September 29, 2022
Addressing the critically low sage-grouse population
Alberta Wilderness Association has written to federal Minister Steven Guilbeault, Environment and Climate Change Canada,…
The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is possibly Canada’s most endangered species.
AWA believes 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 is the key to survival of greater sage-grouse in Alberta. This area encompasses 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 actively working with colleagues from Ecojustice, Grasslands Naturalists, Nature Canada, Nature Saskatchewan, the Northern Plains Conservation Network and individual ranchers to help improve stewardship and to secure the necessary habitat and management needed to protect the greater sage-grouse and the endangered species that the sage-grouse are an icon for.
The entire 2016 Canadian population of sage-grouse was estimated to be 340 birds including 38 females imported from Montana in the spring of 2016. In 1996 the estimate was 777 and in 2014 the estimate was 100 birds. Alberta’s 2016 spring count included 46 males on 3 leks (display grounds), one formerly active Alberta lek had no recorded males. In 2013 only 8 males were counted, in 2014, just 14 males and in 2015 there were 35 on leks. The 2016 the Saskatchewan count had only 2 active leks both found in Grasslands National Park and 33 males were counted, up from 18 males in 2012. AWA hoped that a change in the trajectory of decline has begun and successful recovery of greater sage-grouse is evolving. The decline is believed to be almost entirely due to habitat loss and degradation and the recovery is attributed to the Emergency Protection Order (EPO) forcing action to protect habitat. On the ground action has included removal of predator perches, leveling of abandoned buildings, fence flagging, seasonal noise and traffic reduction and significant education and awareness resulting from the EPO.
The greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America. It is an imposing, turkey-sized bird with mottled brown/grey upper parts 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 whistling and popping sounds. Males are known to display for several weeks while the female will visit only for a short time to mate. Dancing grounds or lek sites are a critical part of the habitat greater sage-grouse depend on.
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.
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 greater sage-grouse in Alberta has been altered by such impediments.”
Greater sage-grouse are in desperate trouble in Alberta. With just 14 males recorded on leks in 2012, they continued towards extirpation in Alberta. Though the cause was clear – industrialization of their habitat – provincial and federal governments refused to take action to protect habitat until the Emergency Protection Order (EPO) came into effect. The protection order has resulted in an overall increase in populations: from 14 males in 2014, to 35 counted in 2015. The entire 2016 Canadian population of sage-grouse was estimated to be 340 birds, including 38 females imported from Montana in the spring of 2016.
Alberta’s 2021 spring count yielded a count of only 27 (24 in 2020) males and the entire Alberta population estimate is 81 (72 in 2020). In 2022, the count was only 22 males.
Saskatchewan’s sage-grouse counts numbered only 18 males in 2012. In 2019, Saskatchewan Environment reported only 2 active leks (mating grounds), both found in Grasslands National Park. At this time 16 males were counted, compared to 33 males in 2016.
Historically, sage-grouse occupied around 100,000 km2 of prairie Canada across three provinces (Alberta, B.C> and Saskatchewan). Current range, at 6,000 km2, is just 6% of that historic range. Just 4,000 km2 of sage-grouse habitat is estimated to remain in Alberta. Of this, 30 percent was already estimated to be impacted by oil and gas activity by 2007, and activity has increased considerably since then. Greater sage-grouse are very sensitive to oil and gas development, even at distance of 3 km from leks. They also face threats from intensified livestock grazing near dugouts, the recent spread of West Nile virus and its potentially devastating impacts on native birds as well as a proposal to upgrade Highway 41 into a 24 hour international transportation corridor through the heart of this magnificent bird’s range in Canada.
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.
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.
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 :
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 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 :
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.
During 2015 work focussed on one ranching family documenting the ecological history of their ranch – one of the few with a remaining active lek. A basic outline for a Ranch Action Plan was developed. Further work will follow funding.
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; CEPA, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association; Enbridge and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Alberta’s lek survey counts 22 males.
Alberta’s lek survey counts 27 males (up slightly from 24 in 2020) and the provincial estimate for the entire population is 81 (up from 72 in 2020).
The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) issues an order to the City of Medicine Hat requesting that a number of oil and gas wells under partial ownership by the City are secured, abandoned and reclaimed. The City of Medicine Hat has partial involvement in 150 to 175 wells in the Manyberries oil field, which are now to be abandoned. This change allows some reprieve for populations of sage-grouse located within the Manyberries region.
Unfortunately, Alberta’s 2019 spring count yielded a further decline of 10 less males; only 24 males were counted and the entire Alberta population estimate is 72. 2017 found 43 males on 3 leks, compared to 40 males in 2016. West Nile virus was confirmed as the cause of death for on Greater Sage-grouse in southern Alberta this year.
