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In ecology, an “indicator species” can act a red flag that environmental conditions are deteriorating. When the population of the indicator species declines, biologists who are monitoring the situation get a red flag that something is wrong.

The pending extinction of the sage-grouse in Canada should act as a similar warning that our environmental laws, and their enforcement, are not keeping pace with the impacts of oil and gas development.  They are our red flag, and we should pay attention.

By all accounts, the decline in the number of sage-grouse since settlers began arriving in Canada has been dramatic. The last naturally occurring sage-grouse in BC was shot in 1918. Elsewhere in Canada, its number have fallen each year. According to the Species at Risk Public Registry:

Based on historical accounts, there has been a 90% reduction in range and a substantial decrease in the number of breeding locations. Recent estimates show that the number of individuals in the [Alberta and Saskatchewan] fell from 777 in 1996 to 450 in 2006, a 42% decrease. Between 1988 and 2006, the total Canadian population decreased by 88%. Similar results have been obtained for the number of leks (the male courtship display sites), which decreased from 30 in 1996 to 15 in 2006, a drop of 50%.

Ecojustice reports that if the current trajectory of decline continues, Alberta’s sage-grouse population could be extirpated as early as next year. Saskatchewan’s population could disappear within the next ten years.

The primary reason for this dramatic decline is habitat disturbance, for the most part caused by oil and gas development. Reportedly:

  • Mortality rates of sage-grouse chicks increase 1.5 times for every energy well visible within one kilometre of the brood;
  • Sage-grouse have been found to abandon breeding in response to the presence of active energy wells or haul roads within 6.4 km of the area; and
  • Sage-grouse will avoid or abandon habitat essential for their survival during the winter if there is oil and gas development within 1.9 km of their habitat.

Despite this sharp decline, and the risk of imminent extinction in Canada, the federal government has not yet issued an emergency order to protect the remaining birds or their habitat.

Under s. 80(2) of the Species at Risk Act, the Minister of the Environment must make a recommendation to the Governor in Council that an emergency order is required for the protection of a listed wildlife species “if he or she is of the opinion that the species faces imminent threats to its survival or recovery.”

On both federal and other lands, an emergency order could prohibit activities that may adversely affect the sage-grouse and the habitat necessary for its survival or recovery. On federal land, the emergency order could also require positive action.

But the Minister will not disclose whether he has fulfilled this duty, and argues that he does not have to because his deliberations are protected by cabinet confidentiality.

Last month, the Alberta Wilderness Association, Wilderness Committee, Nature Saskatchewan and Grassland Naturalists, represented by Ecojustice, appeared before the Federal Court of Appeal in a last ditch effort to save the sage-grouse. The groups are seeking a court order to force the Environment Minister to issue recommendations for emergency protection. The Court’s decision is now under reserve.

This is not the first time environmental groups have turned to the courts in an attempt to force the Minister to provide the protection for the sage-grouse. In 2009, the Alberta Wilderness Association and others successfully applied for judicial review of the failure of the Recovery Strategy for the Greater-Sage Grouse to identify any “critical habitat”.

It may, however, be the last time. There may be no more grouse to protect.

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