As winter approaches, the largest grouse species in North America is still in big trouble in Canada.
Environment Canada announced its intent to issue an emergency order protecting the greater sage-grouse in September 2013. Minister Leona Aglukkaq promised that the unprecedented order — including recovery details — would be issued in “the coming months.”
More than three months after the order, the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as Bird Studies Canada, have yet to hear of any progress being made in the sage-grouse recovery plan.
Environment Canada, however, says government officials are in the final stages of drafting the order, which will be published within the next few months.
The sage-grouse is Canada’s rarest endangered bird species and has experienced a 98 per cent population decline since 1988. Fewer than 150 birds remain in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the only two Canadian provinces where the birds are found.
For sage-grouse expert Mark Boyce, the longer the bird waits, the greater its risk of extinction in Canada becomes. “All we can do is hope that this new order will have some promise and the remaining bits of habitat will provide a sufficient base for population recovery,” says Boyce, a University of Alberta biology professor and Alberta Conservation Association chair in fisheries and wildlife.
Boyce cites oil and gas development as an obstacle to rebuilding sage-grouse population and habitat. “It would appear that this will be the first case of extinction of a species from Canada that was caused directly by the oil and gas industry,” he claims.
Cameron Aldridge, a research scientist at Colorado State University, concurs, noting that stressors such as oil and gas development and intense grazing practices have ruined habitat, and are the main culprits for driving sage-grouse numbers down. “Energy development, especially in Alberta, continues to increase, and when you add on harsh winters and drought stress there are just too many things taking place.”
Environment Canada, however, says the bird’s population decline has little to do with the oil industry. “In large parts of the historical range of the greater sage-grouse there is little to no disturbance from oil and gas activities,” notes Environment Canada spokesperson, Mark Johnson.
Johnson lists West Nile Virus, increased predation, changes in natural water cycles and the degradation of sagebrush grasslands, as factors contributing to the bird’s decline.
Regardless, Aldridge doesn’t have high hopes for the Canadian bird. “Whatever Canada does now is not going to save the sage-grouse, it’s too late,” he says. “I believe sage-grouse are done in Canada.”