Saskatchewan’s sage-grouse counts numbered only 18 males in 2012. In 2019, Saskatchewan Environment reported only 2 active leks, both found in Grasslands National Park – 16 males were counted, compared to 33 males in 2016.
Translocation to Alberta from Montana did occur in 2019. Alberta Environment continued with predator and habitat projects an the Calgary Zoo released some birds that they are tracking. Considering the success at the Calgary Zoo in raising sage-grouse chicks, it seem reproductive ability is not the problem, clearly, lack of protected habitat is the much more significant issues. Costly rearing and release programs are no substitute for habitat.
AWA, currently represented by Ecojustice , will participate in legal action filed by the city of Medicine Hat an LGX Oil against the Emergency Protection Order. The process was stalled as LGX Oil is in receivership; a court date is expected in 2020.
In June, news of marginal increases in sage-grouse numbers confirm for AWA that the Emergency Protection Order is one of the few things that actually got the government’s attention and a few things have started to go the sage-grouse’s way.
The entire 2016 Canadian population of sage-grouse is estimated to be 340 birds including 38 females imported from Montana in the spring of 2016. In 1996 the estimate was 777 and in 2014 the estimate was 100 birds. Alberta’s 2016 spring count includes 46 males on 3 leks (display grounds), one formerly active Alberta lek had no recorded males. In 2013 only 8 males were counted, in 2014, just 14 males and in 2015 there were 35 on leks.
The Saskatchewan count had 2 active leks found in Grasslands National Park, 33 males were counted, up from 18 males in 2012. AWA is hopeful that a change in the trajectory of decline has begun and successful recovery of greater sage-grouse is evolving.
The decline is believed to be almost entirely due to habitat loss and degradation and the recovery is attributed to the Emergency Protection Order (EPO) forcing action to protect habitat. On the ground action has included removal of predator perches, leveling of abandoned buildings, fence flagging, seasonal noise and traffic reduction and significant education and awareness resulting from the EPO.
In March, AWA is currently working with groups in Saskatchewan and the new Government of Canada to stop further transfer of federal PFRA Pastures to the provincial government in Saskatchewan. These federal pastures are critical to the long-term recovery of Greater Sage-grouse in Canada.
In July, Government of Canada announcement and AWA news release about protection for Govenlock (a PFRA Pasture): “In March 2013, AWA asked the Government of Canada to make the Govenlock Community Pasture a National Wildlife Area under the management of Environment Canada. This request has been a priority of the Northern Plains Conservation Network (NPCN) for the last two years under its Sage-grouse/Grassland Bird Initiative, to protect priority grassland areas in Canada in the area known as the “Forgotten Corners” in SE Alberta and SW Saskatchewan.” Lands were transferred to Environment Canada, beginning the long process towards National Wildlife Area designation.”
In spring, there is some hope that populations might recover with on the ground work and getting the landscape back into a more grouse friendly condition (removing structure, industrial activity).
In January, the City of Medicine Hat and LGX Oil and Gas file a court application to force the federal government to quash or suspend its emergency order (EO) for sage-grouse. Court documents filed by the City state that the federal government didn’t properly consult industry or other stakeholders and it estimates the potential lost income at “at least $80 million.”
AWA responds that suspending the order would delay recovery and be counterproductive and urges the government not to waste any further time. “This is the slowest emergency I have ever seen,” says Cliff Wallis, AWA Vice-President. AWA shares the concerns expressed by the City of Medicine Hat Gas and LGX, and calls for the government to put appropriate resourcing behind the EO to ensure that existing commitments can be honoured through compensation or payments for ecological goods and services provided by those whose lands are involved in greater sage-grouse recovery.
On December 4, the federal government publishes its long-awaited Emergency Protection order for greater sage-grouse. The order is due to come into effect on February 18, 2014. 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. Conservation groups welcome the long-awaited Emergency Protection order, but are concerned whether it will provide sufficient protection for the species; the order is a good first step but more needs to be done if the species is going to survive and recover.
During the writing process, AWA appealed to Environment Canada to avoid undue restrictions on ranching operations and they listened. The restrictions relate primarily to industrial activities. Some ranchers no longer receive revenue from changed oil and gas operations and resulting habitat destroying operations. Most ranchers are minimally affected by the EPO. Poor communication about the EPO and its implementation led to misinformation. The lands affected are public not private lands.
