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Helping our northern neighbors

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Neighborly transactions usually involve loaning something like a cup of sugar, but Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is stepping up to help the government of Alberta with a dire conservation issue. The agency announced this month it intends to relocate 40 greater sage grouse over the border in an effort to save the Canadian population, which has declined by as much as 92 percent in the last 30 years.

Conservation biologist Susan Pinkus, of the Canadian nonprofit Ecojustice, says sage grouse declines were historically due to encroachment of croplands on sensitive habitat. However, in recent decades the blame has shifted to rampant oil and natural gas development across Alberta. Pinkus claims the species "continues to face a complete lack of adequate legal protection."

"We're not talking about this development or this particular company as the issue," Pinkus says. "It's the unregulated open season on sage grouse habitat by petroleum development in southern Alberta. It's like death by a thousand cuts."

Alberta first began making moves to protect the species in 1996, when it officially terminated hunting opportunities on the birds. Sage grouse were declared a "species at risk" in the province in 1999, and in 2003 fell under the protection of Canada's Species at Risk Act.

Comparatively, Montana's sage grouse population appears stable. According to FWP's environmental assessment (EA) for the translocation project, the 40 birds transported to Alberta would come from Valley and Phillips counties and constitute a mere 0.26 percent of the local population.

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"This level of removal is significantly less than what is removed through regulated fall hunting in the area," the EA states.

If the project proves successful, FWP will consider transporting 60 additional sage grouse to Alberta annually for three years.

But Pinkus admits that even an annual donation might not be enough to save the Canadian population. She fears politicians may use the project as a sort of "greenwashing" tactic to mask the real threat.

"We appreciate the willingness of the U.S. to share birds," Pinkus says. "But our grave concern if we're going to undertake this—which is a last-ditch attempt—is that the habitat of the sage grouse in Canada must be adequately protected...If we don't protect the habitat from the main threats to sage grouse, there's just no point in bringing birds in."

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