Amended recovery strategy for greater sage-grouse identifies critical habitat

Amended recovery strategy for greater sage-grouse identifies critical habitat SouthWest Saskatchewan  Saskatchewan Environment

The federal government’s amended recovery strategy for the endangered greater sage-grouse is focusing on the identification of critical habitat.

This ground-dwelling bird is the largest of the indigenous North American grouse. There has been a dramatic decline in greater sage-grouse numbers in Canada and they are now found in only about seven per cent of their historic range in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Mark Wayland, the supervisor of the Species at Risk Unit at Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, Prairie Region, said sage-grouse numbers have declined dramatically over the last two to three decades.
“We’re very concerned about the species,” he said. “The numbers are very low. As far as we know there’s only a handful left in Canada.”
A 2012 survey indicated 93 to 138 individual birds are still in Canada, which is an all-time low. Their distribution in Canada is limited to the sagebrush and native prairie areas in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.
Environment Canada hosted three public meetings in these areas at the end of June to discuss the draft amended recovery strategy for the greater sage-grouse with landowners and members of the public. The meetings took place in Manyberries (June 25), Eastend (June 24) and Val Marie (June 27).
“When we do recovery strategies we are required and it makes good sense to go out and talk to people who may have a stake in helping to recover these species,” Wayland said.
The Environment Canada team received feedback about the proposed recovery strategy and  people shared their views and concerns about the local decline of sage-grouse numbers.
“Perhaps more importantly we heard from them about what their concerns might be or their uncertainties about what this recovery strategy might mean to them as it is implemented,” he said.
According to Wayland some people did mention land ownership as an issue of concern in relation to the Species at Risk Act (SARA) goal to protect critical habitat.
“In responding to them we tried to make it clear that there should be no concerns over land ownership,” he said. “SARA doesn’t get into that.”
Under SARA the protection of the greater sage-grouse requires the identification of critical habitat as part of a recovery strategy. This habitat will then be conserved through voluntary actions and stewardship measures.
“The land designation will not change,” he said. “So if it’s private land or provincial crown land, the use of it will not change. There are no automatic legal implications of this recovery strategy.”
A large portion of the sage-grouse habitat is located on federal or provincial Crown land and some on private land. In many situations the existing land use might already be compatible with the habitat needs of sage-grouse.
For example, the birds are able to survive and reproduce on native mixed grass prairie where the primary land use is livestock production with light to moderate grazing.
“On the private land and even on the Crown lease land our preferred option and the first thing we’re required to do is to try to make sure that the habitat is afforded a degree of protection through voluntary stewardship with willing landowners and land managers,” Wayland said.
A recovery strategy for the greater sage-grouse has been in place since 2008, but insufficient data meant critical habitat was not identified. Under SARA requirements it is mandatory to identify critical habitat for endangered species and the recovery strategy was therefore updated in 2009 with a replacement section to indicate such habitat.
“At that time we identified the critical habitat that we could based on the information that we had, but we realized that was only a partial identification and we had to do a full identification,” he explained. “This amendment does that. It completes the identification of critical habitat and also in the interim over the last few years there’s been a lot of new scientific information that’s come to the fore on this species. So we’ve included the updated information as well.”
According to Wayland the reasons for the decline of the sage-grouse are very complex and it is not simply a habitat issue, even though it is a very important factor. Other issues include the historical conversion of land to crop land that caused the shrinking of their range over the past century, increased oil and gas exploration and drilling, predation and more recently the occurrence of West Nile virus in their range.
“Even weather, drought and cold weather in the spring,” he added. “Now that the population is so small even these things can be having profound effects.”
Environment Canada’s goal is to finalize the draft amended recovery strategy as soon as possible. Some revisions will be made as a result of input during the public meetings and the approved document will then be posted on the SARA public registry for a 60-day public comment period. Thereafter the document will be revised and finalized to become an official strategy.
Wayland believes it is not too late to save the greater sage-grouse from extirpation (being lost  from the wild) on the Canadian prairies.
“It really depends on the willingness of everybody involved to try different things around issues of habitat protection and possibly reintroduction and that sort of thing,” he said. “As long as there are birds out there and habitat out there and the public will to do it, it’s never too late. … Some species have hung on by a thread and they’re on their way back now. Let’s hope the sage-grouse joins those.”

via SW Sask News – Prairie Post – Prairie Post

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