ALBERTA

More males: New data shows numbers of endangered sage grouse on the rise

06/03/2015 11:36 EDT | Updated 06/03/2016 05:59 EDT
CALGARY - There's some rare good news for the critically endangered greater sage grouse which has had its highest growth rate in 20 years.

The population of the bird, located primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan, had declined by 98 per cent since 1988, partly due to contact with humans and disease.

In 2014, there were thought to be only 14 males remaining in Alberta, with the total provincial population estimated at about 30 birds.

Only six males were counted at active breeding grounds in Saskatchewan.

This year, 35 males were counted in Alberta and 20 were counted in Saskatchewan.

"Just a few years ago, in the absence of any meaningful protection from the provincial and the federal governments, it seemed inevitable that these birds would go extinct in Canada," Cliff Wallis of the Alberta Wilderness Association said Wednesday.

"But now we have reason to hope."

The federal government implemented an emergency protection order for the sage grouse in December 2014. It puts special rules in place for 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The emergency protection order grew out of a 2012 court case brought by several environmental groups to force Ottawa to live up to its Species At Risk legislation.

The order restricts oil production in areas near the sage grouse's habitat.

"This is a strong endorsement for federal intervention under the Species at Risk Act when provincial inaction and poor provincial endangered species laws allow endangered wildlife to reach a crisis," said Ecojustice lawyer Melissa Gorrie.

"The emergency order is doing what it should, protecting sage-grouse habitat from more industrialization and promoting more on-the-ground action to restore damaged lands."

Gorrie said it was the failure of provincial laws to protect sage-grouse habitat in the face of rapid oil and gas development that was a leading factor in the dramatic population drop.

Despite the positive news, the recovery of the bird still has a long way to go, Wallis cautioned.

"It's really scary, and when we were down to 14, 13, 12, you would wonder is there going to be another year here?

"This just makes it so problematic when we're right at the end of extinction."

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