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May 19, 2024 May 19, 2024

NCC seeks to purchase intact grasslands to help save sage grouse

Posted on April 4, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

By Anna Smith
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has started a new initiative to purchase a 635-hectare property southeast of Medicine Hat, to preserve habitat for the endangered sage grouse.

The property, known as Sagebrush Flats, is located near Manyberries, and is known to have grouse residing there, said communications coordinator Sean Feagan.

“It’s probably one of the best examples of the remaining habitat left in Alberta. So I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s a priority for conservation. But it’s also just high quality intact grassland within an area where there is a lot of grassland remaining,” said Feagan. “So we’re announcing this campaign to try to fund this initiative.”

The initiative is a land purchase, said Feagan, and includes a fundraising goal of approximately two million dollars to help with the purchase.

“This effort, it’s part of our larger prairie grasslands action plan, which is an initiative we launched last June, to conserve 500,000 hectares of prairie grasslands, across the Canadian Prairies by 2030,” said Feagan.

Conserving Sagebrush Flats holds critical significance for the survival of sage-grouse, as this area provides essential habitat for this endangered species. The property is situated among vast stretches of intact grassland, including adjacent Crown land, said the NCC.

The property is fortunately already in an intact state with native grasses and plants present and established including sagebrush, a plant that’s vital to the ecosystem in the area for not just the grouse themselves, but species such as pronghorn who are known to graze on the low shrubs.

“There’s over 30 species of sagebrush, but here in Alberta, the primary species is what’s called Silver Sagebrush, and that’s a low shrub,” said Feagan. “The sage grouse eat the shrubs, the leaves and seeds, as well as the flowers and buds. It actually provides year-round food for the sage grouse, meaning they don’t need to migrate long distances. The birds also nest at the base of the shrubs, they offer cover and protection for their young as well. So, yeah, they’re really important.”

The NCC have other projects in the region, including the Bell-Sage-Grouse Legacy Project, which has undergone significant restoration. The Sagebrush Flats property, which does not need restoration, marks an important site for numerous grassland bird species, one of the fastest declining groups of birds in Canada, alongside the greater sage grouse.

Sage grouse have seen a steady population decline, said Feagan, with fewer and fewer male birds being seen at their communal breeding grounds, which are known as leks, each year.

“So each spring, just about around this time of year, they congregate at these sites that they use year after year and the males display and the females decide which males to mate with,” said Feagan. “And so this gives a great opportunity to survey these birds because they all kind of congregate at the same time. And unfortunately, the number of males being seen on the known remaining leks here in Alberta, has dwindled to just 17 as of last year.”

The grouse has already been lost in British Columbia, with them being declared extirpated from their former territories in the Okanagan area in the 1990s. With widespread range contraction and population declines, the sage grouse is reliant on what remaining pockets of grassland remain.

“Acquiring the property is really just a first step for us. So after which we have to maintain it, manage the property, to make sure that the natural resources, assets, species, that sort of thing are maintained in perpetuity,” said Feagan. Work will include the management of weeds, as well as overseeing grazing on the land, which will continue after the acquisition.

Feagan stressed that this work can only be done working alongside local agriculture, not in opposition, and the NCC wants to maintain local opportunities for ranchers to have range land for their cattle.

Those interested in supporting this ongoing project are encouraged to visit prairiegrasslands.ca for further information on both the Sagebrush Flats acquisition as well as work throughout the country, and potentially support the project directly via donation.

“If we do not act to conserve our disappearing Prairie grasslands, we risk losing iconic species like the sage-grouse,” said Tom Lynch-Staunton, regional vice-president of the Nature Conservancy of Canada in a press release. “Through ambitious conservation initiatives like Sagebrush Flats, we have an opportunity to secure a brighter future for these incredible ecosystems and the wildlife calling them home.”

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