The stunning Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus urophasianus) is facing extinction in Canada. It could disappear from Alberta within a year if action for its protection is not taken immediately.
Today, through a legal petition issued on our behalf by Ecojustice, Nature Canada called on the federal Minister of the Environment, the Honourable Peter Kent, to recommend that Cabinet issue an emergency order to prevent further degradation of Greater Sage-grouse critical habitat and take the necessary measures to ensure the survival of this iconic species.We are joined in this effort by 11 other conservation organizations, including our partners in the Canadian Nature Network, Nature Alberta, Nature Saskatchewan, Grassland Naturalists and Lethbridge Naturalists Society, as well as our US partner in BirdLife International, the National Audubon Society-Rockies.We’re also calling on the public to send letters in support of immediate action to save the Sage-grouse.
The Canadian population of Sage-grouse declined by almost 90 per cent between 1988 and 2006. By 2010, there were only 42 males at 2 active breeding grounds or “leks” in Saskatchewan. In Alberta, there are thought to be only 13 males remaining with the total provincial population estimated at approximately 30 birds in 2011.
The alarming population decline of Greater Sage-grouse demands immediate attention both to prevent the species from disappearing from Canada and because of what it tells us about the mounting habitat degradation in Canada’s grasslands. In Alberta, only 30% of native grasslands remain. Less than 2% of Alberta’s grasslands natural region is protected, yet it supports 70% of the mammal, bird, reptile, and amphibian species at risk in that province. Greater Sage-grouse are indicators of the health of Canada’s shrub-steppe and Great Plains ecosystems. Measures taken to protect and restore sage-grouse habitat will benefit many other species at risk including: Burrowing Owl, Swift Fox, Badger, Sprague’s Pipit and Great Plains Toad.
The Greater Sage-grouse has long been the subject of fascination and research because of its elaborate and spectacular courtship displays. In early spring, males congregate in large numbers at areas referred to as leks to perform their annual courtship rituals. The male’s notorious “strutting display” is described as a series of forward struts, “wing swishes”, inflations and deflations of the throat sac while making popping and whistling sounds, fanning out of its tail and erecting its head plumes while throwing its head back and forth.
Females rear their young on their own with no help from males. The average clutch size ranges from six to nine eggs and the incubation period is 25 to 29 days. The Greater Sage-grouse’s young are precocial, meaning they leave the nest soon after hatching.
The Greater Sage-grouse reside in warm, dry, grasslands, as sagebrush, which grows in the described area, is their main food source. Although young and adult birds will feed on other plant species and some insects in the summertime, sagebrush consists of 47-60% of the adult bird’s diet in the summer and 100% in the winter.
Sage-grouse need large blocks of unfragmented sagebrush grassland habitat to thrive. Their range in Canada has been reduced to only 6% of its historic extent because of loss and degradation of this habitat. Sage-grouse are now found only in the southeast corner of Alberta and southwest corner of Saskatchewan.
Sage-grouse are highly sensitive to disturbance. Recent scientific research suggests that rapid encroachment of oil and gas development on the areas where Sage-grouse spend the winter, breed, nest and raise their young is the leading factor in their extreme population drop.
Alberta and Saskatchewan each have a Wildlife Act and voluntary guidelines for energy development near sage-grouse habitat, but provincial protections are so lax that Sage-grouse continue to decline.
Under section 80 of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the federal Cabinet has the power to make an emergency order to protect important habitat of an endangered species anywhere in Canada. The emergency order can prohibit any activities that may harm the species or the habitat necessary for its survival or recovery. Under SARA, the federal environment Minister has a mandatory duty to recommend that Cabinet make an emergency order if he or she is of the opinion that the species faces “imminent threats to its survival or recovery”.
In addition to seeking federal protection for sage-grouse under SARA, we are calling on the oil and gas industry to voluntarily provide sage-grouse with the protection they need.