspen woodlands but may wander south, particularly in dry years which reduce wild fruits. It is omnivorous, and makes use of whatever foods are available during that season, from fish and insects to honey combs. It reduces its need for food in the winter by denning up and entering a deep sleep, during which the cubs are born.
The raccoon is the only member of its family in Canada; the others are found in South America and Asia. The raccoon is increasing its distribution northward, which may be due partly to post-glacial climate change and partly to its unspecialized food habits: as an omnivore it is able to make use of small animal prey, fruit, farm produce, and human garbage.
The weasel family is the largest carnivore family in North America. The ten species in Saskatchewan range from the large wolverine to the very small short-tailed weasel. They are generally long-bodied and short-legged. The weasels are mainly rodent predators, but the wolverine can kill prey as large as deer. The marten and fisher are mainly arboreal; the smaller marten feeds on squirrels and other small rodents, while the fisher is one of the few predators which can successfully hunt porcupines. The American badger is a prairie burrower, specializing in hunting ground squirrels. The three small weasels change their coat colour in winter to white, with a black-tail tip - thus becoming “ermine.” They feed on a variety of small prey, from mice to insects. The river otter is found in larger streams and rivers, living in burrows in the banks and feeding on fish and other aquatic prey. Mink are also often found denning and feeding on a variety of prey along the shores of lakes and other wetlands. Striped skunks are carnivores with large anal glands producing a noxious secretion which they use to defend themselves; their white stripes on a black back also exhibit a warning pattern. They have a habit, also found in the porcupine, of standing and turning their back on a potential predator, in order to present their first defense rather than fleeing; this habit causes them to be often struck by cars.
Cats, with their short face and strong bite, are the purest meat-eaters. Their solitary, shy nature makes it difficult to ascertain details of their distribution or population size. The cougar is the largest cat in the province, with its distinctive long tail and uniform colour in the adult. The kittens are spotted. Cougars will hunt a variety of mammalian and bird prey, but are particularly predators on the species of deer found in the prairies and southern woodlands. The other two cats are both members of the Lynx genus, with large tipped ears, large feet, short tails, and one less molar tooth in the jaw than other cats: the small bobcat is a predator of small prey in the prairies and coulees of the aspen parklands; the larger lynx is more common and trapped in the boreal forests for its luxurious winter fur. The latter preys mainly on snowshoe hares, and its numbers cycle with those of the hare.