image courtesy of John Carlson
Within the next few weeks, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment staff will be visiting Greater Sage-Grouse habitat in Saskatchewan to prepare for a thorough helicopter survey of the breeding population in the spring of 2012.
In both Saskatchewan and Alberta, the remaining known leks (dancing grounds) are surveyed from the ground each April, but their habitat is notoriously remote and difficult to access at that time of year and so the only way to properly check some of the leks is from the air.
By this time next spring, then, we should have a much better idea of how many Sage Grouse we have left. Those who think and care about this magnificent bird will be waiting in dread. The last ground-based surveys, in the spring of 2010, put the total Canadian population at an estimated 200 birds (down from 2,000 in the 1990s).
What is behind this crash in population? Dr. Mark Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Alberta, has studied the species and has no qualms about pointing to the primary cause. In a recent article (access the pdf here and go to the feature on page 4) he wrote for Wildlands Advocate, the journal of the Alberta Wilderness Association, Boyce points to natural gas development and makes it clear that Environment Canada failed to identify Critical Wildlife Habitat for the Greater Sage-Grouse, thus rendering it incapable of protecting it from the rampant resource development that is going on in Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Boyce is not enthusiastic about the re-introduction project underway this summer in Alberta. The provincial wildlife branch is getting some Sage Grouse from Montana and introducing into former Sage-Grouse areas in Alberta. In Boyce's opinion, "the
entire exercise might be futile anyway, given that there is very little undisturbed
habitat remaining and the little that does remain continues to be eroded."
He ends the article with this stark prediction:
I fear that it might be too late already for this
spectacular bird in Alberta. Habitat protection
and restoration are most crucial to ensuring
its persistence in Alberta. No translocation or
conservation program can be successful without a
total ban on future development and disturbance in
critical habitat for Greater sage-grouse.
Unfortunately, this is not merely happening north of the 49th parallel. Things are also getting bad in Montana and Wyoming. Natural gas and coalbed methane development is driving the Greater Sage-Grouse from the land throughout its range, even in its core population zones, where only a few years ago the species was thriving in great numbers. Ten thousand or more new wells are proposed in some of Wyoming's most important Sage Grouse habitat and current buffer regulations allow the industry to build roads and well pads as close as 600 metres to an active lek. Mark Boyce and others have shown that the species needs a lot more space from development than that.
Later this month, conservationists and scientists working on the decline of the Greater Sage-Grouse will be meeting in Wyoming to discuss the crisis and see what can be done to prevent further destruction and fragmentation of its habitat. Here's hoping they come up with a strategy that will get the industry to back off and stay away from key Sage Grouse lekking and nesting zones.