Ottawa releases protection plan under sage grouse emergency order

EDMONTON – The federal government has revealed details of a last-ditch plan to save an iconic prairie bird from vanishing from the grasslands.

About 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are coming under a set of rules released Wednesday to protect the sage grouse, thought to be down to as few as 90 birds in those provinces.

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

Conservationists wonder if the order does enough to keep the grouse’s distinctive drumming and dancing mating rituals from disappearing on its last Canadian range.

“A lot more needs to be done if we’re going to ensure this species survives,” said Melissa Gorrie of Ecojustice, an environmental law firm that brought the lawsuit against the Harper government.

The document spelling out the new rules appears to agree.

“The current population trajectory for this species suggests that without increased protection and additional conservation actions, the greater sage grouse is likely to become extirpated from Canada within approximately five years,” it says.

The rules forbid the construction of new roads, tall fences or high objects and restrict loud noises during certain times of year. Disturbing ground cover, such as the sage grass the grouse depend on, will not be permitted.

The rules allow for exemptions “in certain circumstances or locations” and only apply to Crown land, not private property or grazing leases. Pre-existing buildings — residential and agricultural — are also exempt, as is the immediate area around those buildings.

Environment Canada estimates the plan will cost about $10 million in forgone oil revenues over 10 years. The document says impact on farming and ranching will be minimal.

“Our goal with this emergency order is to achieve the best protection for the sage grouse while minimizing impacts on landowners and agricultural producers,” said Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq in a statement from Ottawa.

It’s a good first step, said Gorrie, but only that.

“Even if you were just to stop new development, that wouldn’t be sufficient. You need to go back and restore habitat that’s already been degraded and, from my initial review, we’re not seeing any of that.”

The plan makes no commitment to restoration or research — or any continued government support for the grouse.

Alberta provides some regulations on the distance between bird habitat and industry and also has some grazing restrictions.

Both Alberta and Ottawa are involved in a program that seeks to boost bird numbers by bringing them in from other jurisdictions. The Calgary Zoo is trying to develop a captive breeding program.

An Alberta program to encourage landowners to restore sage grouse habitat has recovered just over 140 hectares, the government says.