Sage Grouse Introduction
The greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, is possibly Canada’s most endangered species. The entire Canadian population of sage-grouse is now believed to be less than 100 birds (down from an estimated 777 in 1996). In Alberta, just 14 male sage-grouse were recorded on leks (display grounds) in 2013; only 18 males were counted at Saskatchewan leks in 2012 , a dramatic decrease from the 35 males the previous year. The decline is believed to be almost entirely due to habitat loss and degradation.
The greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America. It is an imposing, turkey-sized bird with mottled brown/ grey upperparts and a black belly. The birds gather in communal “leks” in the spring, where the males dance and strut to impress females and challenge rival males, inflating their puffed-up white throats and showing off the striking yellow combs above the eyes, all the while emitting bizarre whistling and popping sounds.
In Canada, the greater sage-grouse is found in the mixed grassland ecoregion, a warm, dry region where the native vegetation has now been significantly reduced. In Canada the greater sage-grouse is highly dependent on silver sagebrush, which constitutes 47 to 60 percent of the adult diet in the summer and 100% in the winter. The species has very specific habitat requirements at different times of year, including habitat for breeding, wintering, displaying and chick-rearing. In Alberta, sage-grouse can now be found only in the extreme southeast corner of the province, known as the “Manyberries area.” This area lies within the Milk River- Sage Creek, and Pakowki Lake areas of concern, as depicted on our Wild Alberta map.
In Canada, the sage-grouse is at the far northern edge of its range. Following the loss of historical populations in B.C. sage-grouse in Canada are now restricted to the far southeastern corner of Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. Based on historical accounts, there has been a 90 percent reduction in the Canadian range and a substantial decrease in the number of breeding locations.
Why We Care
- The sage-grouse is an iconic species, entirely dependent on its sagebrush grassland habitat. Where habitat is protected, sage-grouse may recover, but where it continues to be lost to agriculture and industrial incursion, then the species’ decline can be expected to continue.
- Protection of sage-grouse habitat will also benefit a host of other endangered species which share the same habitat, including burrowing owl, sage thrasher, mountain plover and Sprague’s pipit.
- In response to a poll featured in the Medicine Hat News on December 2, 2011, 89.8 percent of all respondents said they were extremely concerned that sage-grouse may soon disappear from Alberta.
- The greater sage‐grouse was designated an At Risk species in Alberta in 1996 (Endangered in 2000), a Threatened species in Saskatchewan in 1987 (Endangered in 1999) and a federally Endangered species in 1998, this decline has continued unchecked in both Alberta and Saskatchewan. But these listings have failed to slow the loss of sage-grouse habitat and the relentless decline in numbers. If we cannot act to protect such a large and charismatic species, what hope is there for future biodiversity in Canada?
- If the greater sage‐grouse is allowed to disappear, it will be what University of Alberta professor Dr. Mark Boyce describes as "the first case where the oil and gas industry has caused the extirpation of a species in Canada.”
- Canada (COSEWIC) - Endangered (Prairie Population) (1998)
- Provinces: Alberta - Endangered (2000), Saskatchewan - Endangered (1999), British Columbia - Extirpated
- USA - Classed as extirpated in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oklahoma, threatened in many other states. Endangered status is warranted but precluded from listing in US.
- A steady and relentless decline in sage-grouse numbers has been recorded since the 1960s. Between 1988 and 2006, the total Canadian population decreased by 88 percent. In Alberta, just fourteen male sage-grouse were counted in 2013, a 98 percent decline from the numbers recorded in 1968.
Historically the conversion of sage-grouse habitat into farmland played a major role in its early decline, and more recently human disturbance in critical habitat, particularly industrial disturbance, has been the major factor. According to the Canadian government, “Oil and gas wells and associated pipelines affect 28%of sagebrush habitats across the current species’ range. Industrial development has also fragmented sagebrush habitat through the addition of buildings, highways, trails, fences and electrical poles… More than 80& of the current range of the (g)reater sage-grouse in Alberta has been altered by such impediments.”
