Historic release bolsters one of Canada’s most endangered birds

With the release of 66 greater sage-grouse into the wild, the Calgary Zoo, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and Parks Canada, has significantly boosted one of Canada’s most endangered birds at a time when fewer than 250 remain in their habitat.

This milestone release is the result of a five-year program by the Calgary Zoo, which is working in collaboration with NCC and Parks Canada, with funding support from the Governments of Canada and Alberta.

“These are early days in the urgent effort to save this precious species, but what we have been able to accomplish so far has been truly remarkable,” says Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Director Conservation and Science, Calgary Zoo. “With the help of many partners, we have built an innovative, multi-year breeding and reintroduction program, which we hope will ensure this iconic prairie bird can flourish for generations to come.”

Once common across the western prairie, an estimated 80 per cent of the greater sage-grouse population has disappeared over the past 30 years. Today fewer than 250 wild greater sage-grouse remain in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. The birds were designated as endangered in Canada in 1998 under the Species at Risk Act. The loss, fragmentation and degradation of native grassland habitats are key reasons why the bird is endangered. Other factors are predation and the West Nile virus. Populations are limited to sagebrush grasslands.

Greater sage-grouse recovery project

In 2014, the federal and provincial governments pledged funding to help protect greater sage-grouse, enabling the zoo to begin a dedicated conservation breeding and reintroduction program. The plan was based on recommendations from the international multi-stakeholder Population and Habitat Viability Assessment Workshop for the greater sage-grouse in Canada.

In 2016, the zoo announced the creation of Canada’s first-ever greater sage-grouse breeding facility: the Snyder-Wilson Family Greater Sage-Grouse Pavilion. Since then the zoo has established a healthy population of 54 grouse that make up the conservation breeding flock.

In the fall of 2018, the Calgary Zoo released 66 birds at two protected locations. One of the sites, provided by Parks Canada, is in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. The other is on NCC conservation lands in southeast Alberta. NCC purchased this grassland property last year to provide a suitable environment in which to release sage-grouse. For the further protection of the birds, the exact release locations are not being identified.

The greater sage-grouse is one of 12 at-risk species that the Calgary Zoo is helping to restore and preserve in western Canada. The Snyder-Wilson Family Greater Sage-Grouse Pavilion is part of the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre, the Calgary Zoo’s 130-hectare (320-acre) off-site conservation facility. It is the only facility of its kind in Canada.

Conservation organizations working together to protect species at risk

In 2018, the Calgary Zoo approached the Nature Conservancy of Canada about purchasing a conservation site in Alberta specifically for the purpose of releasing these endangered birds.

The property acquired by NCC is located southwest of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. It is 60 hectares (150 acres) and situated between areas in which sage-grouse congregate in the spring, called leks. Here, males display courtship dances for females. The property is also near overwintering sites that have been used by wild greater sage-grouse populations in recent years.

The project site is surrounded by intact Crown lands, with additional NCC conservation sites nearby.

“This release strengthens Alberta’s important efforts to stabilize and recover our greater sage-grouse population. Through habitat restoration and reclamation, bolstered by this captive breeding program, we are optimistic that this iconic species will remain an important part of Alberta’s biodiversity.”

Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks, Alberta Government

The purchase of this conservation property was funded in part by the Government of Canada, through the Natural Areas Conservation Program, a program delivered by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Canada’s network of protected areas plays an important role in helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk. In recent years, Parks Canada has undertaken a number of initiatives to manage and restore sage-grouse habitat, including sagebrush planting and seeding, beneficial cattle grazing initiatives, fence removal and fence marking, as well as population monitoring and research. In combination with these efforts, this release of sage-grouse into Grasslands National Park will help the park prevent the local extinction of sage-grouse and move toward recovery for this iconic species.

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