Saving the greater sage grouse

Feb 06, 2014

An uncertain future for the greater sage grouse

The greater sage grouse, the largest of the grouse species in North America, inhabits the prairies of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. The male sage grouse competes for mating opportunities by strutting confidently in a dance, while puffing his feathered chest in a grand display. This spectacle could soon be something of the past, as their fragile population declines at an alarming rate; the greater sage grouse faces imminent extinction.

In 2011 and 2012, only 12 male grouse were identified in Alberta. A total reported population of approximately 100 to 150 birds places the greater sage grouse as one of the most endangered birds in Canada. Dependent on silver sage grass for food and shelter, the sage grouse has been negatively impacted by the destruction and loss of habitat, predation, increase in sensory disturbance caused by vertical structures and chronic noise, extreme weather changes, West Nile virus and drought. The birds require immediate assistance to overcome the pressures that threaten their future survival.

A meeting of the minds

In 2013, an emergency order was issued by the federal government for the first time under Canada’s Species at Risk Act for the greater sage grouse, a species designated as endangered since 1998.

Experts from across North America gathered from January 14 to 17, 2014 at the Calgary Zoo to formulate a plan of  immediate action – their common goal: to save the greater sage grouse.

The Calgary Zoo and its partners know that it’s possible to make a positive impact on threatened species, as past efforts to save black-footed ferrets, whooping cranes and swift fox have shown; it is now time to come to the aid of sage grouse.

Funded by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, the zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research, in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation Research (IUCN) and the SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, conducted the Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) workshop focused on the most effective strategy to incorporate wild and captive conservation management tools to support the recovery of the greater sage grouse.

“Together with our conservation team, we proposed having and hosting this workshop to bring together experts and stakeholders from many different walks of life to help the greater sage grouse from imminent extinction in Canada,” explained Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, head of the Centre for Conservation Research.

Making a difference

“Species are at the brink of extinction in our backyard, and these situations arise because of the impacts humans are having on the planet,” said Dr. Moehrenschlager.

The survival of the sage grouse and other threatened species is dependent on the actions of every one of us. What can we do to help?

Dr. Moehrenschlager offered these tips:

  1. “Encourage governments to set parameters which limit the destruction or degradation of natural ecosystems”
  2. Practice daily conservation efforts in our homes “by limiting the amount of energy we use, food that we waste, and rubbish that we produce.”
  3. “Fund or otherwise support agencies that are engaged in the conservation activities for endangered species.”

“When humans push species so close to the edge of extinction, we have to acknowledge that success is not guaranteed. But if we work together, there is still hope,” he concluded.

Funding a future for the greater sage grouse

As the imminent extinction of the greater-sage grouse became an undeniable reality, the government stepped forward to provide funding and hope for the future of the greater sage grouse.

On January 23, 2014 the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) and Environment Canada announced that they will each contribute $2.1 million towards the total $5.3 million cost of the project.

The Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research will oversee the greater sage grouse captive breeding and rearing project to be conducted over the next 10 years, made possible with the contribution of government funding.

 “Our long-term goal is to establish a stable greater sage grouse population in Canada through stewardship initiatives and partnerships”, said The Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council.

The focus of the recovery project is guided by a provincial recovery plan, which includes:

  • habitat management and restoration
  • collaborative actions with industry and stakeholders – including conservation and reclamation activities
  • predator management activities

“There are challenges to be overcome so collaboration between government, experts, industry and land owners is key to protecting this iconic species for future generations,” said Robin Campbell, Minister of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

The recognition of the severity of the situation and the action of the government to support the recovery efforts for this highly-endangered bird restored an optimistic outlook for the future of this prairie dweller.

Recommendations for recovery

The results are in - officials from the Calgary Zoo’s conservation team announced the recommendations of more than 40 international experts that gathered at the Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) workshop. “The reason we hosted this symposium was to build on existing species recovery plans and strategies to identify management actions that could reduce the primary threats driving population decline for the iconic greater sage grouse,” explained Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Head of the zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research.

The workshop resulted in the following five recommendations:

  1. Continue with the development of new actions on habitat management including the protection, restoration and stewardship of sage grouse habitat in Canada.
  2. Establish an inter-jurisdictional governance group to help guide and establish recovery efforts of the northern silver sagebrush ecosystem.
  3. Launch a captive breeding centre for sage grouse to create an assurance population and a source of birds to be used for population reinforcement or reintroduction while other conservation measures are met.
  4. Protect the sage grouse from predators, reduce infrastructure that some predators use and selectively reduce predator numbers.
  5. Continuously monitor, evaluate and improve the sage grouse conservation strategies.

“The greater sage grouse is almost extinct in Canada.  Sustained collaboration, partnerships, political will and sound science will be key to ensure that the species and its habitat are protected for future generations.  Implementing conservation action on the ground will also require the respectful involvement of landowners who are stewards of prairie land where other endangered species have already made a comeback.  We are hopeful that we can still bring this species back from the brink of extinction,” said Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager.

Immediate action and the introduction of a multi-faceted approach to conservation can turn this desperate situation into a bright future for the greater sage grouse.