The Canadian government is attempting to save the quickly disappearing greater sage grouse by restricting construction and loud industrial noise near its habitat during certain times of the year.
The restrictions are part of an emergency order for the protection of the endangered bird that is now officially in place. It's the first time that such an order has been issued under Canada's Species at Risk Act.
Environment Canada announced in September it would issue the order in an attempt to protect the shy and nervous bird that lives in southeastern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
There are only about 150 sage grouse left and it's likely the bird will disappear from Canada in five years if steps aren't taken to protect it. The bird lives in long prairie grass, which has been largely destroyed over the last century by agriculture and oil and gas development.
The new order prohibits anything that disrupts the sage grass that the birds live in. That includes building new roads, fences, buildings, or making loud industrial noise during the birds' mating season in the spring.
The order affects only federal and provincial land and not privately owned farms or industrial sites.
An explanation of the order by Environment Canada says it will have only "minimal effects" on farming activity and oil and gas development in the region. And it points out that "the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline does not intersect the order boundaries and is at least 3 km away from the area subject to the order."
Protection insufficient, environmental group says
The federal government was forced to take action to protect the sage grouse after two successful lawsuits by the environmental law group Ecojustice.
But Susan Pinkus, senior biologist with Ecojustice, said her initial reading of the emergency order left her disappointed.
"It's good they've issued the order," she said in an interview. "But it really doesn't go far enough to protect the sage grouse from oil and gas activities."
Pinkus said that's because the restriction on noise from oil and gas activity only applies from dawn to dusk and only during the breeding season from April 1 to May 30.
"It's still going to be disturbed during the day. And what about during the winter?" she said. "This is much narrower than we hoped."
Pinkus also thinks that the protected areas are much smaller than the bird needs to survive. The order says that only "four active oil wells" and two proposed wells will be affected. But Pinkus points out there are "dozens of wells" in the areas where the sage grouse lives.
"My sense is that we are only going part of the way," she said.
Environment Canada estimates it will cost about $196,000 in the first year for training and enforcement of the rules. Costs will go down to about $89,000 a year thereafter.
But it also says the value to Canadians of saving the bird could be as high as $40.8 million a year. That's the total monetary value people place on just knowing the species exists in Canada. It adds that saving the sage grouse habitat could also help preserve other endangered species such as the burrowing owl and the swift fox.
The government also estimates that the cost to industry of giving up two new oil wells in the restricted area is about $10 million.