The meeting was hosted by Environment Canada on Jan. 21 to provide the public with an opportunity to ask questions about the Species at Risk Act emergency order to address the survival and recovery of the sage grouse in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. About 40 people attended the session, with some farmers and ranchers wanting to know how the emergency order will affect their operations. Canadian Wildlife Services reported this is one of a number of steps required to ensure the recovery of the species. The order will affect about 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land in Alberta and Saskatchewan, as there are believed to be only 90-140 of the adult birds left in the country. The new set of rules will come into full force on Feb. 18. According to Environment Canada, the order will affect about 690 sq. km of federal and provincial Crown land in the Southwest, but no private land. The areas covered are around Govenlock and Grasslands National Park. This includes about 450 sq. km. of land in Grasslands National Park. Within these areas, the order prohibits the destruction or removal of sagebrush, native grasses or native forbs – a type of herbaceous flowering plant. This prohibition does not apply to lands that were already being used for growing and harvesting non-native plants since 2011 or in any area within 15 metres of a road. The construction or installation of new fencing is prohibited unless it is used to manage grazing animals, as is the construction or installation of “new sources of chronic noise,” such as a house or machine. New roads may not be built either. New structures may not exceed 1.2 metres in height, and existing structures may not have additions that cause them to exceed this height. Between April 1 and May 30 from one-and-a-half hours before sunset to one-and-a-half hours after sunrise, no vehicle, machine or facility may be operated that produces a noise greater than 45 decibels – the equivalent of a conversation at home – within 3.2 km of leks, which are sage-grouse mating sites. This prohibition does not apply to anyone driving a vehicle to or from a residential building or agricultural operation. “There are a number of exemptions that apply,” stated Mark Wayland, a wildlife biologist with Environment Canada. “The noise prohibitions don’t apply within 100 metres of an existing residential building or a shelter used for farming or even a machine that’s somewhat stationary that’s used for farming. For example, for watering livestock and that kind of thing.” Wayland added the order only affects Crown land, not privately-owned land. But landowners in the areas affected still have their concerns. Randy Stokke ranches near Govenlock and has lease land that will be placed under the order. “What’s my land worth now with the order?” he asked. “Not too many ranchers would want to buy into a place that’s going to be so heavily affected by federal restrictions.” Stokke also questions the reasons behind some of the rules. “They’re saying that there’s a lot of sage-grouse that are hitting the fences and killing themselves,” Stokke stated. “I don’t believe it would affect the population to that great of an extent.” He doesn’t see the order as necessary, as the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act has protected the native prairie land from being disturbed. “We’ve done nothing to diminish the population of sage-grouse,” he said, attributing its decline to climatic events in the 1980s and ’90s as well as a drastic increase in predators. Stokke intends to further voice his concerns to Environment Canada. The emergency protection order is the result of a lawsuit issued in 2012 by environmental law group Ecojustice. Another information session will be held by Environment Canada in Val Marie on Feb. 12.
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