On November 28, Sage-grouse Partnership working committee have a meeting in Manyberries, AB includes presentation about progress being made in Saskatchewan. Kelly Williamson covered economic assessment, grassbanking and ideal utilization. No determinations have been made for utilization targets but general discussion recognized some areas will need decreased utilization to “grow sage-grouse”. Discussions held about access management will be followed through with Public Lands staff who attended the meeting. After this first year of meetings, everyone made a commitment made to keep process going. AWA has made a clear commitment to continue funding this and keep moving forward and will work to find resources. Quote of the night “you know it ain’t gonna work if you don’t try”
On October 16, Sage-grouse Partnership working Committee hold a meeting in Manyberries, priorities for Action Plan reviewed; components of the plan include policy, education, research and on the ground actions. Expanding the reach of the SGP to Saskatchewan was favourable discussed. Logistics will provide some challenges, opportunities to move forward will be found.
On October 10, the Draft SSRP is officially unveiled. The draft does not address conservation in native grasslands in any specific way; no legislated protection is proposed for grassland areas despite the large number of species at risk in southeast Alberta. AWA argues that Milk River Ridge, Wild Horse Plains and key stretches of wild rivers in the south should be legislatively designated as Heritage Rangelands.
On September 25, Sage-grouse Partnership identifies the 42 townships on which the partnership will focus their efforts. The meeting held at Manyberries Curling Rink results in a draft document listing priorities the partnership will begin working on. On-the-ground action priorities include :
On September 17, conservation groups welcome the federal government’s announcement that it intends to introduce an emergency protection order for Canada’s endangered greater sage-grouse, but they also caution that the devil will be in the details.The federal government’s announcement does not detail when the emergency order will be implemented, nor does it include specific language around one of the key threats to the sage-grouse’s recovery and survival: oil and gas development in its critical habitat.
On August 9, AWA learns that we were given a favourable decision by the judges in the Sage-grouse Hearing held March 19th. Ecojustice is representing AWA, the Wilderness Committee, Grasslands Naturalists and Nature Saskatchewan. The Federal Court of Appeal expressed displeasure with the federal government’s overbroad claim of Cabinet confidence, and the Court made some good and relatively clear statements about the law in this area. The Court has now set a clear path forward, and is requiring the federal government to tell us what the Minister has done. The federal government may chose to appeal this decision. AWA should within the next few weeks know whether the Minister made a decision or not about recommending an emergency order to protect Sage-grouse.
On March 19, Ecojustice represents AWA in the Federal Court of Appeal in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ecojustice argues that “cabinet confidence” has been inappropriately applied to the Minister of Environment’s decision regarding issuance of an Emergency Order to protect Sage-grouse. Ecojustice upholds that Canadians are entitled to know whether a decision had been made or not by the minister. Outcomes of the appeal are unknown at this time.
On March 4, AWA meets with 34 Manyberries area landowners and lease holders to discuss issues affecting grassland species and ranching communities. The meeting is the beginning of a Sage-grouse Partnership.
In October, AWA initiates meetings with AESRD and Medicine Hat Gas to discuss the potential formation of the “Sage-grouse Partnership.”
In June, 2012 spring population counts were released. With only 13 males recorded at Alberta leks, sage-grouse continue to hang on by a thread in the province. Only 18 males were counted at Saskatchewan leks, a dramatic decrease from the 42 males last recorded.
In May, Alberta government translocates sage-grouse from Montana. But without on the ground protection of habitat critical to sage-grouse survival, sage-grouse populations will continue to decrease.
In March, a Minister’s Certification and Objection is issued in response to legal action taken by AWA and the other 11 associated environmental groups. The Certification and Objection claims “Cabinet Confidence” prevents the Minister from disclosing whether he has made a decision regarding the issuance of an Emergency Order for sage-grouse under the Species at Risk Act.
In February, Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent fails to respond to the legal petition submitted by AWA and 11 other environmental groups before the January 16, 2012 deadline. After two months of silence, conservation groups are left with no other choice than to pursue legal action against Kent for failing to uphold his duties under the Species at Risk Act.
In November, Ecojustice submits a legal petition on behalf of AWA and 11 other environmental groups, demanding federal Environment Minister Peter Kent take the action necessary to prevent the imminent extinction of sage-grouse in Canada, by issuing an emergency protection order under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).
In September, AWA hosts an Emergency Sage-Grouse Summit, September 7 and 8, 2011. Leading international sage-grouse scientists, environmentalists and landowners gather together to plan what emergency action is needed to recover sage-grouse in Alberta before it is too late. The summit results in a communiqué, published September 8, which lays out recommendations from sage-grouse recovery. Recommended actions include :
In November, an important study, Sage-Grouse Habitat Selection During Winter in Alberta, (by Jennifer Carpenter, Cameron Aldridge, and Mark S. Boyce) is published in the Wildlife Society’s Journal of Wildlife Management, November 2010.
