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Sage Grouse

Species Spotlight: Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse
© Wayne Lynch

Vital Signs

Common name: Greater Sage-Grouse
Latin name: Centrocercus urophasianus urophasianus
Status under SARA: Endangered
Range: Southeastern Alberta, southwestern Saskatchewan and eleven states in the western United States. The phaios subspecies once occurred in the southern Okanagan valley of British Columbia but has been extirpated from this region for over a century.
Description: A brownish-gray plump, chicken-like bird with white patterning. It has a long spiky pointed black-and-white tail and a black belly. It is the largest grouse in North America; males weigh about two kilograms and females about one. Males can reach lengths of up to 75 cm.
Population estimate: Fewer than 150 adults remain in Canada.

The Story

The Greater Sage-Grouse (phaios subspecies) once occurred in the southern Okanagan valley of British Columbia. It has been extirpated from that region for over a century. The Centrocercus urophasianus urophasianussubspecies found in Alberta and Saskatchewan still exist today in the wild. 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 to 60% of the adult bird’s diet in the summer and 100% in the winter.

The Facts

In recent decades the Greater Sage-Grouse population has plummeted at an alarming rate. According to data from the Species at Risk Public Registry, populations fell from 777 in 1996 to 450 in 2006 which represents a 42% decrease with a 50% decrease in the number of leks from 30 in 1996 to 15 in 2006. Even more upsetting is that between 1988 and 2006, the total Canadian population decreased by 88%.

As of 2010, there were only 42 males at two active breeding grounds of “leks” in Saskatchewan. In Alberta, only 13 males remain, with the total provincial population estimated at approximately 30 birds in 2011. There have also been significant declines in the number of active leks, with a 63 per cent decline from 1996 to 2010. Leks are critical courting and breeding areas for sage-grouse, and act as central hubs for essentially all of their activities.

The population decline of Canada’s sage-grouse has exceeded scientific predictions. Based on the current trajectory of decline, sage-grouse scientists predict that without meaningful protection the Alberta population will be extirpated by 2012 or 2013 with the Saskatchewan population being extirpated by 2021.

There are several contributing factors to the Greater Sage-Grouse’s decline; however habitat loss and habitat degradation represent its most significant threats.

Factors that have contributed to the loss and degradation of the Greater Sage-Grouse’s habitat are:

Conversion of habitat to farmland and intensive livestock grazing;
Oil and gas development near leks;
Oil and gas wells and associated pipelines destroying sagebrush habitats;
Drainage and irrigation projects: the development of dams, dugouts and reservoirs increased fourfold in southeastern Alberta between 1951 and 2001, meaning more than 80% of the Greater Sage-Grouse range was altered.

Furthermore, habitat alteration also limits nest success because there is little sagebrush to provide cover for the grouse nests; making them easy prey for the predator community.

Another problem is simply that because the Greater Sage-Grouse’s population is so small they are in turn very susceptible to climatic and chance events. Recent years have seen substantial and extended periods of drought as well as the devastating West Nile virus that struck Canada in 2003. Just to our south, American scientists have found that the United States populations of the Greater-Sage-Grouse that lived in higher quality habitat were less vulnerable to the West Nile virus that those in suboptimal habitats.

What is Being Done

The Greater Sage-Grouse is federally protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the Canada National Parks Act and provincially by the Saskatchewan Wildlife Act and the Alberta Wildlife Act. It is prohibited to harm, destroy or collect adults or eggs or destroy occupied nesting sites.

Moreover, it is prohibited in Saskatchewan to cultivate native grasslands and sell public lands where the Greater Sage-Grouse lives and nests.

In 2008, Nature Canada completed a scientific review of the federal government’s proposed recovery strategy for the endangered Greater Sage-Grouse. This review identified shortcomings in the recovery strategy with regard to identifying critical habitat, which became the basis of a lawsuit brought against the federal government by Ecojustice, Canadian Nature Network affiliates Nature Saskatchewan and the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, and several other groups. Today, the SARA recovery strategy identifies critical habitat for the Greater Sage-Grouse, though even the federal government admits that the amount of habitat identified is insufficient for the species’ survival and recovery.

In November 2011 Ecojustice submitted a legal petition on behalf of Nature Canada and 10 other groups demanding the Environment Minister recommend an emergency order, as mandated by the Species at Risk Act, to protect the sage grouse.

On September 17, 2013, the federal government announced its intention to release an Emergency Protection Order to help protect the Greater Sage-Grouse. It’s an announcement that Nature Canada and the greater environmental community applauds and supports. While the details of what this emergency protection order will emcompass have not yet been released, we welcome this as a positive development.

Nature Canada delivers with Bird Studies Canada, the Important Bird Area (IBA) program, which aims to identify, conserve and monitor a network of sites that provides essential habitat for bird populations. There are three designated IBAs for the Greater Sage-Grouse: Govenlock-Nashlyn-Battle Creek Grasslands (SK), Grasslands National Park (east, SK) and Grasslands National Park (west, SK).

What You Can Do

1. Join our campaign to save the greater sage grouse.
2. Be mindful of grasslands and protected areas where the Greater Sage-Grouse nests and lives, and find out how you can continue to support and lobby for conservation laws through Nature Canada’s monthly eNewsletter.
3. Protect other birds that are in danger of disappearing by supporting our Important Bird Area program.

Resources:

Legal Petition to Protect Greater Sage Grouse, Nov. 2011
Greater Sage Grouse Recovery Strategy
Species at Risk Public Registry, SARA
Audubon WatchList

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