The sound emanating from a male greater sage-grouse during his mating display is akin to what you might hear if you rubbed nylon coats together a few times, and then added a little 'whoop! blop!' at the end. Males undulate their white downy chest feathers while inflating yolk-yellow air sacs like balloons. Between puffs, they strut around attempting to intimidate their competitors, flapping their wings and running one another backward. It goes something like this:

Greater sage-grouse displaying on a Montana lekRonan DonovanVimeo.

There was a time when, in order to witness this amazing display in Canada, you'd only need to travel to the southern corners of the country's western provinces. Today, however, sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) have vanished from British Columbia, and only dwindling populations remain in the prairies – 14 males in Alberta and 17 in Saskatchewan. When you include the females, the total population is estimated at only around 80 or 90 birds.

Numbers have gotten so low that Canada's federal government has been forced to issue an Emergency Protection Order that restricts further development in the birds' habitat on provincial and federal lands.

11 02 2013 Greater Sage Grouse Canada
Canada's sage-grouse population has dropped by 98% over the last 25 to 45 years, mainly as a result of habitat destruction. Image: Dan Dzurisin, Flickr

"The major driver of habitat loss, unquestionably, has been oil development," says Dr Mark Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Alberta. Boyce has studied greater sage-grouse, and linked oil and gas activity to their decline.

Although he agrees that other factors are also to blame, he notes that once the severity of the situation for sage-grouse was understood, the Government of Alberta could have refrained from issuing new drilling permits in critical habitats, thereby slowing losses. 

"The only way we’re going to be able to recover the sage-grouse population is to be sure we’ve got adequate, undisturbed habitat for them to occupy," says Boyce. On this point, Pat Fargey, Alberta Government Species at Risk Specialist, agrees.

Fargey says that sage-grouse need large tracts of intact sagebrush prairie habitat to survive. The birds use sagebrush for hiding from predators, nesting, raising broods and feeding on in the winter. "If you take out the sagebrush, you won’t have sage-grouse." 

11 02 2014 Sage Brush Ecosystem
Preserving and restoring sagebrush-dominated habitat like this is crucial for the birds' long-term survival. Image: Carfull Cowboy State-r, Flickr

Although Fargey identifies oil and gas development as a major factor in sage-grouse habitat loss, he notes that there are other threats to consider as well.

For example, changes in the predator community might also be playing a role. He points to a surprising amount of predation by great horned owls on sage-grouse hens. There is evidence that tree-planting and abandoned infrastructure (like old granaries) have created artificial habitat for the owls, helping to bolster their populations in sage-grouse habitats. Removing some of this artificial habitat may help.

With so few sage-grouse left, Fargey says the populations are also more susceptible to big weather events. "A severe hail storm can be devastating." Drought and harsh winters can impact the population, too. And then there's disease. "We’ve had some bad luck around West Nile virus – an exotic disease," says Fargey.

Fargey says actions for recovery are identified in the Federal and Alberta Recovery Plan. "These actions are urgent, especially if you’re going to keep the wild population, and have a place to put captively bred animals."

Fargey refers to a captive breeding program that will soon be initiated by the Calgary Zoo to help bolster numbers and preserve genetic stock as an insurance policy for the future.

"The fact that we’re down to 31 males doesn’t mean that we can’t recover. We were down to 14 whooping cranes at one point in time, and we now have a worldwide population of around 500 if you include the captive birds," says Boyce. 

However, Boyce is clear that the crux is habitat. "It is an absolutely essential pre-requisite to their recovery. If we’re going to deal with this species in Canada, we have to deal with the habitat issues first. Once that’s done, then we can have some hope for recovery."

Top header image: Dan Dzurisin, Flickr