Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Greater Sage-grouse--a biologist's perspective

Greater Sage-Grouse on a lek in the United States, where so far it is still possible to see these birds enact their spectacular spring ritual. Photo by photographer and artist, Dennis Evans
Canada has many tremendous biologists employed in the Federal Government and in our provinces. They are really our most important defenders of our endangered prairie birds. However, Canada's environment is not receiving the full benefit of their work--in part because their recommendations are seldom followed by the upper level bureaucrats and politicians who set policy, but also because they can no longer speak to the public or share information with the non-profit conservation sector.

Fortunately, we have biologists who work outside government, in our universities and in the private sector who are free to speak. The following piece on the Greater Sage-Grouse was written by Saskatoon conservation biologist, Joe Schmutz. I think it is fair to say that Joe's perspective on the fate of this species and the Emergency Protection Order and how it relates to ranching likely reflects the views of many of our scientists working on grassland bird conservation in government agencies. Here is Joe's statement, which he has submitted for publication in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix:

Will Saskatchewan have people and roads but nowhere to go?
The near turkey-sized sage-grouse of southern Saskatchewan (and Alberta) is colourful, offers spectacular mating displays and is specially designed by nature to thrive in sagebrush country.  The sage-grouse is also in danger.
Throughout our past the sage grouse provided inspiration for traditional dance in indigenous culture, and food for First Nations peoples and settlers.  When hunting became regulated, the sage grouse was protected, yet numbers dropped and kept dropping. 
Reasons for the decline include disturbance (e.g. oil and gas development), predation, accidents (e.g. crashing into fences at dusk) and disease.  Most importantly much of the silver sagebrush range that the grouse call home has been cultivated.  What sagebrush remains is thanks to ranchers. Halting the decline will not be simple.  However, options do exist.
Ranchers can adopt specialized grazing practices to benefit sage-grouse, including attention to grazing intensity, livestock distribution, onset of grazing and grazing systems, to use their own lingo.  The oil and gas under the small sagebrush range that remains will not spoil underground from a delay in extraction – it will gain in value.  Without the necessary collaboration and leadership, however, sage-grouse numbers will remain on their path to extinction in Canada.  It will be harder if not impossible to bring the grouse back.  Do we and our children care?  May we want to go down the road and watch the grouse’s spectacular display, or simply know that it remains a part of our province?
The federal government needed reminding in court of its promise to Canadians and its obligations under international conventions.  Then, late last year, an Executive Order for the protection of the sage-grouse was issued by the Government of Canada.  This dismayed the short-term oil and gas interests.  It remains so mishandled that it perplexed the ranchers, our necessary allies in the species’ conservation.
The management of sage-grouse is a provincial responsibility.  The federal involvement only happened when the Province was unwilling to be fully engaged.  Provincial ministers have been saying that they don’t care about birds.  What else do they not care about? 
The Saskatchewan provisions for protecting species at risk are buried in the Wildlife Act.  The provisions are so full of discretionary powers that, coupled with a stated lack of care, they do not inspire confidence.  Our provincial coffers bulge from the sale of public land, resources underground and public institutions.  If we are serious about protecting the sage-grouse, the many other species we take for granted and a functioning environment within which we prosper, then the environment minister and his staff need to be given the resources and the nod to do the job.  If enough of us care, then let’s let our elected officials know where the paved road should lead.

Joe Schmutz, Saskatoon

photo courtesy of the generous Dennis Evans

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