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Alberta, Ottawa fund Calgary Zoo captive breeding program for greater sage grouse

This undated image shows a wild sage grouse. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, USFWS, Gary Kramer

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This undated image shows a wild sage grouse. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, USFWS, Gary Kramer

CALGARY - The future of the critically endangered greater sage grouse could well be determined on a ranch south of Calgary.

The ranch is operated by the Calgary Zoo's Centre for Conservation and, over the next decade, staff hope to attempt a breeding and rearing project with the possibility of reintroducing the birds into the wild.

The federal government introduced an emergency order to protect the sage grouse in December that puts special rules in place for 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

It's believed there are as few as 90 birds in those two provinces. The population has declined by 98 per cent since 1988, partly due to contact with humans and disease.

Both the Alberta and federal government announced plans to donate $2.1 million to the Calgary Zoo.

"Because the population was so small, we felt we needed to go ahead with this approach and try to secure the unique genetic pool of the birds that live in Alberta," said Clement Lanthier, president of the Calgary Zoo.

"We are going to try and mitigate the impact on the population before going ahead and reintroducing those birds. In the coming years we'll start the reintroduction, but now we need to act as soon as possible to protect the genetics of those birds."

It is important to begin rebuilding the sage grouse population as far away from human contact as possible, said Lanthier, noting that the ranch south of Calgary has been used to help other endangered species such as the Vancouver Island marmot and whooping cranes.

"The animals that are to be released — we need to minimize the impact and interaction with humans," he said.

The emergency protection order grew out of a 2012 court case brought by several environmental groups to force the federal government to live up to its Species At Risk legislation.

The order restricts oil production in areas near the sage grouse's habitat as of Feb. 18, but it is being challenged in court by the City of Medicine Hat and LGX Oil & Gas Inc.

Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said that's unfortunate.

"To put a stop to that through court challenges would be very harmful to the sage grouse," she said. "I think the broader issue here is on a go-forward basis how do we mitigate impacts on birds or wildlife as opposed to dealing with it at the crisis stage."

There has been criticism that Ottawa should have acted quicker to protect the sage grouse.

"I can say today we are acting on it," Aglukkaq said.

"We are acting with the people and organizations that have expertise in dealing with this. The Calgary Zoo has expertise that we're partnering with them on and I think that's an important initiative that we are undertaking to demonstrate our commitment to deal with this."

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