Friday, September 20, 2013

A victory for grassland conservation: the Greater Sage-Grouse receives Canada's first emergency order issued under the Species at Risk Act

poster used by Alberta Wilderness Association, see
Did Environment Canada just issue an emergency order to try to protect Greater Sage-Grouse habitat or did I just imagine it? Hard to believe, but a couple days ago, the new Federal Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, did just that, setting a historic precedent. Never before has an Environment minister used the emergency order mechanism in the Species at Risk Act. 

Once I realized it was for real, my next thoughts were: 1., the feds and the Sask. and Alta. environment ministries must have figured out how bad they are looking, 2., they must be doing this to head off more embarrassment in the courts, and 3. Will this help the Sage Grouse or is it too little too late?

When we take the last scraps of a species’ habitat and hand it over to oil and gas companies so they can convert it into an industrial landscape of well sites, roads, dugouts, and power lines, should we be surprised that its population declines by 98%?

In 2011, Ecojustice, an environmental law defense fund (donate here) that we should all support, petitioned the Harper Government to follow the Species at Risk Act and issue an emergency order to protect the grouse and its habitat. They were representing several environmental NGOs, including Nature Saskatchewan. The petition fell on deaf ears. Peter Kent, then Minister of the Environment, continued to play dumb, and nothing was done.

figure from the original Ecojustice petition for an emergency order
Then this Tuesday, out of the blue, comes this announcement that an emergency order is being issued.

That night I spoke on the phone with Susan Pinkus, the Senior Scientist at Ecojustice who worked on the file. She found out about the emergency order on Sage Grouse that morning when CBC phoned her for a comment.

I asked her what does the order mean? "We are still trying to figure that out," Susan said, "but Environment Canada has released a backgrounder that explains a bit." Later I looked it up and read the following:

"Some constraints would applied to land use on approximately 1200 km2 of crown land in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The intent is to address seasonal noise, destruction of habitat, disturbance of breeding sites, and the creation of new structures without imposing restrictions on activities on private land, nor on grazing on provincial or federal crown lands. Our goal is to achieve the best protection for the Sage-Grouse while minimizing impacts on agricultural producers."

This goes directly at the oil and gas industry that has been destroying Sage Grouse habitat for decades. They will have to decommission facilities that are within a certain setback distance. That sounds pretty good, and in general is what the petitioning organizations were calling for. But, Susan cautioned, there are two things that we must watch for:

1. the Federal government may well continue delaying and just sit on this. They may justify the delay by insisting on a "gradual implementation." The public--all of us who care about these birds--must demand immediate implementation. The Sage Grouse do not have any time to spare. "The time for gradual passed years ago," said Susan. There are only 30 or so birds known in Saskatchewan, and fewer in Alberta.

2. "The order will prohibit the doing of some things and require the doing of some other things," Susan said, to restore and protect the critical habitat. The key part of this is the distance from leks, wintering sites and nesting areas--the "setbacks." The setbacks and limits on well site densities in Saskatchewan have been all but useless--ridiculously lax. Research by biologists Mark Boyce and Cameron Aldridge has shown it must be a minimum setback of 6.4 km radius around  all lek sites and a minimum of 1.9 setback radius for all other types of habitat (wintering, nesting, brood rearing). 

This means that within those distances all of the oil and gas structures must be removed and the habitat restored. Industry and the govt will likely try to minimize these distances so it is important that we support the setback requirements that Aldridge and Boyce called for through Ecojustice's legal work (details on page on page 28 onward in their petition document), as well as their guidelines on well site densities.

typical resource disturbance in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, image courtesy of C. Olson, on

This week, I also spoke to the Alberta Wilderness Association's Cliff Wallis, to get his thoughts on the emergency order. Cliff has been front and centre on the work with Ecojustice to get the Federal Government to act. Here is part of what he wrote to me in a couple of emails:

"Proof is in pudding. At least we are starting the turnaround. A few more protected areas and a lot of loving of the land and we can do this—long term prospect though. . . .There is hope-I and many other biologists and conservationists are not willing to throw in the towel—this effort will benefit many species at risk and many common species. Species are often more adaptable than we give credit for and will work out ways to live with us if we give them enough room. That’s still a work in progress for sage grouse and other grouse globally."

Finally, Dr. Andrea Olive, from Saskatchewan but now teaching Political Science and Geography at the University of Toronto, published an op-ed in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix today, which makes some interesting points about the order. Andrea, an expert in Species at Risk legislation, refutes claims made by the Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture that the Province has provisions that will protect species at risk on Provincial Crown land. But the thrust of the article is that the Federal Government would not have had to issue this emergency order and enforce it on Provincial Crown Land if Saskatchewan had its own stand-alone legislation protecting species like the Greater Sage-Grouse.

So, while it is very late for the Sage-Grouse (though I am, like Cliff, cautiously hopeful that with enough resources and love we can turn things around--look at the Whooping Crane), in general we have some work to do to get some Provincial legislation that will address such steep declines before they get out of hand.

Down the road, will a Federal emergency order be necessary to get us to act on behalf of the Woodland Caribou in the north and the 32 species of birds, mammals, insects, and plants listed as at risk on the PFRA community pastures now being transferred to the province? Is it realistic to expect our forestry companies to protect the Caribou or our pasture patron cattlemen to protect the Sprague's Pipit, the Ferruginous Hawk, and the Burrowing Owl? Or do we need some real stand alone legislation with provisions that commit the Province to ensuring these species will not be driven away by any industrial activity or mis-management of public lands?


  1. Really enjoying your blog. I work with prairie conservation down in Nebraska, and so much here is ringing true -- unfortunately. You are reminding me of battles to save the lesser prairie chicken in my home state of Oklahoma, how no structures can be within site of leks, etc, and how that's a good thing to fight for.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Benjamin. We probably have a lot in common between this end of the Great Plains and yours. Always glad to hear from other defenders of grasslands.


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