Sage grouse recovery project sees first spring

The Calgary Zoo released 66 greater sage grouse at two locations last fall: one in Saskatchewan and the other in Alberta

Biologists plan to keep a close watch this spring on 66 wild newcomers to grasslands in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta.

In fall 2018, the Calgary Zoo released 66 greater sage grouse at two locations: Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan and a 150-acre property southwest of Cypress Hills Provincial Park that is owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The Calgary Zoo raised the birds in captivity as part of the greater sage grouse recovery project. The birds are considered endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act and there are said to be fewer than 250 birds remaining in their Canadian grasslands habitat.

“The first release of the birds did occur in the fall but we’re hoping that now that spring is here and in the coming weeks we’re going to be able to get some data to see how successful the initial release was,” said NCC Alberta communications manager Carys Richards in a March 11 interview.

“Then long-term, we’re going to use that data and that information to perfect our process. There are definite plans to have future releases. This is the beginning stages of a long-term project that is hopefully going to see an extremely endangered species reintroduced back into the Canadian wild.”

Richards said the partnership between the zoo, Parks Canada and the NCC is designed to provide greater sage grouse with the best possible chance of increasing its numbers.

River Run Photography photo

The Calgary Zoo has a multi-year breeding and reintroduction program underway, which it operates with funding support from the federal government and province of Alberta. It has 54 grouse in its breeding flock.

Greater sage grouse were once plentiful on the short grassland prairie but their habitat has been affected by cultivation and fragmentation of its typical range. Numbers have also been reduced through predation and West Nile virus infection.

“In recent years, Parks Canada has undertaken a number of initiatives to manage and restore sage grouse habitat, including sagebrush planting and seeding beneficial cattle grazing initiatives, fence removal and fence marking, as well as population monitoring and research,” said a joint news release from Parks Canada, Calgary Zoo and NCC.

Both federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips applauded efforts to preserve the sage grouse species.

“This release strengthens Alberta’s important efforts to stabilize and recover our greater sage grouse population,” said Phillips. “Through habitat restoration and reclamation, bolstered by this captive breeding program, we are optimistic that this iconic species will remain an important part of Alberta’s biodiversity.”

Efforts to protect existing greater sage grouse populations have not been without controversy. The federal protection order issued in 2013 put restrictions on activities related to grazing and oil and gas activity in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta, affecting the activities of some ranchers and energy companies.

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