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Thursday, 01 December 2011 11:22

Fight continues to save sage-grouse in southwest Sask.

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By Matthew Liebenberg — This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

One of the early rites of spring in the Grasslands National Park is the impressive courtship dance of the greater sage-grouse.

The largest species of grouse in North America, a male sage grouse can weigh up to three kilograms or approximately six pounds. In early spring they gather on dancing areas, called a lek, to compete for space and to impress the smaller females with their boisterous behaviour.

It is a familiar scene to biologist

Pat Fargey, who is the species at risk specialist at Grasslands National Park.

“They’re quite spectacular,” he said. “The males have these air sacks they blow up, they fan their tails out and then they’ll make a jostling movement and a vocalization. It’s a kind of a booming sound that carries quite a way. On a quiet morning, you can probably hear it a mile off for sure.”

It is a scene few people have witnessed because the sage-grouse is sensitive to disturbance and their already limited numbers continue to decline.

An endangered species in Canada, they are only found in southwest Saskatchewan and the southeast corner of Alberta. Fargey would be happy if more people can see sage-grouse dancing.

“I wish every prairie Canadian can have that experience,” he said. “It’s part of our heritage that I hope we can hold on to.”

He was speaking about greater sage-grouse research in the  Grasslands National Park  during a presentation Nov. 16 at the Swift Current Museum.

His talk was part of the Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan’s Native Prairie Speaker Series.

In the 1980s there was still a significant number of sage-grouse on the Canadian prairies, estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000.

“There were many thousands and there’s really no doubt now that they’ve declined to just a few hundred in Alberta and Saskatchewan,” he said. “So there’s been a really dramatic decline of at least 90 per cent.”

Most of the decline is thought to be due to habitat changes such as new roads or oil and gas developments. They typically nest in an area around a lek and they need sage brush habitat as part of their life cycle. Females return to where they nested before and as a result their numbers drop disproportionately in relation to any habitat disturbance.

“The droughts of the eighties are coincidental with a lot of declines and it was probably part of it as well,” he remarked.

Sage-grouse numbers in the United States are much higher, but also in decline. Some of their core distribution areas, such as in Wyoming, are subject to rapid oil and gas developments.

The species has not yet been declared endangered in the United States, but a multi-million dollar recovery program started last year in an attempt to increase their numbers.

Sage-grouse numbers are determined by counting the number of males on a lek. It is assumed there are at least

two females for every male.

 In  Grasslands National Park, breeding happens within a narrow period of time. The males start displaying from the end of March right until the second or third week of May.

“Females start coming for breeding probably about April 6 or 7 and most of the breeding is done by (April) 11 or 12,” he said. “There’s probably females that fail in their first nesting attempt and come back but most of the breeding occurs in a pretty narrow window.”

The sage-grouse population in the east block of the park is more secure. Their numbers have been in consistent decline in the west block and in the lower Frenchman River area, but it increased slightly in 2011, probably as a result of a reactivated lek.

According to Fargey the 2011 lek counts in the spring were much lower than normal because of a severe winter that limited access to these remote areas. He estimated there are from 100 to 150 sage-grouse in the park.

There has been some new findings about sage-grouse behaviour as a result of recent research. A study by PhD student Krissy Bush about sage-grouse genetics used feathers that were collected during lek counts. She found the birds are moving back and forth between Saskatchewan and northern Montana, but genetically there was enough differences between them to suggest they are two sub populations.

She found some evidence of sharp-tailed grouse integration with sage-grouse in Alberta. Despite their small numbers, there was no evidence of significant in-breeding among the sage-grouse and their genetic heterogeneity is still high.

Another study by researchers from the University of Montana found chick survival is a weak link, especially in the Alberta sage-grouse population.

“Hens are nesting, nests are surviving but the number of chicks that survive to be recruited into the adult population is a little bit on the low side,” Fargey said.

The most important discovery from the research has been the east block sage-grouse are migrating southwards during the winter to north central Montana over a distance of at least 140 kilometres.

“This is the largest migration that’s ever been detected in sage-grouse,” Fargey emphasized.

A current study is trying to determine the route of their migration. This information will help conservationists to preserve a habitat corridor along the route. For this study the researchers are using new GPS technology with a transmitter, battery and even a little solar panel that is small enough to fit on the back of a sage grouse.

So far the units have been fitted to three Canadian birds. Each unit weighs about 30 grams and a little harness goes underneath the bird’s wings to keep it in place.

While the research might help with efforts to increase the sage-grouse population in Saskatchewan, the Alberta authorities have already started with the more drastic approach of importing sage-grouse from Montana.

“There’s no doubt this is a critically imperilled bird,” Fargey said. “It will take a major effort to rejuvenate the population in Saskatchewan.”


A picture of a single sage grouse.

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