A federal Recovery Strategy for greater sage-grouse was published by the Canadian government in January 2008, but a lawsuit filed by Ecojustice (on behalf of AWA, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Grasslands Naturalists, Nature Saskatchewan and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee) successfully claimed that the federal Recovery Strategy neglected to identify critical habitat for sage-grouse, despite having ample scientific evidence to do so. A revision to the federal Recovery Strategy including the identification of critical habitat is expected by the end of 2013.
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. More comprehensive maps of Critical Habitat for sage-grouse were collectively developed and supported in 2010 by Environment Canada, Parks Canada, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Saskatchewan Environment, Agriculture and Agri‐food Canada, Alberta Conservation Association and international sage‐grouse scientists, in July 2010 . It is vital that these new maps are used to target the future focus of sage-grouse recovery, including suitable disturbance-free buffers to those areas identified.
Emergency Protection Order
After several years of legal challenges by AWA and our environmental colleagues, 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 prohibitions contained in the order only apply to habitat on federal and provincial crown lands in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.
What We are Doing
In September 2011, AWA hosted the Emergency Sage-Grouse Summit in Calgary. The Emergency Summit consisted 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 include:
- 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.
With the help of Ecojustice, AWA and other environmental organizations have worked to use federal endangered species legislation to compel the federal government to act to recover sage-grouse.
- In 2009, AWA and other environmental organizations won a successful court case to compel the federal minister to recognize critical habitat for sage-grouse.
- In November 2011, Ecojustice submitted a legal petition to federal Environment Minister Peter Kent on behalf of AWA and 11 other national and international environmental groups. The petition called for Minister Kent to issue an emergency protection order for the sage-grouse and to stop further human disturbance of the habitat upon which the species survival depends.
- After a series of long and protracted legal challenges, the federal government announced in September 2013 that it intends to introduce an emergency protection order for Canada’s endangered greater sage-grouse.
In March 2013, the Sage-grouse Partnership (SGP) was initiated. The Partnership, including representatives from industry, government, landholders and conversation, is intended to facilitate communication and accelerate progress being made for recovery of endangered species, especially greater sage-grouse, among landowners, leaseholders, interested individuals, oil and gas industry, conservationists and government.
The SGP was formalized in September, 2013 with a Terms of Reference , and is co-chaired by Cliff Wallis (AWA) and David Heydlauff (local rancher). The SGP met six times in 2013. Much time was spent learning what provincial and federal governments and other jurisdictions were doing to conserve and recover greater sage-grouse. For example, Dr. Dave Naugle attended one of the meetings to discuss the US-based Sage Grouse Initiative and to provide advice.
The SGP developed a list of priority actions to help guide future activities. These include:
- Policy Actions
- Recreational Access Control
- Review and feedback into South Saskatchewan Regional Plan
- Ensuring protection and continued research opportunities for the Onefour Research Farm
- Education Actions
- Support the Milk River Watershed Council in development of educational materials
- On the Ground Actions
- Access control
- Reduction of industrial infrastructure
- Development of an oil and gas working group
- Reduction of predator effectiveness
- Ranch planning [link to description]
- Reduction of influence of West Nile Virus
- Collection of silver sagebrush seed
These were actions deemed most critical by the SGP. Some are being initiated by other organizations and the SGP has agreed to provide support. Others will be advanced or undertaken directly by the SGP. For example, the SGP is currently working to address control of recreational access and is initiating ranch planning on two ranches with critical habitat for greater sage-grouse.
The SGP will continue to work through 2014 to advance the priority actions.
AWA continues to advocate for the protection of both the Milk River-Sage Creek, and Pakowki Lake areas of south-eastern Alberta, including the "Manyberries area," around which the remaining sage-grouse active leks can be found. This is one of the largest, least fragmented and most diverse ecosystems on the northern glaciated plains of North America. It is home to many species at risk, including greater sage-grouse.
AWA is grateful that our work on the greater sage-grouse is supported by the Calgary Foundation, the Alberta Sport, Recreation, Parks and Wildlife Foundation and CEPA, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.