They are worried it will spur further protection orders on other species that will negatively impact landowners and industries across the country.
Keith and Ronda Reesor, who ranch south of Irvine, Alta., are concerned not only for what the order means for their own land, but what it means for people across southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.
“I don’t think it’s about us specifically – it’s about all ranchers that are named under the order,” said Ronda.
Landowners throughout southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan have questioned the necessity of the sage grouse protection order since it was announced in December. The order, which affects about 1,700 square kilometres of Crown land, sets out rules to protect the bird, with only around 100 believed to be left in these two areas of the country. It came about after several environmental groups took the federal government to court to stand behind the act. But landowners argue it has put too many unrealistic and unneeded restrictions on those who use the lease land it impacts.
As it’s the first emergency order ever issued by Environment Canada, the Reesors are concerned it’s only the beginning, as there are other species in different parts of the country that could be next on the list.
“I think that’s the real threat of the emergency order, because it could affect any area in our country for any reason,” Ronda stated. “When I think of it shutting down agriculture, shutting down oil and gas, shutting down communities, this is huge. This is not just a tiny thing at the bottom of Alberta and Saskatchewan. This is a Canadian issue, and it’s a big worry.”
Like many, the Reesors attribute the decline in the sage grouse population in Canada to the government’s reintroduction of predators to the area, such as the swift fox in the 1980s. West Nile virus has also posed a threat to the bird.
“The ecological groups that have pressed the federal government into the order are maybe not using the best science to do this,” Keith argues. “The habitat is actually in better shape than it’s ever been, and all of a sudden we’re painted as having something to do with the demise of these birds. Some of the families have been involved in looking after the land for over 100 years – looking after the habitat in a very fine way, otherwise it wouldn’t be there.”
The strategy suggests mitigation measures such as lower speed limits on roads through sage grouse habitat – a move Ronda calls ridiculous.
“What’s the chances that a person is even going to see a bird let alone hit one?” she said.
How significantly the order will impact the oil and gas industry is still unclear, but Larry McMillan, owner of Southline Gas & Oilfield Services Ltd., said it could mean changes within the next year. While gas plants in the Govenlock area have been shut down, he doubts there’s any chance of re-opening them with the protection order in place.
“It just causes so much trouble that these oil companies will walk away from it, I’m sure,” he stated, adding the order hasn’t affected operations at Senate yet, but very well could depending on how big of an area is covered.
The City of Medicine Hat and LGX Oil & Gas Inc. have filed an application in federal court seeking a judicial review of the order. A federal court hearing is set for June 30.
Cypress Hill-Grasslands MP David Anderson has publicly criticized the legislation, stating it focuses on “coercion rather than co-operation.” Issues he noted with SARA are that it “takes a heavy-handed approach” that could result in stiff fines or even jail time, as well as placing costs on individuals and corporations. Anderson can no longer speak on the matter as it is before the courts, but both he and Medicine Hat MP LaVar Payne have spoken with federal environment officials trying to find answers. Payne has petitions on his website for people to sign to support amending the recovery strategy for the greater sage-grouse, rescinding the emergency protection order and replacing SARA.
David Manley of Consul has attended meetings regarding the sage grouse held by Environment Canada in Saskatchewan and Alberta and believes a change is only possible if communities stick together. At each meeting, those with deeded land seemed relieved when they learned the order would only affect lease land, he said. But he noted everyone should be just as concerned for those affected.
“It ends up almost putting people at odds in a community,” he explained. “This is going to impact all of us, because we all live here. We need everyone’s help to make motions to the RM council or to sign petitions or to call your MP. We need everyone to back this right now, not to say this isn’t my problem.”
Manley echoed the Reesors’ feelings that this is only the beginning, noting it could easily be placed on deeded land and include other species such as the grizzly bear and caribou.
“If people just stand by and watch this happen, then it’s just going to keep coming,” he said.
He added ranchers should be documenting how they care for the land to prove they understand the environment where they live very well.
“They need to start keeping files of what they see in the land and how they treat things so they can say they’ve been here long enough to know this land well,” he said. “We know what’s here, we know how it survives and we know what it needs to survive.”
The Reesors are encouraged to see the support they have from landowners, industries, municipalities and MPs in the push to have changes made to the emergency protection order.
“We’re writing letters and supporting the MPs in making those changes,” Keith said. “This could be the very start of many orders to come, and that’s what bothers us.”
What are the restrictions outlined in the greater sage-grouse emergency protection order?
• It is prohibited to kill or move sagebrush, native grasses or native forbs (a herbaceous flowering plant). This does not apply to lands that were already used for growing and harvesting non-native plants at any given time in 2011, 2012 or 2013 or in an area within 15 metres of a road.
• It is prohibited to construct or install new fencing, except when fencing is used to manage grazing animals and conforms with the “standards for the design and construction of fences in greater sage-grouse habitat.” By these standards, fences for grazing animals other than bison must not exceed 1.2 metres in height with a maximum of four wires and must not be constructed of page wire, chicken wire, chain link or other woven wire. The top wire must be barbless, and the top two wires must be marked with flagging or reflectors that are spaced at intervals of no more than 1.5 metres. Fence posts must also be designed to deter perching by avian predators of the sage grouse, including by fitting the posts with deterrent devices such as spikes, caps or cones.
• It is prohibited to construct or install new sources of chronic noise (exceeding 45 decibels – the equivalent of a quiet suburb or a conversation at home), such as a structure that produces such noise, or that houses a machine that produces such noise, or to alter an existing structure or machine in a way that results in the production of such noise.
• It is prohibited to construct a new road or widen an existing one.
• It is prohibited to install or construct a new structure (not including a fence), machine or pole that exceeds 1.2 metres in height or to increase the height of an existing structure, machine or pole beyond this height.
• Between April 1 and May 30 from 1.5 hours before sunset to 1.5 hours after sunrise, it is prohibited to operate a facility, vehicle or machine that produces noise exceeding 45 decibels within 3.2 km of leks (sage grouse mating sites). This prohibition does not apply to a person who is driving a motor vehicle to or from a residential building, to or from an area where they conduct an agricultural operation or to visit a person conducting an agricultural operation.
• These prohibitions do not apply within 100 metres of an existing residential building, a building that is used for an agricultural operation or a structure or machine that is used to feed, handle, treat or provide water to grazing animals if it is used at the same place where it was used before the order.