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Ranchers worry about sage grouse

In December 2013, when the Government of Canada issued an emergency order to protect the sage grouse under the Species at Risk Act, the ramifications took many by surprise. Yet the Emergency Order comes into effect on February 18, 2014.

To date, the order only includes habitat for the species on provincial and crown lands in the southern parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The new proposed restrictions suggest it will not affect activities on private land, nor will it restrict animals from grazing on provincial and crown lands.

But Aaron Brower, president of the Western Stockgrowers feels that if the Crown gets their teeth into it, it will eventually include deeded land.

“Three or four years ago, the feds told the Alberta government to do something about saving the sage grouse, but they dragged their feet, and now we have this emergency order,” says Brower.

“When the Alberta Wilderness Association helped to get the kit foxes reintroduced to this area, they didn’t take into consideration that these foxes would become part of the predator population which feed on these birds. Now, a few years later, the AWA is one group that pushed for this emergency order.”

“Before you do something, you need to look at the whole picture. It’s like Darwin’s theory – everything is in a circle – some things drop off and if we’re lucky they come back. We’re seeing what happens when you don’t take a “holistic” approach to planning. It’s common sense that when you take an action – there is usually a reaction.”

Kerrie Kusler of Elkwater finds it interesting that cows and pump jacks are being blamed for the demise of the sage grouse. She thinks there are insufficient studies with sound science to prove what caused the depopulation.

“By discouraging ranchers and oil and gas exploration, the areas will be abandoned by the very people that have been stewards of the land for 100 years,” says Kusler.

Kusler lived on the Q Ranch for 35 years and says ranchers adjusted the cattle numbers to suit the moisture received, and according to the guidelines they were required to follow in order to hold lease lands.

“It has been said that near the Saskatchewan Grass Lands Park where grazing has ceased, the grouse have moved into neighbouring ranch land because the birds don’t particularly like tall grass,” suggests Kusler.

Keith and Ronda Reesor run cattle on provincial crown grazing lease land south of Elkwater. Even after attending a couple of federally-sponsored meetings, they are unclear about what the emergency order and the attached strategy means to their operation.

“A federal emergency order is backed by some huge fines and possible jail time, yet we aren’t sure what we are expected to comply with. The regulators could have a difference of opinion about the interpretation of many of the suggested strategies,” says Keith.

“We could be slapped with infractions that directly affect our day-to-day grazing and future planning.”

One of the “must do directives” under the sage grouse emergency order, is that the top barbed wire be replaced with smooth wire in areas deemed sage grouse habitat.

“With 1,673 square km under the order, and in total 138 sage grouse, what is the chance of us seeing a bird hit the fenceline? Barbed wire fences have been around for more than 100 years, and it’s only been since more predators have been released in the areas that we see a depopulation of the sage grouse,” protests Ronda Reesor.

Reesor says the last hunting season for the birds in Alberta was in 1995. Possible other reasons for the bird’s demise include West Nile virus outbreaks, drought, and natural predators. She hasn’t seen a change in habitat over the years, and is convinced that environmentalists have it all wrong when pointing the finger at ranchers and oil and gas companies.

Keith says that included in the emergency order is an order that any new water development must be no larger than 30 square meters.

“Supposedly, a body of water is a place for mosquito larvae to grow and contribute to bird losses due to West Nile virus,” he says.

“But larvae don’t grow well in a dugout because it’s deep and cool. After a rain, there is millions of what we call hard pans or buffalo wallows which are patches of hard ground which holds water like a dish pan. The water can remain in these small pools for a long period of time and hatch untold amounts of new larvae.”

“We can’t improve our grazing rotations without new water sources, but the short answer from some of the federal reps is to graze less or don’t graze.”

Ronda Reesor has done a lot of her own investigating on why the sage grouse numbers have been reduced. She says that according to the sage grouse monitoring report in southeast Alberta 1968-2012, risk report #147, the grazing practices are not seen as a reason for the low numbers of sage grouse. She provided a list of some of the federal government’s own research results on the matter including:   

1. “Currently, due to light-moderate grazing practices, land ownership and soil restrictions on agriculture, agriculture and livestock no longer present a significant threat to further contraction and degradation of sage grouse range.”

2. “During the 80s, the federal and provincial governments had hundreds of acres of native prairie and sage grouse habitat cultivated. This happened on the PFRA and community pastures.”

According to the Wildlife Society Bulletin, “West Nile Virus killed 25 percent of the female sage grouse population in 2003”.  On the Species at Risk, Government of Canada website, it says that, “The tapeworm is responsible for 59 percent of the sage grouse juvenile mortality.”

 “From my own research I would list the most detrimental reasons for the decline of the sage grouse as mammalian predators, severe weather, disease, harassment by biologists, students, birders, hikers, counters, hunters, government staff etc., lack of migratory corridor to U.S. population and avian predators,” says Ronda.

“Ranchers have protected the birds and their habitat since the late 1800s. We pride ourselves in long term sustainability as caretakers of the land. It is our livelihood. We live here 365 days of the year, not just a small snapshot in time and space.”

“The people that make a policy or a decision are not here to live out the consequences of an error in judgement, whether it is large or small.”

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