By Jamie Rieger
Presentations about two ongoing projects geared at increasing Greater Sage grouse populations had quite different responses from the audience at the Sustainable Canada Association AGM, held in Manyberries last month.
Joel Nicholson, senior wildlife biologist for Alberta Environment and Parks gave a presentation on the translocation of Sage Grouse from Montana.
“The translocation of the sage grouse was looked at as a temporary solution and 40 were approved by the MFWP (Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks) and the Fish and Wildlife Commission. In April 2011 and in 2012, under the translocation pilot project, there were plans to introduce the 40 sage grouse,” said Nicholson.
Montana also approved up to 40 more to be translocated in the Spring of this year and 38 were released in the Manyberries, Wildhorse areas in April and requires they be monitored. The Sage grouse in southern Alberta were fitted with solar-powered GPS transmitters so researchers could monitor their activity and movement. Four GPS locators a day send the information to Nicholson, who then can track their movement.
“They have been mapped weekly by AESRD. One Sage grouse between April and June, 201 traveled 1019 km. It traveled into Saskatchewan and Montana before going back to near where it was released. This bird did not nest, but it is quite amazing to see how they can move,” he said.
By comparison, another Sage grouse that was fitted with GPS only traveled 5.9 km.
“This one has nested and has settled in,” said Nicholson, who added that some birds and nests have been lost to predators. “This can be expected with a project of this size.”
While the numbers of Sage grouse are trending upward, Nicholson noted that current population figures are not being made public at this time.
Nicholson said the federal government’s Emergency Protection Order has been detrimental to the work he has spent several years doing in trying to recover the Sage grouse population.
“The EPO has been detrimental to our conservation efforts in many ways, especially when we are out there trying to save the birds,” he said. “It has made my life and work a whole lot harder. There needs to be flexibility in zoning. There was a program with the energy industry who were trying to increase the Sage Grouse numbers. Because of the EPO, that program is done. It is the biggest loss.”
Through their research, Nicholson said the biggest threats to the Sage grouse are cell towers, coyotes, and the Great Horned Owl.
“It is because of the Great Horned Owl that we have been removing old buildings. They are loaded with Great Horned Owls whose numbers are actually increasing,” he said.
Don McKinnon, population ecologist at the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation and Research gave an update on the re-population program being held near Calgary.
McKinnon told the group at the SCA AGM that while there have been some successful hatchings, there has also been some deaths.
The researchers took eggs from nests in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana to the Centre for Conservation and Research where of 13 collected, all hatched, but not all survived.
“Our research to date shows this is a project in progress. We are learning and improving our methodologies. We have learned not to put them on sod and we have learned to pad the carriers (after one died of a broken neck in its carrier),” said McKinnon.
Field work in Grasslands, where they had a permit to collect 23 eggs and five hens allowed them to attach VHF transmitters to the birds. Of eggs collected in 2016, eight hatched and six chicks survived.
Some people at the meeting questioned the validity of the Calgary Zoo program.
“Your mistakes are costing us money and is costing the Sage Grouse,” said Chad Stryker. “My point is Mother Nature can do a better job than you and why are you here in my backyard stealing these eggs?”
Nicholson responded for McKinnon.
“That was done at a highly political level. It was a political decision,” said Nicholson.
McKinnon then proceeded with his update on the Calgary Zoo program and nutrition for the Sage Grouse.
“They are not eating the sagebrush we are growing in pots for them, so we are feeding them lettuce and bird pellets.” said McKinnon.
This raised a question from the audience about why do they need to take the birds out of their habitat. Why can’t the program be done here?
The presentation ended with many having more questions than answers and doubts about whether the Calgary program was worth it in the long run.