Iconic Canadian bird deserves stepped up protection

Environment Canada announces that it will issue an emergency order to protect the endangered greater sage grouse.

Environment Canada took a rare step last week with an announcement that it will issue an emergency order to protect the endangered greater sage grouse.

This unique prairie bird is found in Alberta and Saskatchewan but has disappeared from British Columbia where decades ago it lived in the sagebrush grasslands. The reasons for decline are depressingly similar to the plight of  many wildlife species but in the past four decades the sage grouse has faced a staggering amount of habitat loss to the extent that less than 150 birds remain in the two prairie provinces.

The sage grouse requires large tracts of unfragmented sagebrush habitat to thrive but industrial development, primarily oil and gas, has caused the birds’ decline.

Sage grouse are best known for their elaborate courtship display dances on their leks, their central courtship and breeding grounds. They are totally dependent on sagebrush for both food and cover and use the plant canopy for shade and protection during nesting.

According to the Alberta Wilderness Association, between 1988 and 2006 the population fell by some 90 per cent and its last stronghold is the extreme southeast corner of Alberta in the Manyberries area where it survives in remnants of its primary habitat, silver sagebrush flats.

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said last Tuesday that the order, to be issued in the coming months, will set restrictions to protect its habitat on both provincial and Crown lands in both provinces.

The struggle to protect the habitat of this iconic bird has been long and difficult. Environment Canada, like many ministries in the Harper government, is well known for its less than transparent management and slowness to act. And PM Harper is an oil guy with a mission to see Alberta crude pipe its way to foreign markets. But he needs to know that investment in conservation also makes economic sense.

The familiar and jaded dilemma – environmental protection weighed against economic development – backdrops the struggle for thousands of animal species. Birdlife International recently released its 2013 report State of the World’s Birds. Today, one in eight bird species is threatened with global extinction; 197 species are critically endangered and sharp declines continue to be recorded in common species, many losing over 50 per cent of their continental populations.

The northern bobwhite has declined by a staggering 82 per cent in the last 40 years, the same timeline that has seen plummeting populations of the sage grouse.. The evening grosbeak has declined by 78 per cent, northern pintail 77 per cent, and the boreal chickadee 73 per cent. Invasive plants and the destruction of grasslands, forests, and wetlands for industry, agriculture, and urban expansion are all driving reasons for monumental losses.

Global warming is also complicating the mix. In northern Canada, the snow bunting and the greater scaup have declined 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively because of early thawing of permafrost, changes in tundra vegetation and the northward expansion of southerly species.

Some bird species are already making adjustments. A report on the Nature Canada website stated that a study of 63 years of data for 96 migrant bird species in Canada showed that 27 of them are arriving earlier to dovetail with earlier warming spring temperatures. And the range of seven species of warblers has shifted north by an average of 65 miles in the past two decades. With more sustainable forestry and agricultural practices and the greening of urban areas, some bird species are surviving. Habitats rich in biodiversity promote a healthier, wealthier world.

If Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq stands behind her word and signs that emergency protection order fast, there could be turn-around time for the greater sage grouse.