The report makes management recommendations:
Government and industry stand by and watch as sage-grouse continue to slide towards extinction on Alberta. “This will be the first case where the oil and gas industry has caused the extirpation of a species from Alberta,” comments University of Alberta scientist Mark Boyce. The cause is clear: “That area is just being riddled and fragmented into little tiny pieces by gas development.” And yet still nothing is done. “We’ve known this is a serious problem for five years. But the province has failed or refused to do anything about it.”
Just 39 male sage-grouse are recorded on Alberta’s remaining leks in 2010.
In a precedent-setting decision, July 9, a federal court judge in Vancouver rules that Environment Canada broke the law by refusing to identify critical habitat in a recovery plan for the endangered greater sage-grouse. The environmental groups argued in court that the Minister had ample evidence to identify critical habitat. The judge agrees; he states it was “unreasonable” for the government to claim it could not identify breeding grounds when knowledge of their locations was “notorious.” He points out that the federal government was seeking too high a threshold for identifying critical habitat, suggesting they are seeking “precision or exactitude” whereas the law requires the “best available information.” He also makes it clear that designating critical habitat is not discretionary: it is a requirement the Minister must follow.
Later, Environment Canada produces an appendix to its original Recovery Strategy, which identifies a limited amount of sage-grouse critical habitat. Environmental groups now have to decide whether a new court case will be required to force the government to actually protect this habitat.
Annual count of male sage-grouse finds just 66 remaining.
Early in the year, a lawsuit is filed by Ecojustice on behalf of AWA, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Grasslands Naturalists, Nature Saskatchewan and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. The lawsuit claims that the federal Recovery Strategy for greater sage-grouse neglected to identify critical habitat for sage-grouse, despite having ample scientific evidence to do so.
Only 78 male sage-grouse are counted on Alberta’s remaining leks, a decline of 13% over the past year.
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assesses the prairie population of the greater sage-grouse as endangered.
In April, Federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada publishes its assessment for sage-grouse: “This large grouse is restricted to sagebrush grasslands in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and has suffered significant population declines (42% over the last 10 years, 88% since 1988). The number of leks (male display sites) has decreased by 50% in the last 10 years and there are now less than a thousand breeding birds in the population. Causes for the decline are largely due to the loss, fragmentation and degradation of its native grassland habitats through oil and gas exploration, overgrazing and conversion to crops.”
In January, a Federal report, Recovery Strategy for the Greater Sage-Grouse in Canada is published. Includes target of:
90 male sage-grouse counted on leks in Alberta.
108 male sage-grouse counted on leks in Alberta. Total provincial population estimated at 480 birds.
Assessment and Status Report on the Greater Sage Grouse Centrocercus urophasianus in Canada is published.
Sage-grouse is now listed as Endangered in Alberta.
Report, Status of the Sage Grouse in Alberta, published by Alberta government. The report documents that Alberta’s sage-grouse population has experienced “an 80 percent decline over the past few decades.” Population estimate is pegged at 320 individuals (of both sexes). Declines “are most often attributed to the loss of habitat resulting from human encroachment on native prairie.” Alberta’s sage-grouse “may be near levels that are nonviable.”
Sage-grouse is designated as Endangered by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)
Sage-grouse added to Alberta’s “blue” list, as a species that may be at risk in the province, due to declining population numbers (Status of the Sage Grouse in Alberta, 1998).
Hunting season for sage-grouse is closed in Alberta (there has been an open season on hunting sage-grouse since 1967).
Start of annual sage-grouse lek counts in Alberta.
Sage-grouse given “yellow” listing in Alberta, as a species of concern in Alberta, due to their naturally low populations and their limited habitat and distribution ion the province (Status of the Sage Grouse in Alberta, 1998). Sage-grouse open hunting season continues.
613 male sage-grouse counted on 21 leks in Alberta.
The Greater sage-grouse is an endangered species in Alberta. Under the authority of Alberta’s Wildlife Act it is illegal to hunt or harm this grouse, or disturb its nests in Alberta at any time.
An interprovincial greater sage-grouse recovery team was formed in 1997 and has worked with numerous stakeholders to prepare a recovery strategy. First prepared in 2001, the strategy was updated and released to the public by Canada’s Minister of Environment in January 2008, and updated in December 2013.
In December 2013, the federal government published an Emergency Order for the Protection of the Greater Sage-Grouse.
The process to give official recognition to critical habitat for sage-grouse has been a long and slow one. And measures to protect that habitat have been even slower.
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