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Species at Risk: The Greater Sage Grouse

I love the Prairies. Maybe it’s because I’m a prairie girl – you have to be from the prairies to really appreciate them. Maybe it’s the vibrant colours: the straw-coloured fields contrasted against the stark transition to the big (huge) open blue sky that seems to go on forever.  Whatever it is, the prairies leave a strong mark in my heart whenever I go back.

To me, the Prairies are synonymous with Grasslands, a critically important ecosystem for many vulnerable species, including the highly endangered (and very unique) greater sage-grouse. North America’s largest grouse species, sage-grouse may be most known for their courtships. Males perform spectacular courtships in leks as they strut and fan out their long black and white pointy tails and inflate their throats making a popping noise.

If you’ve ever seen a sage-grouse consider yourself lucky, especially given the fact that there are only 13 males left in Alberta (and no that was not a typo!). As of 2010, the estimated population in the province was 30. Needless to say, this species is listed as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. The sage-grouse is already extirpated from BC’s southern Okanagan (glossary: extirpated means regionally extinct). There are still a few left in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but the population has drastically declined over the past decade, primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

Along with species like grizzly bears, woodland caribou and cut throat trout, sage-grouse is another species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act that’s highly sensitive to road density. Southern Alberta is swimming in roads, and when you add seismic activity and oil and gas development to the mix, these ground-dwelling birds don’t have much of a feather to stand on. With so much density, noise and development, it will be difficult to recover this species – especially if we continue to build roads and fragment their habitat even further.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the sage grouse is a symbol of how our activities in the Grasslands are more far-reaching than we ever thought. I mean, who would’ve known that a bunch of tall grass could be such a complex ecosystem? Turns out it is, and a lot of species rely on it for critical habitat. Moreover, it’s a much more sensitive ecosystem than we ever anticipated.

Sometimes, the more we learn, we realize the less we actually know. I hope it’s not too late for the sage-grouse, and that we can look back at our past actions and learn from them as we make future decisions on the landscape by incorporating the needs of species in our planning.

What you can do:
Learn more about the sage- grouse: check out this cool video of male sage grouse courtship from BBC’s “Life” documentary.
Write to the federal Minister of Environment and let him know you support having a strong federal species at risk act to protect vulnerable species like the greater sage-grouse.


Check out my other blogs on Canada's species at risk:

Species at Risk: Debunking the Bat Myth
Species at Risk: The Leatherback Sea Turtle
Why a strong federal endangered species law matters