Protection order sparks fear among ranchers

The Calgary Zoo symposium action plan developed five points to protect the greater sage grouse:


RED DEER — Ronda Reesor was never one to get involved in causes.


However, when an emergency order for the protection of the greater sage grouse included some of her ranch, she was compelled to speak. 


The federal government order under the Species at Risk Act was issued in December and went into effect in February. 


It covers 1,700 sq. kilometres in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. 


Reesor, who ranches with her husband,Keith, in the Cypress Hills, fears the order sets a dangerous precedent and could affect landowners across the country if endangered species are found on their property.


She and other ranchers such as James Hargrave want a voluntary approach to preserving the dwindling number of birds.


It is believed that 138 birds live in a small region of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. 


“This will set a precedent for legal action for different species at risk,” Hargrave said in an interview after the Western Stock Growers Association annual meeting in Red Deer Feb. 19. 


“We wanted to take a collaborative approach and work with Alberta Wilderness Association and work with like minded conservation groups to come up with a voluntary recovery plan or a plan that had incentives for producers to continue doing what they are doing and provide functional habitats and ecosystems.”


Reesor said the area is probably on the edge of the birds’ natural habitat because there are large numbers in the United States. 


“We are on the very fringe of the population, and we are on the very fringe of the sage brush habitat,” she said. 


She does not accept habitat loss as the primary reason the birds are disappearing. The greater threats to the birds are predators such as coyotes and hawks and diseases such as West Nile virus, she added.


Hargrave believes the federal government came under pressure and agreed to the emergency protection order when conservation groups, took the issue to court. A federal court judge ruled that government cannot ignore the critical habitat needs of species at risk.


The city of Medicine Hat and LGX Oil and Gas have filed a court application to force the federal government to stop or suspend its emergency order, saying it did not sufficiently consult industry and other stakeholders.


Rancher Larry Sears of Stavely, Alta., said he thinks the order is a trial balloon and foresees more land coming under protective orders. 


“They are going to see what they can get away with on this one and they deliberately chose a sparsely populated area because they didn’t think there would be much in the way of repercussions or pushback,” said Sears.


The emergency order imposes restrictions to protect the sage grouse and its habitat on provincial and federal crown lands, but it is not expected to restrict activities on private land or grazing on provincial or federal crown lands. 


In January, a symposium at the Calgary Zoo discussed the potential extinction of the sage grouse. At the symposium, Leona Aglukkaq, federal minister for development of the north, announced $2.1 million for the zoo’s new captive breeding and rearing program for the grouse. It will be the first time the bird will be bred and raised in captivity in Canada. 


The program will cost $5 million over 10 years.


Axel Moehrenschlager, head of the zoo’s centre for conservation re-search, said the wild population is likely to be extinct in Canada within two to five years so action is needed immediately. 


The zoo has an off-site captive breeding program for endangered species that has participated in breeding whooping cranes and Vancouver Island marmots. 


The program is the only one of its kind in Canada.


The centre is being retrofitted to meet the needs of sage grouse.


The birds could be bred in captivity and then slowly reintroduced back to their habitat. 


“The situation with the greater sage grouse is one where we need to be very careful, collaborative and deliberate and use science to figure out what strategies are working and not working so we can adapt our practices over time,” Moehrenschlager said in an interview. 


They need to maintain genetic diversity that is representative of the wild population. 


The birds would not be released if conditions were unsuitable. 


“Habitat protection is the key for this species as it is for many others.”


The zoo has considered different options for obtaining eggs or birds, including Montana. The state has sent birds to Alberta in the past and releases were done, but many of the young did not survive. 


“The birds did not do that badly but the nest survival is poor,” he said. 


Moehrenschlager is familiar with the area as a rancher and conservationist. He was involved with the swift fox recovery program in southeastern Alberta and supports community based conservation in which local people can be involved. 


“It has to be done in concert with the local people in a respectful way that acknowledges the needs and land uses that they have,” he said. 


“I cannot understate how critical it is for me that ranchers are respected partners in these endeavours.”

  • Continue with and develop new action on habitat management, including protection, restoration and stewardship of sage grouse habitat in Canada 

  • Establish an inter-jurisdictional governance group to help guide recovery efforts of the northern silver sagebrush ecosystem

  • Establish a captive breeding centre to create an assurance population and a source of birds to be used for population reinforcement or reintroduction. Potential strategies include transferring eggs or chicks from captive or other wild populations into the wild to help retain or re-establish 
sage grouse 

  • Reduce high predation rates of greater sage grouse, including selectively reducing predator numbers and reducing infrastructure that some predators use 

  • Monitor populations continuously to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of conservation strategies over time