As sage grouse rise and mostly fall, no one wants to be responsible for our failure to sustain them.
Some blame the ferruginous hawk.
Biologists, ranchers and the oil and gas industry have helped this threatened hawk by erecting pole nests where needed. Are we helping the hawk and hurting the grouse? How would we decide?
Between 1975 and 2013, I have studied prey eaten by ferruginous hawks, primarily near Hanna, Alta.
Visits to 1,974 nests found 1,645 (91 percent) Richardson’s ground squirrels, 11 (one percent) thirteen-lined ground squirrels, 30 (two percent) white-tailed jackrabbits and 85 (five percent) birds. Also found were one northern pocket gopher, 15 voles or mice, one muskrat and two weasels.
Of the 85 birds, 54 percent were grassland songbirds including meadowlarks. The remaining 46 percent included ducks, gulls, one adult sharp-tailed grouse and one short-eared owl.
Visits to 14 nests in sage grouse country found four Richardson’s ground squirrels.
As a result, no major concern was found for the sage grouse.
Species protection is practised worldwide, and much has been learned.
For example, just because an animal has a hooked beak or canine teeth does not mean it automatically causes the permanent decline of its prey.
Those who work in species protection suggest that predator control may be warranted in special cases, but more integrated management options should be devised to heal the entire system, including predators.
No nation has a treasury large enough to pay people for partial predator or habitat benefits year after year. Mother Nature can be creative if we work with the natural system and not against it. More often than not, what is good for Mother Nature is also good for us.
When ecologists coined the idea of a “predator cascade,” they referred to large predators depressing outbreaks of medium-sized predators and those in turn de-pressing small predator. In other words, predators can balance themselves.
In choosing a conservation path for the sage grouse, is it realistic to expect the silver sage grasslands to function today as they did when First Nations knew them or settlers first saw them? Or, is the ecosystem sufficiently altered so that instead of restoring what once was, a different state should be considered if it is equally functional and stable on its own.
If the original prairie ecosystem is gone, what do we have instead?
The full predator cascade with prairie wolf and grizzly are gone, to the coyotes’ relief. We also help predators avoid winter starvation. Where there is livestock there is dead stock. Hunters leave gut piles, and roads cause road kills.
Rural elders describe snow drifts reaching the telephone wires, but today’s drifts can rarely flood sage flats when snow melts. Similarly, the days when a horse could be watered at springs dotting the countryside are also gone.
Sage grouse depend on sage plants for food and escape cover, but unlikely as it seems, silver sage is half aquatic and was greatly enriched by those floods.
Nowhere in the world are there more capable ranchers, range ecologists and conservation biologists than on the Prairies. Nor are there more passionate naturalists.
A 2013 survey of 801 Saskatchewan residents found that 98.3 percent felt that the conservation of native prairie is “at least somewhat important.” Those surveyed were well aware of the multiple benefits our prairie provides, including its wildlife.
All sectors need to be at the table for a lasting solution for sage grouse. The U.S. Sage Grouse Initiative at www.sagegrouseinitiative.com provides an example, and we also had our own in the former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Ad-ministration.
Maybe Ian Tyson is right when he sings “the West ain’t never gonna die, just as long as you can fly.”
Joe Schmutz is a former professor at the University of Saskatchewan and has carried out ecological consulting work since 1982.