Friday, June 3, 2011

Gas Development Pushs Greater Sage-Grouse toward Crisis

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.


  1. As far as I understand, COSEWIC and Environment Canada only have jurisdiction over federal lands. The only federal lands I can think of (off the top of my head) in the grassland region of Alberta is Suffield National Wildlife Area. Likewise, our provincial legislation applies to provincial public, which is also in pretty short supply.

    So I have to wonder how much good defining critical habitat would do, given that most of prairie in Alberta is privately owned.

  2. Sasha:

    Thanks for making that point. It is true that Environment Canada cannot exert legal action to stop the destruction of critical habitat if it is not on federal lands, but the Federal Government through the Species at Risk Act has wider responsibilities for the state of Canada's biodiversity even if it is on provincial or private land. One of these (outlined in section 49 of the Act--see below) is to designate critical habitat in an action plan, figure out the activities that threaten that habitat and then take measures to protect the habitat from those activities.

    Designating and protecting critical habitat is more than merely policing and prosecuting any offense on federal lands, but you are right. That is what our governments have reduced it to: the bare minimum. With a species like the Greater Sage-grouse, doing the minimum the act forces them to do is driving it toward extirpation. If Environment Canada would at least designate critical habitat and devise a credible action plan, NGOs and others wanting to protect the species would have something to work with when they address the gas companies.

    Thanks for your thoughts,

    Trevor H

    49. (1) An action plan must include, with respect to the area to which the action plan relates,

    (a) an identification of the species’ critical habitat, to the extent possible, based on the
    best available information and consistent with the recovery strategy, and examples of
    activities that are likely to result in its destruction;

    (b) a statement of the measures that are proposed to be taken to protect the species’ critical
    habitat, including the entering into of agreements under section 1;

    (c) an identification of any portions of the species’ critical habitat that have not been

  3. Heh - yeah, SARA places the responsibility on their shoulders and then allows them to weasel out with the words "to the extent possible". Good ol' politicians! As written, the legislation seems to indicate the COSEWIC is required to refer to the literature to figure out what critical habitat constitutes, but stops short of requiring research where the literature is sparse, as it probably is for a lot of endangered species (woodland caribou and grizzlies notwithstanding). Research funds are out there for this sort of work, but they're not always easily available, especially for less charismatic species and those that don't have a lot of economic importance.

    Too bad the legislation is weak; I think a lot of the COSEWIC folks would be willing to pursue this sort of research if the money were available for it.

  4. Alll very good points, Varina. Thanks for sending in your thoughts.


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