Sage Grouse

The greater sage-grouse is an icon of the prairies and likely Canada’s most endangered wildlife species. The Canadian population of sage-grouse has dropped dramatically in recent years.

Between 1988 and 2006, nearly 90 per cent of Canada’s sage-grouse died off and the population is now less than 100 birds (down from an estimated 777 in 1996). In Alberta, just 14 male sage-grouse were recorded on leks (mating display grounds) in 2013. The decline is believed to be almost entirely due to habitat loss and degradation. Drastic measures are needed if the greater sage-grouse, is to be saved from extinction in Canada.

Canada’s sage-grouse are found only in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Sage grouse have very specific habitat requirements and are highly dependent on silver sagebrush which constitutes 47 to 60 percent of the adult diet in the summer and 100% in the winter. Due to loss of native prairie habitat in Alberta, sage-grouse are now restricted to the extreme southeast corner of the province, known as the “Manyberries area.” This area lies within the Milk River- Sage Creek area of concern.

Protection of sage-grouse habitat would also protect habitat for other endangered species including burrowing owl, sage thrasher, mountain plover and Sprague’s pipit.

The threat

Historically the conversion of sage-grouse habitat into farmland played a major role in its early decline.  More recently, industrial developments in critical sage grouse habitat is contributing to the steady demise of the species. The range of the sage grouse is now reduced to only six per cent of its historic extent because of habitat loss and degradation. University of Alberta biologist Dr. Mark Boyce said that the loss of sage-grouse would be "the first case where the oil and gas industry has caused the extirpation of a species in Canada.”

In 2008 the Government of Canada released the Recovery Strategy for greater sage-grouse; however, a lawsuit filed by Ecojustice (on behalf of a group of conservation organizations) successfully showed that the federal Recovery Strategy neglected to identify critical habitat for sage-grouse despite having the scientific information to do so. The federal Recovery Strategy limited the identification of sage-grouse Critical Habitat to nesting sites. But sage-grouse require much more than nesting areas: they also need display sites, wintering habitat and brood-rearing habitat. A revision to the federal Recovery Strategy including the identification of year-round critical habitat was released in December 2013.

After several years of legal challenges, the federal government finally published its long-awaited Emergency Protection Order for greater sage-grouse in December 2013. The goal of the Emergency Order is to “achieve the best protection for the greater sage-grouse, while minimizing impacts on landowners and agricultural producers.” The Emergency Protection Order only applies to habitat on federal and provincial crown lands in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.

What CPAWS is doing

CPAWS continues to advocate for protection of the Milk River-Sage Creek area.  This large area of native prairie in southeastern Alberta provides habitat for sage grouse and a suite of other prairie species.

CPAWS participated in the 2011 Emergency Sage-Grouse Summit consisting of leading international scientists, local landowners and environmental organizations working to ensure that the spectacular greater sage-grouse remains on the landscape.

The recommendations from the Emergency Sage-Grouse Summit communiqué included:

  • Designate additional critical habitat as identified based on proposed critical habitat maps produced in 2010.
  • No new developments in critical sage-grouse habitat. Major concerns are about prolonging or expanding industrial development and associated activities in and around critical habitat.
  • Restore existing critical habitat, including removal of industrial infrastructure.
  • To allow for future recovery, previously occupied range outside current critical habitat must be restored to functionality for sage-grouse.
  • Any new development outside of critical habitat but within the identified zone of influence (15 kilometres) must not contribute to the disturbance of the species or destruction of critical habitat.

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