By Alex McCuaig
Southern Alberta Newspapers
The table cleared by the federal sage grouse emergency protection order might be set with birds from the Montana population if the Americans approve a trans-location plan put forward by the Alberta government.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) department released its environmental assessment Thursday for public comment on the plan to move up to 120 sage grouse – listed as a species at risk in Canada – by 2020.
If the plan is approved, starting in 2016 the birds will begin to be moved 40 at a time over two-year increments to the bird’s breeding grounds – known as leks – in the Manyberries and Wild Horse areas.
But before that can happen, the plan must be approved by Montana officials, said John Vore, MFWP game management bureau chief, and just the initial step has been taken so far.
“What I presented to our Fish and Wildlife Commission (Thursday) was just to get an endorsement to go ahead and release the environmental assessment,” said Vore.
That draft assessment – currently posted on the MFWP website – will be open a month for public comment with a final draft then presented to the commission in January for a final decision on the plan.
If the trans-location is approved, Vore said the move will supplement a sage grouse population which already straddles the U.S./Canada border.
“In the long run, Montana may benefit as well,” he said, “from a bolstered and healthy trans-border population.”
While the Alberta ask is for three trans-locations over five years, Vore said each one will be dependent on the state of the Montana sage grouse population.
“These birds, their populations naturally go up and down,” he said, adding both Montana and Alberta both recently have seen an uptick in population numbers.
“We’re not back to our long-term average yet but if things keep going the way that we think that they are going, we will be back there in a year or two.”
And he doesn’t believe 40 birds trans-located to Alberta every two years will have an impact on the Montana population.
Joel Nicholson, Alberta Environment and Parks senior wildlife biologist, said the province learned a lot of lessons from the first trans-location project.
Abandoned structures which house the sage grouse’s main predator – the great-horned owl – have been, and continue to be, knocked down while conservation efforts have been on-going.
“We had the largest increase in population in 20 years last year,” said Nicholson.
“It was a pretty big deal.”
But he added the move toward a new trans-location of Montana sage grouse still has hurdles to clear if the first batch is to hit Alberta soil by the spring of 2016.
“I’m optimistic but they have their own processes that have to be satisfied,” Nicholson said.
“When we get the final go-ahead from the department and game commission, then we’ll breath a sigh of relief.”
As far as integration with the Calgary Zoo sage grouse breeding program, Nicholson said the first trans-location project found some of the captured birds laid eggs in their transport cases.
If the current trans-location project gets approval, they will provide such eggs to the Calgary Zoo for its program.
The federal government instituted its first emergency protection order for a listed species under the Species at Risk Act in 2014 for the sage grouse.
That move continues to cause friction among the oil and gas sector, conservationists and ranchers operating in southeastern Alberta.