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Saving the sage-grouse

By Jennifer Allford

Judit Smits holds a sage-grouse from Montana that was introduced to the dwindling population of birds in south eastern Alberta. Credit: Massimiliano ProboJudit Smits holds a sage-grouse from Montana that was introduced to the dwindling population of birds in south eastern Alberta. Photo credit: Massimiliano ProboThousands of sage-grouse used to wander around the open plains of south eastern Alberta, but oil and gas development and other human activities in the last few decades have fragmented and otherwise disturbed the birds’ habitat, causing a dramatic decline in their numbers. In 2009 there were 66 males, down to 31 in 2010, and half as many again this year.

“These birds are extremely shy and they may have lived for millennia with only a few predators to deal with and great open prairies and the sage brush around them,” says Judit Smits, associate professor in the department of ecosystem and public health. But those open prairies have been fragmented with roads, oil wells, storage tanks and related activity that has compromised the birds’ habitat and food source of sage brush.

To save the sage-grouse, which is listed as an endangered species, the governments of Alberta and Montana are working with Smits and other scientists from Veterinary Medicine, EVDS and Geography at the University of Calgary to translocate female birds to Alberta from Montana where the sage-grouse population is healthy.

The “Sage-grouse Recovery Project” plans to move about 220 birds over four years, capturing females and moving them in time for breeding season in Alberta. “We hope the majority of birds are going to hang around in the Canadian area, produce their own offspring and we can slowly start rebuilding the population here with new genetic material,” says Smits. “Then we can get it stabilized at a much healthier population size.”

Oil and gas companies are providing some funding as well as closing roads and removing infrastructure in the area that they are no longer using.

The recovery project began this year but got off to a slow start because of the late spring and therefore late breeding season in Alberta. “It was a good year to figure out how to coordinate our logistics and how to get all our teams working together,” says Smits. “But we also managed to capture ten birds.”

Augmenting a population is far preferable to reintroduction of a species that has been wiped out. “Augmentation has a much greater chance of success,” says Smits. “There are still a few sage grouse here. We are introducing them to a lek, which is a specific breeding ground where males are dancing. it smells right, it looks right and they can join others of the same species.”