Things have not been great for the greater sage-grouse in recent years. Widespread destruction of its grassland habitat and predation have led populations of the squat speckled bird to decrease from tens if not hundreds of thousands to about 250 in recent years. But a collaboration between three iconic Canadian conservation organizations—the Calgary Zoo, Parks Canada, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC)—means that the show is not over for these endangered prairie birds.
To date, 66 birds, raised in captivity until they reached maturity and thus less vulnerable to predation, have been released at two top-secret locations in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Parks Canada provided the land for the bird’s release in Saskatchewan but the zoo lacked a release site in Alberta. The NCC stepped in, helped identify appropriate land and purchased it. The sites are being kept under wraps, says NCC Communications Manager Carys Richards, because the birds are so vulnerable. “We don’t want people to try and find them and take photographs.” Not yet anyway. She hopes the day will come when the birds are easily spotted in the wild.
Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Director Conservation and Science at the Calgary Zoo looks forward to that day too, calling the reintroduction program “remarkable” and crediting the partnership between organizations with the promise that “this iconic prairie bird can flourish for generations to come.”
The greater sage-grouse is the latest in a list of Canadian species that have been bred in captivity and then reintroduced into the wild, including the plains bison, whooping crane, and black-footed ferret.
The stakes are high. “These efforts have probably saved those species from extinction,” says Carys Richards. “So conservation works. Species recovery works.”