Sage grouse protection plan released

The federal government has revealed how it plans to protect an iconic prairie bird on the brink of vanishing from the grasslands.
The federal government has revealed details of a last-ditch plan to save an iconic prairie bird from vanishing from the grasslands. The Canadian Press / HO - C. Olson, Alberta Wilderness Association

EDMONTON – The federal government has revealed details of a last-ditch plan to save an iconic prairie bird from vanishing from the grasslands, but officials acknowledge an emergency order to protect the sage grouse isn’t enough on its own.

“There’s going to have to be a number of measures,” David Ingstrup, regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Service, said Wednesday. “The order is one of several things that will have to happen if we’re going to ensure recovery of this species.”

About 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are coming under a set of rules to protect the sage grouse, thought to be down to as few as 90 birds in those provinces.

The emergency protection order grew out of a 2012 court case brought by several environmental groups to force the federal government to live up to its Species At Risk legislation.

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It’s a good first step, but that’s all, said Melissa Gorrie of Ecojustice, an environmental law firm that brought the lawsuit against the Harper government.

“Even if you were just to stop new development, that wouldn’t be sufficient. You need to go back and restore habitat that’s already been degraded and, from my initial review, we’re not seeing any of that.”

The rules forbid the construction of new roads, tall fences or high objects and restrict loud noises during certain times of year. Disturbing ground cover, such as the sage grass the grouse depend on, will not be permitted.

The rules allow for exemptions “in certain circumstances or locations” and only apply to Crown land, not private property or grazing leases. Pre-existing buildings — residential and agricultural — are also exempt, as is the immediate area around those buildings.

Environment Canada estimates the plan will cost about $10 million in forgone oil revenues over 10 years. The document says impact on farming and ranching will be minimal.

“Our goal with this emergency order is to achieve the best protection for the sage grouse while minimizing impacts on landowners and agricultural producers,” said Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq in a statement from Ottawa.

The plan makes no extra commitment to restoration or research.

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Ingstrup said the government will strongly encourage landowners and industry to adopt “good stewardship” on land not covered by the order.

“Grouse-friendly” fencing will be encouraged. Landowners will be asked not to erect tall structures, which give grouse predators such as raptors a handy perch.

An existing $10-million-a-year program that encourages industry and landowners to restore damaged land will give “priority” to grouse habitat, Ingstrup said.

Ian Davidson of Nature Canada agreed that voluntary private-sector help will be crucial. Many of the most important areas for the birds are on private land not covered at all by Wednesday’s order, he said.

But government still has to do more, he suggested.

“The federal and provincial governments have an incredibly important role to provide incentive for the conservation of sage grouse habitat. I don’t think it lies squarely on the shoulders of the ranchers, of industry or private landowners.”

Ranchers could get compensation for agreeing not to tear out sections of sagebrush to create new pasture, Davidson said.

Alberta provides some regulations on the distance between bird habitat and industry and also has some grazing restrictions.

Both Alberta and Ottawa are involved in a program that seeks to boost bird numbers by bringing them in from other jurisdictions. The Calgary Zoo is trying to develop a captive breeding program.

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An Alberta program to encourage landowners to restore sage grouse habitat has recovered just over 140 hectares, the government says.

But even if everyone gets on board to save the sage grouse, Ingstrup admits it may be too late. The document outlining the new rules says that without additional action, the sage grouse will be gone from Canada within five years.

“There are no guarantees at this point,” he said.

The lesson for next time is not to wait so long before doing something.

“Certainly, pro-active action to prevent species from declining is important,” Ingstrup said. “The sooner the better.”

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